Reference Desk #12 — DIY MFA

As you might expect from the title, this book is billed as a do-it-yourself replacement for a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Now, a single book replacing an entire four-year degree is a tall order, and it’s pretty clear as you read that it isn’t really trying to do that. What this book is trying to do is provide a scaffolding for how to build a career as a professional author.

Having never gone through an MFA program, I can’t really compare the two. The impression I get is that MFA programs tend to focus on the fine art aspect of writing and especially on literary, rather than genre writing. I don’t hear much about MFA programs really preparing their graduates for the business of writing as a career. So, while DIY MFA makes for a catchy title, the book is at least trying to be a little more well-rounded than the average MFA program (or at least my slightly fuzzy impression of one).

Breadth Over Depth

DIY MFA is organized around three principles: reading, writing, and community-building. It starts with a brief description of MFA programs, pointing out their weaknesses (as might be expected in a book that positions itself as a direct alternative). Then it goes into the details of each of these pillars.

For Writing, there are chapters on motivation and writing habits, handling rejection and failure, and then more “traditional” technique discussion: developing ideas; outlining; creating characters; beginnings, middles, and endings; voice; point of view; dialogue; world-building. Oh, and a chapter on revision.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. The writing section is the bulk of the book, but each of these chapters is relatively short. Every one of these concepts is big enough to fill entire books. For better or worse, DIY MFA chooses to cover this huge breadth of topics, rather than dig into any one of them in depth.

Next is the Reading section, which talks about reading widely in the genres you want to write, active reading with the intent to learn, and some exercises for more effectively digesting what you read. Compared to the seventeen chapters on writing, there are three on reading.

Finally, there is the Community section. This is really an amalgamation of networking and business concerns. There are chapters on workshopping and critique, crafting an author identity and a website, targeting readers, networking, and submitting work. The book doesn’t play favorites between traditional publishing or self-pub, and generally looks at aspects of the business that can benefit any author.

Who Is This For?

In my opinion, this is a book for younger or inexperienced authors. The framework of Read, Write, Build Community is a pretty good overview of the things you should at least be thinking about if you want to write as a profession. The ideas around goal-setting, organization and learning are the best parts of the book.

The sections about craft and technique are a great jumping-off point, but you’ll need to find other books, websites, resources and mentors if you want to really dig deep into any of these topics, since they’re only addressed by a single chapter of this book.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is a robust DIY MFA website with a whole team behind it. I don’t know whether the book or the website came first, but the book certainly shows the power of connecting your various media to draw in readers.

The book suggests signing up for the DIY MFA newsletter and BONUS MATERIALS! that you can download from the website. I went ahead and signed up, and the amount of emails is right on the edge of being spammy. If you’re an author who dreams of a media empire, this is an interesting example to look at. They have articles. They have a podcast. They have a newsletter. They have a paid courses and a virtual writing retreat. They have a random writing prompt generator that’s a little bit Story Engine-esque.

The Upshot

I may not be the ideal audience for this book. I’ve read variations of the advice in a lot of these chapters before. I think the best and most important thing the book offers is the overarching ideas about what’s important for a career author, and how to stay organized and focused. It’s a good reminder of what you should be working on if you’re making your living writing, or at least aspire to. It certainly made me think about some of the aspects that I have personally been neglecting.

And while the book offers a variety of suggestions about how to do things, they’re always given with the caveat that what works for one person may not work for another. The DIY mindset requires you to develop your own best practices. This is a refreshing divergence from the many writing books that claim to provide the one and only way to do something correctly.

If you’re a young author (or a not-so-young author who is only recently committed to trying to write for a living) and you haven’t delved too much into the books and blogs and myriad resources out there, this is a perfect place to start. Just don’t limit yourself to the DIY MFA ecosystem. Find the pieces that really interest you and look for more resources on those topics.

Reference Desk #11 —Writing Comics

I recently read two of Scott McCloud’s lauded books about comics: Understanding Comics and Making Comics. These books have been around for decades, but they hold up well. And when comics treatises are praised by the likes of Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman, you can be pretty sure there’s something good in there.

I wouldn’t say I’m a full-on comics nerd, but I did work at a comics shop in high school, and I have a respectable number of comics on my bookshelf and e-reader. I know what I like and dislike. And while I occasionally dabble in visual arts like drawing and painting, I’m happy to be a semi-competent amateur when it comes to producing visuals. As a writer, I’m much more interested in the craft of writing for comics. That’s the perspective I brought to reading these books.

Understanding Comics

This book is, first and foremost, a comic. McCloud understands that the best way to describe the medium of comics is within the pages of a comic. He is an adept artist and writer, rendering his ideas clearly and gracefully, with a dash of silliness here and there.

McCloud has a style that appeals to my personal tastes — he loves to define and categorize. He describes the medium of comics by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, then showing how those pieces can be combined to build new and interesting things.

First, he goes through pages of effort to justify his chosen definition of comics: “Sequential Art,” or more precisely, “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He gives a brief history of art that fits this description, from native Mesoamerican codices to the Bayeux Tapestry to Egyptian tomb paintings, and on into more modern examples. This may sound like dry academics, but it’s much more palatable in comic book form.

Next, he discusses iconography and the complex spectrum between words and pictures; how symbols can be more relatable than realism. He categorizes the ways that a reader infers movement across time and space between the juxtaposed images of a comic, in the “gutters.” He shows the ways that words and pictures can interact together to create unique effects within comics.

Finally, he finishes the book with a broad manifesto describing all art as a series of layers, with some art at the shallow surface level, and some digging deep into other layers. This ties into the comics stuff, but it’s more like his ideas of how to make great art.

McCloud is a great observer of comics. He describes many techniques that I’ve seen before, but his categorization and explanation allowed me to understand how they work, and what they’re good at. This book is not prescriptive, it’s descriptive: it’s a fantastic description of comics from his vantage point as an articulate insider.

Even though this book doesn’t describe comics in a “how to do it” manner, it’s incredibly useful for aspiring creators. It provides framework and language for understanding the medium. These are vital tools in the creator’s toolbox.

Besides, when it comes to creation, there’s a related book called…

Making Comics

Making Comics is another comic about comics. It takes many of the concepts from Understanding Comics and uses them as a foundation. This is much more of a how-to manual, split pretty evenly between visuals, words, and general storytelling principles.

Since my interest is in writing, not art, I skimmed some of the more technical parts related to drawing recognizable expressions and body language. I focused on the parts relating to writing, storytelling, and the way the words and pictures work together.

This book will be most useful to the indie comic artist, who wants to draw and write everything themselves, or perhaps writer-artist duos. McCloud does everything, so that’s the perspective he writes from.

There is a bit less in here for someone like me, who is only interested in the writing, despite it being a thicker volume than Understanding Comics. Still, Making Comics is a valuable book, worth reading if you’re interested in any aspect of comic creation. It solidifies some of the abstract concepts of the first book in more hands-on examples.

Am I an Expert Yet?

Reading these books didn’t make me want to immediately write a comic. But that’s a good thing. They do a great job showing how deep comics can go as an art form, and that’s a little intimidating. They showed me enough to realize I’d need to put in more effort before I think about starting a comics project.

I think my next step will be to re-read some of my favorite comics and analyze what makes them great. McCloud’s books have given me the tools to do that analysis. I know I like the stories, but how are they using the medium, the “juxtaposed images in sequence,” to tell those stories so effectively?

I also want to look for good examples of comics scripts, just to learn the ins and outs of formatting. I know there’s an annotated Neil Gaiman Sandman script in some edition or another of those books, and I’m sure there are other examples floating around. I get the impression that comics script format is a bit less rigid than TV and movie scripts.

As I continue to dig into writing for comics, I’ll come back and post more updates. If you have any interest, these two books are a great starting point. And if you’ve come across any other great resources for comics writing, let me know in the comments.

The Scrivener Podcast — A Follow-Up

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Scrivener’s new podcast, Write Now with Scrivener. I think it’s hard to judge most media based on the first episode, but I gave it a bit of a mixed review. The first half, focused on the author interview and writing process was interesting. The second half, focused on how the author used Scrivener, was a little too infomercial for my tastes.

The next episode of the podcast dropped, so I decided to briefly revisit it here. The guest author for episode two is Dan Moren, science fiction author. I have to say, this one hooked me more than episode one, so I’m glad I kept an open mind.

I’ll be clear up-front that this episode is just better tailored to my personal tastes. I’m a reader and writer of sci-fi, and I’m honestly more interested in the perspective of a relative up-and-comer. Dan Moren has a couple of books out in his science fiction series, and seems to be doing well, but he’s open about the fact that his fiction writing income isn’t paying the rent, let alone buying Lamborghinis or a 40-acre ranch. Peter Robinson, the episode one guest, was nice enough, but he was working in police procedural style mysteries, has dozens of books, and seems to be much more at the “rich guy” end of the spectrum.

Regardless of my tastes, I thought this episode had much better conversation too. Some of that may be the host getting a little more practice. Some may be that these two have a bit of a history together. I’m guessing most of it is down to the fact that Dan Moren hosts half a dozen podcasts, and is pretty comfortable in this environment. The “how do you use Scrivener” section of the podcast felt much more natural this time around, although there was still one moment I noticed where the host was a little too energetic giving Scrivener tips and I could feel the sponsorship miasma creeping in.

After this second episode, I’m on board. A once-per-month, half-hour podcast is easy to commit to, and the content is pretty good. I’ll keep listening.

I’ll put the second episode below, and if you’re interested in sci-fi authors who are open about finances, agent/editor interaction, and the nitty-gritty of publishing, you should check out Dan Moren’s blog.

Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher Write Now with Scrivener

J.T. Ellison has written more than 25 novels: standalone thrillers, three series, and has recently published the first in a series of co-authored young adult novels. She co-hosts a literary TV show, and is also a publisher. She also "loves Scrivener with the passion of a thousand fiery suns." Show notes: J.T. Ellison (https://www.jtellison.com) Latest book: Her Dark Lies (https://www.jtellison.com/her-dark-lies) @thrillerchick (https://twitter.com/thrillerchick) A Word on Words (https://awordonwords.org) (TV show) Jeff Abbott (https://jeffabbott.com) Story Planner (https://www.storyplanner.com) The Wine Vixen (https://www.thewinevixen.com) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  2. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster
  3. Episode 1: Peter Robinson, Author of the Alan Banks Crime Fiction Series

Reference Desk #10 — The Story Engine

The Story Engine is a card-based tool to generate endless, semi-random writing prompts. It’s is billed as a tool or multiplayer game to aid in writing fiction, playing tabletop RPGs, or just to be played on its own. It started out in 2019 as one of those Kickstarter projects that caught fire and got fifteen times as much money as they were asking for. Now, the full product is launched, along with myriad add-ons enabled by Kickstarter stretch goals.

As a writer, a TTRPG player, and general lover of boxes of cards with nice art, I decided to try it out.

What’s in the Box

The main box comes with 180 cards. There are also three 60-card “expansions” that can be purchased separately: sci-fi, fantasy, and horror; and six 18-card sub-genre “boosters” for cyberpunk, steampunk, eldritch horror, post-apocalyptic, mythological and dystopian. I went for broke and got the whole collection. The core set is genre-agnostic, but the add-ons are clearly focused on speculative fiction.

The build quality is solid, which I appreciate as someone who has accumulated quite a few board and card games of varying quality. The box is a sturdy, fold-open affair that latches with magnets and has a sleeve. The cards are glossy, nicely weighty paper, and the illustrations are evocative. The cards aren’t plastic-coated, so expect the edges to get roughed up as they’re repeatedly shuffled.

How Does it Work?

The cards are divided into five different types: Agents, Engines, Anchors, Conflicts and Aspects.

  • Agents represent characters
  • Engines represent a goal or desire
  • Anchors represent places, things, and ideas
  • Conflicts are challenges or difficulties
  • Aspects are adjectives

In its simplest form, I can play one card of the first four types, in sequence, to generate a random prompt, such as

A daredevil (agent) wants to enact a secret plan revolving around (engine) an election (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

I can then customize that prompt in two ways. First, each card has 2 or 4 prompt phrases depending on type, so it can be turned 90 or 180 degrees to change the “active” phrase facing me to something more inspiring. Secondly, I can add an Aspect. Since aspects are adjectives, they can be applied to the noun cards: agents (characters) and anchors (places, things, ideas).

With those changes, I might transform the first prompt into

A tormented fraud (agent + aspect) wants to unmask the conspiracy of (engine) a rebellion (anchor), but they will bear the scars for all to see (conflict).

The guidebook that comes in the main box also suggests ways to use the cards to generate character concepts, items and settings, as well as several more complex prompts that utilize more cards. These include things like conflicted characters with multiple goals, or two characters in conflict over related goals.

Finally, it includes rules for multi-player storytelling games and some helpful hints toward RPG players as to how the various prompts might be used in building campaigns, settings and scenarios.

Despite all these prescriptive rules for building prompts, The Story Engine is also happy to tell you that this doesn’t have to be rigid, with hard and fast rules. You can use the cards however you’d like.

1. A robot wants to map an obsidian prison, but they will have to try something frightening and new. 2. An archivist wants to pay an old debt with a corrupted tool, but they will have to resist a great temptation.

My Experience

The Story Engine does a good job riding the line between too specific and too vague. I often find writing prompts irritating when they’re little more than a vague topic, but too much detail obviously takes any agency away from the writer.

I filled a few notebook pages using the “simple” writing prompts. Not all of the results were instantly inspiring, but I was able to glean a few ideas that feel promising, and a few more that seem like they could lead somewhere with a bit more time and thought.

The complex prompts include more cards and more structure, and as a result they are less open-ended and more inflexible. These are sometimes too detailed for me, feeling like there’s not enough room for filling in the blanks. However, you can always swap cards or break the rules to get something more to your liking.

The individual cards are also just fine as prompts by themselves. Sometimes a one-word character or setting description is all you need, especially when trying to flesh out an idea in progress. The pictures on the cards also do work as extra inspirational elements that don’t insert more words into the mix.

What about RPGs?

I’m not currently running a campaign, so I haven’t tried incorporating The Story Engine into one. However, I have used the similar dice-and-table-based prompts in The Perilous Wilds to run totally improvised one-shots of Dungeon World. I could definitely see using The Story Engine to do something similar.

If you have a home brew campaign, these prompts are probably going to be more useful than if you’re trying to add to a pre-written one. They might also be fun for generating NPCs on-the-fly when your adventuring party takes an unexpected turn.

Conclusions

So far, I’m pleased with what I’ve gotten out of The Story Engine, and I’ll continue to use it. My only concern is that the prompts might start to feel samey after a while. Even if there are technically billions of combinations, the cards will eventually become familiar. Still, with the core and add-ons, I have quite a few cards to work with. I think I’ll be using these cards as a story brainstorming tool for a long time.

If you’re unsure, the core set is a good starting point, and it’s genre-agnostic. If you’re not writing speculative fiction, the add-ons don’t offer much. If you are writing spec-fic and The Story Engine sounds exciting to you, buying one of the bundles gets you a pretty steep discount vs. buying piecemeal.

Check it out at https://storyenginedeck.myshopify.com/

Reference Desk #9 — Write Now with Scrivener

I’ve made no secret that Scrivener is my tool of choice for writing novels. Now — like everyone else in the pandemic — they’ve announced a podcast. It’s called “Write Now with Scrivener,” and it’s scheduled to come out monthly. Thus far, there’s only one episode.

Like any series, I don’t think the inaugural episode is enough to judge a podcast, but I decided to check it out and see what it has to offer.

The Interview

The host is Kirk McElhern, author of “Take Control of Scrivener,” which is certainly on brand. He’s not somebody I’m familiar with, so I had no expectations. McElhern seems to have prepped well for the interview, and had solid knowledge of his subject, but I didn’t feel like he asked any particularly surprising questions or drew out any great insights.

Part of it, perhaps, is that the interviewee for this episode is Peter Robinson. He’s the author of the Alan Banks series. With more than thirty published novels, he’s clearly a successful author, but I don’t read a lot of detective mysteries, and I’m not familiar with his work. So again I came in with no expectations.

We learn that Robinson eschews outlines (can we please stop using the word “pantser” for this?) when starting a new book, but builds an outline as he goes to keep himself organized. As someone who outlines, I always find this a little bit amazing. Even more amazing to me is that he doesn’t know the ending. I’ve only ever dabbled in mystery, but it seems difficult to know where you’re going in the genre without an idea of the ending. It goes to show that writers can have very different processes to achieve similar results.

The Obligatory Bit About Scrivener

The final few minutes of the podcast was reserved to discuss how Robinson uses Scrivener. This was the bit I had concerns about. On the one hand, perhaps I would get a couple of useful tips. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just very thinly veiled advertising by the patrons of the podcast.

Robinson dutifully explained that he writes scene by scene, in fairly small chunks, and that Scrivener makes it easy to rearrange those scenes with drag-and-drop, or pull things out and save them for later. He also uses snapshots before changing a scene to compare the different versions afterward.

Having used Scrivener for a few years, I didn’t really get anything new out of this, and unfortunately it felt a little bit like advertising. However, if you’re new to Scrivener, these are the kinds of simple, straightforward features that make the product good for writing novels, and they’re useful to know about.

The Verdict?

As I said before, I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve heard a couple episodes. Overall, I found the chat with Peter Robinson interesting, even if I’m not a reader of his books. I hope that they’re able to get authors from various genres for future episodes.

I’m honestly a bit worried about the “how do you use Scrivener” bit. As much as I like the product, it feels a little too advertisey. I suspect that most writers are going to  talk about the same handful of main features: the ones at the core of what makes Scrivener good. What might be able to make this segment shine is an author who really utilizes some of the more hidden features.

Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher Write Now with Scrivener

J.T. Ellison has written more than 25 novels: standalone thrillers, three series, and has recently published the first in a series of co-authored young adult novels. She co-hosts a literary TV show, and is also a publisher. She also "loves Scrivener with the passion of a thousand fiery suns." Show notes: J.T. Ellison (https://www.jtellison.com) Latest book: Her Dark Lies (https://www.jtellison.com/her-dark-lies) @thrillerchick (https://twitter.com/thrillerchick) A Word on Words (https://awordonwords.org) (TV show) Jeff Abbott (https://jeffabbott.com) Story Planner (https://www.storyplanner.com) The Wine Vixen (https://www.thewinevixen.com) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  2. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster
  3. Episode 1: Peter Robinson, Author of the Alan Banks Crime Fiction Series

Reference Desk #8 — Working it Out

There’s a rare thing that happens sometimes in great comedies. The writers insert an episode, a scene, or even a few lines of dialogue that create a dramatic, emotional impact. A little island of seriousness among the jokes.

When this is done correctly, the knife twist from lighthearted laughs to pathos can be every bit as impactful as a similar scene within a drama, where the entire show may have been building up to it.

Fans of Futurama will know what I mean if I mention Fry’s dog, Seymour. Fans of Scrubs will remember Ben Sullivan. And fans of Adventure Time might just get a little choked up when they hear “Everything Stays.”

Birbigs

I’ve been a fan of Mike Birbiglia for a while, and I think it’s mostly because he lives on that edge between humor and pathos. He considers himself a stand-up comedian, but his on- and off-Broadway shows often feel like half dramatic one-man-show, half stand-up special. They revolve around events as serious as sleep-walking through a second-story window or being T-boned in a hit-and-run car accident.

Working it Out” is Birbiglia’s podcast. As you might expect from a comedian’s podcast, there are plenty of popular comedian guests, from John Mulaney and Hannah Gadsby to Jimmy Kimmel and Frank Oz. But rather than being a simple excuse to joke with friends and acquaintances, Mike makes it something halfway between an interview show and a critique circle. It turns out he is deeply studious when it comes to the craft of telling jokes, and the craft of storytelling.

The through-line of the 40 episodes that have been released so far is the new show that Birbiglia is developing. It started with the title “The YMCA Pool,” but he now calls it “The Old Man and the Pool.” It’s a comedy show about getting older and coming to grips with your own mortality.

In the first episode, Mike tries out some of the material he’s working on with his friend and “This American Life” luminary, Ira Glass. Ira gives him advice that involves significant rewriting, and he accepts it graciously. By episode 25, when Ira returns, Mike has done his rewrite. They run through it again, and discuss it in depth. Mike jokingly asks, after half a year of revisions, how close his story is to being worthy of “This American Life.” And Ira deadpans, “halfway there.”

The Vulnerability of Revision

What makes Birbiglia’s comedy work so well, and the knife-twist that makes it hit so hard, is his vulnerability on stage. The podcast is different from a stage show, of course, but it still works because he’s willing to be vulnerable in front of an audience.

It’s clear that Mike doesn’t shy away from the hard work of revision. Guests bring their work in progress, and he brings his, and they hash it out, every episode. Some of the guests are clearly less into the workshopping aspect than others, but Birbiglia’s enthusiasm shows through.

If you’ve read any of my writing development journals, you can probably see why this appeals to me. There’s something raw and awkward about a rough draft. It’s hard enough to be confident about work that’s polished to a mirror shine, and it can outright hurt to reveal the grotesque early versions of the art we’re passionately trying to create, in the midst of its creation. But it’s immensely reassuring to be reminded that it’s like that for everyone! Art doesn’t spring fully formed from our minds, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It has to be shaped and reshaped. Bits added on, and bits sanded off. The slow, steady grind of progress.

Of course, it helps to have a few jokes to lighten the mood, even if they are jokes about death.

49. Keegan-Michael Key: Schmigadon't Think Twice Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out

In 2015 Mike filmed “Don’t Think Twice” where Keegan-Michael Key played a guy who got cast on a fictional version of SNL. This year Keegan hosted the *actual* SNL in a delightful case of life imitating art imitating life. Today Keegan and Mike nerd out about live sketches vs. filmed Key and Peele sketches, the wisdom of Robert Deniro, and how Keegan seems to be able to do anything, including his most recent role in the new musical comedy series Schmigadoon! https://rfkhumanrights.org/
  1. 49. Keegan-Michael Key: Schmigadon't Think Twice
  2. 48. Judd Apatow Returns: Judd Has Notes
  3. Taylor Tomlinson: Quarter-Life Crisis Meets Mid-Life Crisis
  4. 47. Malcolm Gladwell: 10,000 Hours of Jokes
  5. 46. Brie Larson: Captain Marvel Helps Captain Jokes

Story in Games: Experience and Participation

This is still a blog about writing fiction, but in this post I’m going to talk about video games and the way they can provide some unique narrative experiences that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other media.

Even if you’re not interested in games, it’s worth learning a bit about how narrative in games continues to expand what media is capable of. A good place to start might be interactive fiction, an art form that straddles the boundaries of prose and video games. Interactive fiction is where a lot of interesting experimentation is going on, but more and more “traditional” video games are incorporating narrative lessons that were originally explored by IF.

Gameplay and Narrative

In many ways, the experiences in games can be tracked along two axes: gameplay and narrative.

I’ll define gameplay as systems to be solved or optimized. They are goal-based, whether implicitly or explicitly, and can be open-ended. Examples of gameplay include spinning and placing Tetris pieces or aiming and shooting opponents in a first-person shooter.

Narrative, on the other hand, is the “story” of the game. This may hew close to traditional story structures, as in film or fiction, but it can also branch, or even arise organically from the interaction of systems. Examples of narrative include branching dialogue choices in an RPG, characters talking in a cutscene, or distracting an enemy with a well-placed arrow in order to sneak past them.

I realize that there is a lot that could be argued within these definitions. I made them purposely broad, partly to illustrate how often we categorize narrative and story very narrowly.

Under these definitions, games may still range from no gameplay to all gameplay, and from no narrative to all narrative. However, the presence of one does not necessarily exclude the other — it’s not zero-sum, but it can require a deft hand to balance both.

Preconceptions

There is a certain set of gamers who think gameplay is the most important thing in a game. For this group, a game with little or no gameplay and lots of narrative doesn’t qualify as a game at all. These are the folks who coined the derisive term “walking simulator” for games that are entirely narrative, with little to no gameplay systems or challenges.

In opposition, we find the “games are art” crowd, who tend to be much more inclusive of walking simulators or visual novels, and appreciate narrative as much or more than gameplay. Many of the people in this camp will feel frustrated and excluded if a game has a lot of gameplay to wade through to get to the story, especially if it is difficult gameplay. If the player cares about the story, having that story blocked by gameplay that the player doesn’t care about can be irritating.

What Makes Game Narrative Special?

Games are a special narrative medium for two reasons:

  • They’re experiential
  • They’re participatory

In cinema, TV and books, the author will often try to create sympathy for a character. TV and movies have certain disadvantages here, because the visual media are always showing characters from the outside. Character narration is about as deep inside a viewpoint as they can get. Novels and stories, on the other hand, can use the first-person perspective to put the reader directly inside the character’s head. Even in third-person, they can reveal a character’s thoughts and emotions. The reader can more directly experience what the character experiences.

Games have a similar advantage, and go even further. In games, the player often controls or even inhabits a character. In this way, the player can experience what the character experiences. This is experientiality.

What a consumer of traditional fiction or visual media cannot do is take control of the story. Simple gameplay systems such as choosing where to walk at a given moment, or picking from several dialogue options, make the player an active participant in the story. Even if the choice is artificial and they are eventually funneled into a single location to progress, or the dialogue always ends with the same result, the feeling of participation is a powerful tool.

While other media can give the reader or viewer insight into a character’s thoughts and beliefs, games have a unique power to make the player feel unified with the character. The player becomes invested in the character’s actions as if it were the player making those actions, even when there really is no other option. Players often fall into first-person when talking about actions performed in the game. They say “I accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp,” not “Link accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp.”

Along with this fusion of player and character comes a strange feeling of player responsibility over the story. An unusual first person shooter called Spec Ops: the Line actively explores these concepts of narrative and player agency. The player has no real control over the story, moving from place to place and shooting everyone that moves. But when the characters participate in war crimes, the game asserts that the player did these terrible things. Because of the unification of player and character, it’s hard not to feel some amount of responsibility, even though the only other choice is to put the game down and walk away.

Simple experientiality can be as powerful as active participation and choice, but that power is often underestimated. In What Remains of Edith Finch, the player spends most of the game exploring the many ways that the members of the supposedly cursed Finch family died. It quickly becomes apparent that whenever you encounter a new character, they are destined by the narrative to die. It’s surprisingly crushing then, when you reach a point in the game where you discover that you are inhabiting the perspective of a small child, left alone for a moment in the tub. You know what will happen, and the very fact that you have no power to make a choice to change that outcome is gut-wrenching.

Bringing it Back to Fiction

Games can deploy experientiality and participation to create stories that would be impossible in other media. But is there anything in these concepts that we can bring back to our fiction writing?

I think there is, although it’s a challenge. We may have to dip our toes into the experimental end of the pool.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is an experimental novel that contains a layered narrative. It presents itself as a book pieced together from disparate documents, collected by multiple authors, and based in turn on lost video footage. It carefully passes the story through this chain of custody, from Will Navidson’s videos, to the old man, Zampanò, to the narrator, Johnny Truant. Implied within this is that the reader is the latest custodian of this story, which has driven its previous owners to obsession and insanity.

The text itself is cryptic and formatted in a variety of strange ways, sometimes swirling around the page with swaths of whitespace, colors or boxes. It is riddled with footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes), “supplementary” materials, and copious references to other works, both real and fictional. In some places, the text is so disordered, the reader must choose the order to read it in. At a broader level, the reader must make connections between disparate pieces of text across the book to assemble the story.

Simply by reading the text, the reader becomes a sort of detective, trying to derive meaning from this carefully constructed mish-mash. The reader begins to feel what Johnny or Zampanò might have felt as they compiled scraps of text into the book, or scrawled bewildered footnotes late into the night.

House of Leaves is a challenging book to read, and was no doubt a challenging one to write, but it is clearly trying to pull off the same tricks that many games achieve: to make the reader feel that they are experiencing and even actively participating in the story.

Trade-offs and Opportunities

Different forms of media will always have trade-offs — things they do better than other media, and things they do worse. For games, experientiality and participation are powerful storytelling tools. Working in fiction, we will always struggle to leverage those tools as effectively as games can.

Still, there are lessons that can be learned from this style of narrative, and perhaps opportunities to allow the reader to experience the story and even feel like an active participant.

Reference Desk #7 – Trello

As a part of this Reference Desk series, where I look at useful tools for authors, I’ve now shared most of the software that I use for writing. I covered Scrivener, where I do most of my novel writing. I talked OneNote, where I keep my notes, from story brainstorms to blog posts. Finally, I discussed Dropbox, which I use to back up all my writing work.

However, there’s one more application that I use, for a different aspect of writing – organization and planning. That software is Trello.

I remember seeing Trello when it was first released, and thinking, “Is this really all it does?” Even the Trello website is a bit cagey when describing it, using all sorts of business buzzwords, like “collaborate,” “manage,” “productive,” and “organize.”

Personally, I use Trello to keep track of my weekly to-do list around the house. I use it to plan meals (at least when I’m feeling like a competent adult). I use it to track short stories I’m working on, and what stage of development they’re in. Sometimes I use it to track revision notes or prioritize my projects.

Boards, Lists, Cards

Trello doesn’t dictate a rigid form or structure. It just lets you make lists of things. Shuffle them around, color-code them, or check them off as you get them done.

An accurate (if not thrilling) description of Trello is “an app that makes very flexible lists.” Lists are one of the simplest and most effective ways to take complicated things, big things, and break them down into small and manageable things. That’s what I use Trello for, and that’s what it’s good at.

Trello lists are built from a few simple components. At the top level, there are “boards.” On each board, there are multiple ordered “lists.” On a list, you have “cards.”

Cards have a title and can have a description. They can have little color-coded labels, or comments, start dates and due dates, checklists, pictures, or other attachments. Cards are where the action is.

Simple and Flexible

You can think of Trello as a big cork board. Lists are just columns of index cards, pinned onto the board. You can move them between columns, or up and down a column. But cards are also like file folders, and they can have all sorts of interesting things inside them. From that basic structure, you can organize in whatever way seems natural to you.

The most obvious example is a to-do list. Make a board with three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. Fill the first column with tasks. When you’re ready to do a task, move it to the middle column. When you’ve finished it, move it to the last column. When everything is done, close the board.

Of course, you can embellish the bare-bones process. You can shuffle tasks in To Do so they’re in the order you plan to do them in. You can color-code them by importance, or amount of effort, or both. You can add a picture to each one. You can add addresses or phone numbers or web links.

You could expand the basic To Do list into a writing board. Perhaps you want more columns: Ideas, Incomplete Drafts, Complete Drafts, Published, and Shelved. Then add a card for each of your stories. Some small story seed might end up as a card in the Ideas column with just a vague title and a few words. As it moves, it could accumulate more ideas, inspiring photos, character bios, and so on.

You could attach the story document directly to the card, or add a link to your cloud backup. You could maintain a list of the magazines you’ve submitted that flash fiction to. Heck, you could attach copies of rejection and acceptance letters.

Hopefully, you can see that these very simple tools can be put together in a lot of ways. Part of what I like about Trello is that I get to figure out how I like to do things over time, and I can adapt my process accordingly.

Collaboration and Synchronization

Trello is an online tool, so your updates are automatically saved and available across devices – computer or mobile – as long as you’ve got internet connectivity. They have the usual iOS and Android apps. I use Trello on my phone about 95% of the time, and it works well.

I use Trello almost exclusively for my own boards that nobody else needs to see, but I have shared boards with my wife in the past, and the changes and sync between the two of us were seamless. Trello is obviously trying to sell to the “enterprise” team crowd, so if you want to coordinate with a few writing or business partners, it shouldn’t break a sweat.

I’ve found the free plan to be more than adequate for individual use. The main limitation that you’re likely to run into is a maximum of 10 open boards. So long as you aren’t updating more than 10 boards on a regular basis, you can always close old ones and stay under the limit.

If you do need more boards, need to upload big files, or want to use some of the serious team collaboration options, the next tier up is about $120 per year.

One Small Caveat

It’s worth noting that Trello was recently acquired by Atlassian, a huge enterprise company that specializes in tools for software development. Thanks to my day job, I’m familiar with most of the Atlassian tools. They’re about as powerful, expensive, rigid and occasionally clunky as you’d expect from software that has big-business plans with prices listed as “Contact Sales.”

Trello has been slowly but steadily adding features over time, and that’s continuing under the new regime. So far, I haven’t seen any unsavory pushing of paid options or favoring big business over individual users. But there’s always that possibility when smaller start-ups are eaten by their older, larger competitors. Time will tell whether Trello influences Atlassian, or vice-versa.

Try It Out

If my description of Trello sounds interesting, I encourage you to try it out with a free account. The only advice I’d offer is to try to come up with more than one way to do things. Play around with it. One of the big advantages is freedom and flexibility that so many apps like this lack. You may find that the flow that ends up working best for you isn’t quite what you expected.

Reference Desk #6 – Back Up Your Work!

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the power going out while you’re in the middle of writing. It’s second only to the feeling you get when you boot up your computer and get an error message telling you your hard drive has failed.

As writers, it’s easy to get caught up in characters, settings and plots. That’s the fun stuff. Making sure your work is backed up isn’t fun, but it sure beats the alternative: losing anywhere from hours to years of work.

Take a little time to figure out a back-up plan for your writing. Think of it like an insurance policy. Nobody hopes they’ll need to use their insurance, but it’s a safety net.

What Makes a Good Backup Plan?

  • A backup plan should be easy. Ideally, once it’s set up there will be no extra work at all. The more effort you have to put into it, the more annoying it will be. You don’t want to be tempted to skip it. Murphy’s law tells us conclusively that the one time you skip your plan will be the one time you’ll need it.
  • A backup plan should protect against as many types of failure as possible. Copying your work to a USB thumb drive will protect against a hard drive failure, but won’t save your stories from a house-fire. You want a backup that protects your work from everything short of Armageddon, and maybe even beyond that if you plan on being your post-apocalyptic tribe’s resident shaman/storyteller.
  • A backup plan should provably work. The word “provably” is critical here. As a software developer, I’ve seen important systems with supposedly good backup plans go down, only to find that the backups are outdated, broken, or completely missing. This invariably comes down to the same class of problem: the backups were put in place, but were never tested, or tested so rarely that nobody noticed when they stopped working.

With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at some of the available backup options.

Hard Drives and Hard Copies

In the good ‘ol days, the way to back up your work was to make a copy and put it somewhere safe. Expensive and inconvenient.

While computers steadily get faster and better in almost every way every year, text files remain incredibly small and easy to store. Even proprietary formats like Scrivener or Word – which include both text and formatting – make tiny files compared to audio, video or images. The most prolific writer will have a difficult time filling a cheap external hard drive, USB flash drive, or memory card.

Consider this the bare minimum for backups. If you’re like me, you probably already have a couple old memory cards or USB sticks in a drawer somewhere. It’s not particularly convenient to copy your files from computer to external storage on a regular basis. If you do this, you’ll tend to leave them plugged into your writing computer, or nearby, and that can make it more likely that an accident damaging the computer will damage the backup as well.

This is beginner mode. You can do better.

Cloud Backups

No matter what operating system you use, there is probably an easy cloud backup option available to you. “Cloud” is the buzziest of buzzwords, but in this case, it just means that your files are backed up to servers somewhere out on the internet.

If you use a Chromebook, Google Docs has you covered. In fact, if you want, Google Docs can have you covered on any operating system with a web browser. If you’ve only ever used a word processor like Word, think of it like this: Google Docs is a word processor that lives on the internet. It saves to Google Drive (their cloud file storage) by default. You can access the files from anywhere with an internet connection, and you can even edit in your browser.

If you’re on Mac, iCloud is the backup option that Apple is going to push you toward. On Windows, Microsoft wants you to use their proprietary cloud storage, OneDrive, which integrates with Word and the rest of Office.

Of course, you aren’t obligated to pay any attention to these huge multinational corporations and where they think you should store your backups. There are other options.

One of the oldest and most mature products out there is Dropbox. Dropbox is made for synchronization, so it’s designed to be installed on multiple computers and copy the contents of the Dropbox directory between them. A change on one computer gets automatically pushed to the others. Dropbox also keeps cloud backups and lets you access files from a browser. It even stores a history of changes, which can allow you to grab an old version of a file if you accidentally pushed changes you didn’t want to.

There are other tools. Lots of other tools. Box.com. Sync.com. I haven’t tried them all, and frankly, there are new ones all the time. The fact is, it doesn’t really matter. All of them can save your work to the cloud. Pretty much all of them have completely free plans, typically with at least 5GB of storage. That may seem small in the age of inexpensive TB-sized hard drives, but you can fit an awful lot of text in 5GB, especially if it’s zipped.

Besides, there’s no rule saying you couldn’t use more than one of these services, if you really need more free storage. You could also shell out a little money to protect those precious stories.

Version Control

Alright. Let’s get really nerdy. Cloud backups are easy and safe, but what if that’s not enough for you? You’re not afraid of a little complexity, and you want to be able to track every single change you’ve ever saved for your manuscript. You want the ability to separately track the changes to the first- and third-person versions of a story. You want to control exactly where your backups live, instead of letting some company like Microsoft or Google decide.

If the thumb drive is easy mode, then version control is hard mode. Version control software is designed to keep track of changes in files. As a software developer, I use it every single day. When tracking down difficult bugs, it’s often vital to be able to go back and see what changed and when.

There are several popular version control systems, such as CVS, Subversion (SVN) and Git. They come in two basic flavors: centralized and distributed.

Centralized version control has been around for ages. It has a central server or repository that keeps track of all your versions and branches. A client can then be used on different machines to download one or more versions from the repository, make changes, and upload new versions.

Distributed version control is a newer idea, though still more than a decade old. In DVCS, there doesn’t have to be a central repository. Each client keeps a complete copy of the repository, with all the versions and branches. This adds more complexity, but it can also remove that central point of possible failure. In practice, DVCS can still be used like a central repository with clients, and often is.

There are thousands of websites and blog posts comparing the various features of version control systems. I can barely scratch the surface here. If you’re interested in going down this road, be aware that even the simplest version control systems are more than adequate for most writers’ needs. If you’re not the most technical person, this is a challenging rabbit hole to go down. Look for services that make it easier to set up, like TortoiseGit and GitHub.

Don’t Write Another Word Without Backups

If you haven’t been backing up your work, I hope this post inspires you to change your ways. There are so many free and easy ways to protect your work. If your writing is important to you, don’t run the risk of losing it. Back it up.

Reference Desk #5 – OneNote

There’s a small company called Microsoft that makes a little-known suite of productivity software called Office. Oh, you’ve heard of them?

Okay, yes, I really am going to shill for Microsoft a little bit here. Why? Because I like OneNote.

How Did This Happen?

I first encountered OneNote at my day job, where I automatically get a Microsoft Office subscription. I was mildly confused and irritated. Microsoft already had Word, the bloated, menu-bursting word processor so many of us know and tolerate. Now they were going to throw yet another application at me, and it’s also just for writing text? With fewer features?

It seemed like a product in search of a purpose.

However, I started noticing others using it. I tentatively tried it. I started to realize that the simplicity was a feature. Pretty soon I was using it for meeting notes, for project notes, for miscellaneous thoughts and to-do lists. I even started using it at home, for my writing notes.

In short, they had managed to hook me.

But Why?

OneNote isn’t exactly a word processor. It doesn’t try to do fancy layouts. It doesn’t have a ton of options.I do approximately two things with it: simple organization, and simple text.

Organization in OneNote breaks down into notebooks, tabs, and pages. These are convenient virtual metaphors that map to the real world.

I can imagine having a work notebook and a home notebook. I can imagine my work notebook with little colored tabs, separated into sections for the projects I’m working on. Likewise, my home notebook would have tabs for each of my writing projects: novels, stories, and blog. And within each tab are pages with specific notes: a page for a blog post, a page for chapter outlines of a novel, a page for that short story.

OneNote provides an additional organization feature: a hierarchy of pages, up to three levels deep. I mostly use this feature to organize several pages under a title or heading in the side-bar. For example, my Blog tab has headings for Razor Mountain, general blog posts, and reference desk posts, among others.

It’s easy to imagine unlimited levels of hierarchy, but I find that the limitation is good for me. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of endless, complicated hierarchies, which is what inevitably happens to my computer desktop. The limitation forces me to stick to a simpler, more straightforward organizational system that actually serves me better.

Notes and Only Notes

When I write out notes the old-fashioned way, in a notebook, I generally don’t do anything fancy. I just jot down text. I might occasionally underline or circle something important, or create a bulleted or numbered list. I might write notes for different things on different parts of the page, all willy-nilly.

OneNote doesn’t provide fancy layout or crazy text options. It makes it easy to do the handful of things I tend to want to do when I’m writing notes. I have quick hot-keys for bulleted and numbered lists. I can throw a freeform chunk of text anywhere on a page. I can do the standard text decorations: bold, italics, underline and highlight. And I can easily grab notes from one spot in the page and move them to another spot, or to an entirely different page, tab or notebook.

At this point, I suppose I have to admit that OneNote does have a few other features. You can insert pictures and videos, which I can certainly see some value in, even if I don’t often do it. You can insert spreadsheets as well, which might be justifiable, since they do make notebooks with graph paper. You can draw or write directly, if you’re using a touchscreen or are braver with a mouse than I am.

The other feature that really sells OneNote for me is the synchronization. I have my Office account and notebook for work, and my personal Office account and notebooks for home. I can sync them both on my home computer, my work computer, and my phone. All of my work saves as soon as I write it. It seamlessly updates across my devices, as long as I have internet. Very little complexity or effort.

That said, when I get deep into writing stories and novels, I move over to Scrivener, because it’s good at organizing and laying out fiction. But before I get to that point, when I just want to generate tons of notes, I do it in OneNote, because that’s what it’s good at.

That’s It

I understand that not everyone wants to sign up with Microsoft. Not everyone wants to pay a subscription for a product (myself included). Despite my best efforts, OneNote has won me over. It works for me because it does one thing and it does it well. It almost always picks simplicity over extra features.

If you’re looking for an application to organize your notes that can sync across a variety of devices, I recommend you give it a try.

You can try the 2016 version for free on all sorts of devices, but the latest and greatest requires purchasing Office.