Reference Desk #14 — MasterClass

MasterClass is an online learning platform. They split their courses into about ten different high-level topics, and one of these topics is writing. If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last couple years, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen a few ads for MasterClass. I’ve certainly been seeing these ads for ages, and while they sometimes caught my interest, I always balked at the price. However, I also noticed that the roster of instructors they were advertising was getting more impressive over time.

As you’ve probably guessed by the title of this post, they finally got me. I decided to subscribe and see whether it’s worth the money or not.

Big Names and High Production Values

MasterClass wears its business strategy on its sleeve. They get extremely well-known celebrities in a given field to make a series of instructional videos, and then they charge an all-access subscription fee for the platform. All of their marketing banks on these big names drawing people in. Of course, it’s perfectly fair to note that these celebrity creators may be great at what they do, without actually being very good teachers. On the other hand, this is a risk you run with almost any class. At least if you’re familiar with what they’ve made, you have some idea whether you’ll appreciate what they can do.

In the “Writing” category, MasterClass currently has twenty courses. The instructors span a broad range of genres and formats, including fantasy and sci-fi (Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemisin); kid lit and YA (R. L. Stine, Judy Blume); thrillers (James Patterson and Dan Brown); screenwriting and TV (Aaron Sorkin); and nonfiction (Malcom Gladwell).

Along with the high-profile instructors, MasterClass really leans into the production values. Each instructor appears to have one or two custom-built sets that they teach from, to set the mood. The sections of each class are split up with little musical interludes and graphics or video snippets that lead into the title card. The overall effect is something like a well-produced documentary.

If your main goal is to mainline great writing advice directly into your brain as quickly as possible, you may not care about these little flourishes. Personally, I found it immensely soothing to get to sit in a cozy little private study, shelves packed with books, while grandpa Gaiman gave me advice about writing.

My Experience So Far

At the time of writing, I’ve watched the Neil Gaiman course, and I’m about halfway through the N. K. Jemisin course. My experience is based on that. Other courses maybe structured differently.

What I’ve found thus far is that these courses are very conversational. They’re a bit like getting to have an extended talk with a great author. They are not focused on exercises or activities. As far as I can recall, Gaiman suggested only one or two exercises throughout his series. Jemisin suggested several in a section on world-building, but these pretty quickly fell off in favor of general advice. If you’re looking for very hands-on, workshoppy courses, you may find the videos to be less interactive than you’d like.

However, alongside the video instruction, each course also includes a downloadable workbook. From what I’ve seen so far, these workbooks aren’t really referenced in the videos at all. In fact, it was only as I was digging around the website to write this post that I found them. The workbooks are supplementary material that follows what was talked about in the videos, and may be better for those that want a workshop feel. Now that I know the workbooks exist, I’m inclined to go through them as I watch the videos. You could just as easily watch the videos first, then dig into the workbooks.

The length of the video series vary from course to course, but a typical length seems to be 2-5 hours. For example, Jemisin’s course is a little under four hours, and Gaiman’s course clocks in just under five hours.

In addition to the web app, MasterClass provides mobile apps. I’ve spent more time watching (or listening) to the videos on my phone than I have while sitting at the computer. The app does its job well enough, although I find it a little annoying that it always seems eager to show me new videos, when I usually want to go to my bookmarked list or pick up where I left off on my current course.

The Downsides

The biggest hurdle for some people is going to be the price. I realize that it’s a privilege these days to have a comfortable, steady income. MasterClass advertises $15 per month, but that’s a little misleading, as they only have annual subscription plans. The most basic plan will make the most sense for most people, at $180 per year. There are more expensive plans, but the only additional features you get are offline viewing on mobile, and the ability to watch on more than one device simultaneously. These don’t strike me as worth the additional money unless you’re looking for some kind of corporate team subscription.

The other thing that may turn people off the platform is the amount of content. Although MasterClass has a lot of big, recognizable names, they do not have a broad selection. Other platforms, like Udemy, boast tens or hundreds of thousands of courses while providing far less curation — pretty much anyone can create a course, and user have to rely on user ratings to sort the good from the garbage. Those platforms necessarily use a pay-per-course purchase system.

If you’re only interested in a single genre or format of writing, you will probably only have a couple of classes on MasterClass that match your interests. The all-access subscription is an inherently better deal if you’re paying that price for ten or twenty classes that you’re interested in. If you’re only interested in one or two classes, that subscription fee starts to seem significantly worse.

Is It Worth It?

This is a question that you’re going to have to answer for yourself by browsing the site (and depending on your finances, possibly checking your bank account). Look at the instructors and see how many classes interest you. Look into the other categories and see if there’s anything good there. The big advantage of the Netflix-style subscription is that you can watch as much as you want for the same flat rate.

Personally, I’m excited to watch the courses that pertain to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense. After that, I plan to branch out into other genres and styles. While I may not be writing a screenplay any time soon, I’m interested in hearing what an expert like Aaron Sorkin has to say about the topic.

So far, I’m pretty happy with the courses I’ve watched. Having tried some other learning sites through my day job, MasterClass has some nice quality-of-life features and general polish that is lacking on other platforms. However, if you don’t care much about aesthetics, you might be miffed that some percentage of your fee goes toward these shiny bits instead of more content.

At the very least, I think it was worth the initial fee to try the platform for a year. The real test will be when my subscription comes due. I may post a little follow-up at that time, when I decide whether to keep it going.

From the Blogroll: Nathan Bransford

Do people still do blogrolls? Is that a thing? Am I old?

Well, regardless of what the cool kids are doing these days, I’m going to take an occasional little Wednesday post here and there to point you toward some of my favorite writing bloggers.

First up: Nathan Bransford.

Nathan has been blogging for fifteen years. In that time, he’s been a social media guru, professional literary agent, published author, and most recently, freelance editor and book consultant.

Nathan’s blog is a great resource for writers, whether you’re on the traditional publishing track or self-publishing. It’s one of the most organized blogs I’ve ever seen, with detailed lists of articles featuring writing advice, agents and publishing, and self-publishing, all broken down into sub-categories for easy reference.

In addition to all this general writing advice, he also writes “This Week in Books” posts, where he collects interesting news about the publishing industry, and weekly critiques of first pages or query letters that people send in.

Check it out at https://nathanbransford.com/blog.

Reference Desk #13 — Writing Excuses

I have a system for listening to podcasts. First, I hear about a podcast that sounds interesting. Then I subscribe to it on my phone. Then, for weeks, sometimes months, I occasionally look at the icon in my podcasts. Once the podcast is nicely aged, I might decide to try listening to it. Either that or I get irritated with the number of things I’m subscribed to, and I delete it.

I’m glad I didn’t delete the Writing Excuses podcast. I finally got around to listening a week or two back, and now I’m listening to it pretty much every day during my lunchtime walks. It’s my new favorite writing podcast.

There are four regular hosts in the episodes I’ve listened to thus far: Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Each episode typically includes several or all of the regular hosts, along with one or more guests.

The resulting discussions feel a bit like writing conference round-tables with a rotating selection of professional authors. This is a speculative-fiction heavy podcast, with all of the regular hosts and many of the guests working in the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. However, they also bring a diverse set of writing backgrounds, with work ranging across short stories, novels, web comics, traditional comics, audio books/plays, and RPGs, along with the specialties brought in by the guests.

What’s in an Episode?

  • Each episode is about 15 minutes. Occasionally it runs long when the hosts get excited about a topic. This relatively short length makes it easy to listen to an episode in a spare moment here or there.
  • The hosts and guests discuss a single topic. Sometimes it’s stand-alone, sometimes it’s part of an over-arching series that may stretch across as many as ten episodes. Recent multi-episode topics include poetry, writing for video games, and business considerations.
  • Each episode also includes a reading recommendation (or rarely some other media), and a little homework assignment related to the topic.

History

The pod has been around for a long time. It’s been running since 2008 and is currently in season 16. If you’re starting on it now, like I am, that’s a backlog of hundreds of episodes. Unless I really binge, that’ll take me ages to work my way through. As an added bonus, it means that when I’m looking for info on some random writing topic (like serialization or alternate history), there’s probably already an episode covering it.

(I did notice an oddity: on Apple Podcasts, there is a separate listing for seasons 1-6, and another for seasons 7-10. Seasons 11-14 and most of 15f are completely absent. However, all of the episodes seem to be available from the official podcast website.)

Links

The official website (with all episodes, transcripts, and additional stuff) is https://writingexcuses.com/.

There is also a discussion forum for the podcast on Brandon Sanderson’s website: https://www.17thshard.com/forum/forum/34-writing-excuses/.

16.43: The Narrative Holy Trinity of World, Character, and Plot, with Fonda Lee Writing Excuses

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler We’re beginning another master class, another deep dive series of episodes, and this time around we’ll be led into the realms of good worldbuilding by Fonda Lee. In this episode Fonda talks about her process, which includes plotting and character creation along with … Continue reading 16.43: The Narrative Holy Trinity of World, Character, and Plot, with Fonda Lee →
  1. 16.43: The Narrative Holy Trinity of World, Character, and Plot, with Fonda Lee
  2. 16.42: M.I.C.E. Quotient, After the Fact
  3. 16.41: Middles and Conflicts with M.I.C.E. Structure
  4. 16.40: Nesting Threads in the M.I.C.E. Quotient
  5. 16.39: Deep Dive into “Event”

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 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author Write Now with Scrivener

Having worked as a police intelligence analyst in the UK, Elizabeth Haynes knows a lot about crime. She has written a half dozen novels, all of which she started during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Show notes: Elizabeth Haynes (http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com) You, Me & the Sea (https://myriadeditions.com/books/you-me-and-the-sea/) Lost Lives, Lisa Cutts (https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Lost-Lives/Lisa-Cutts/9781471168291) NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org) The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward (https://serpentstail.com/work/the-last-house-on-needless-street/) The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/emma-stonex/the-lamplighters/9781529047318) 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 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author
  2. Christian Cantrell, Sci-Fi Thriller Author
  3. Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  4. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  5. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster

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 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author Write Now with Scrivener

Having worked as a police intelligence analyst in the UK, Elizabeth Haynes knows a lot about crime. She has written a half dozen novels, all of which she started during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Show notes: Elizabeth Haynes (http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com) You, Me & the Sea (https://myriadeditions.com/books/you-me-and-the-sea/) Lost Lives, Lisa Cutts (https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Lost-Lives/Lisa-Cutts/9781471168291) NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org) The Last House on Needless Street, Catriona Ward (https://serpentstail.com/work/the-last-house-on-needless-street/) The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex (https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/emma-stonex/the-lamplighters/9781529047318) 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 6: Elizabeth Haynes, Thriller Author
  2. Christian Cantrell, Sci-Fi Thriller Author
  3. Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  4. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  5. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster

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.

Sarah Silverman: A Hard Comedy Reset Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out

First, CALIFORNIA TOUR NEWS— Berkeley Repertory Theatre residency goes on sale this week! Also, this week we re-air one of our all time favorite episodes. Mike is a huge admirer of Sarah Silverman and in this episode Sarah brings jokes, stories, and answers to tough questions like, “Why do so many of our comedian friends die young?” Sarah’s also shares a priceless memory of Joan Rivers and a story from when Sarah was a kid that is so insane that you actually have to hear it. https://www.kiva.org/
  1. Sarah Silverman: A Hard Comedy Reset
  2. 57. Stephen Colbert: Laughter As An Act Of Love
  3. Conan O'Brien: It's His Birthday, Celebrate Him
  4. 56. Atsuko Okatsuka: Her Life Should Be a Movie
  5. 55. Sterlin Harjo: Comedy From Tragedy and Reservation Dogs

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.