Month: October 2012

Choose Your Own Character: games, fiction, and the illusion of choice.

So I’m getting better about writing fiction every morning.  I missed a couple of days last weekend, but I went to a funeral, so sue me, shoulder-angel.  But I’ve already cleared out the queue of stories that I had in mind, so I need to find something else to write.  Turns out when you set yourself a daily BUTT IN CHAIR goal, you become less picky about story ideas.  I haven’t lost sight of the doubt-story that I’m researching for, but there are some things I want to play with first to test that out.  Like conscientious worldbuilding, but that’s another story.

Here, the important thing is, I went to Lee and Ray and said, “I need subjects for boy-middle-grade stories to write, to fill out my next Tales Told Under the Cover collection, because I have ONE boy story and four girl ones.”

I wrote one of the stories already, and it hared off in an unanticipated direction of such scariness that I don’t know that I can use it.  It’s more Stephen King than Goosebumps.  Even though I think it’ll be good for kids (especially kids who have lost a family member), it doesn’t seem like anything I can sneak by parents.  No cussing, no sex – but lots of violence.  A dead brother comes back to haunt a kid who just wants some Halloween candy.  There are guns.  That kind of thing.  I think it’s a great story.  But I’m going to sit on it for a while.  If nothing else, I need to come up with a title for it.  It was supposed to be about a kid who goes trick-or-treating and gets attacked by evil caramels.

On to the next idea: a kid gets sucked into his computer, into a video-game world.

Wellll, I’m working on finishing the first BioShock.  (I just started it this fall; FPS used to make me ill, but I think framerates have improved enough that I don’t need to avoid them anymore.)  And I looked at the list of stations for the submersible and said, “Those look like nice choke points for a CYOA story.”

The problem with writing a CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure)-type story is that the emphasis isn’t on the story, but on the branchings.  How many branchings can you have?  How many deaths vs. lifes?  How can we maximize the amount of page-jumping?  The mechanisms of how to lay out options are there, but not how to design the story itself.

Pfft.  Game designers have to deal with story design in a kind of multiverse, a story-space with multiple choices, all the time.

Personally, I think you have to have an overall story arc that can be adapted to the multiple choices that a character can make (either in games or in CYOA-ish books).  As a creator, while you’re controlling the kinds of choices your characters can make, the reader/player makes the choices for the characters.  The kinds of CYOA-style books that eventually frustrate me are the ones where the choices don’t matter; they’re just split points where the choice leads to an arbitrary outcome.  “Go right or left?” kinds of choices.  Or the choices where you think you’re doing something smart, but something pops out of nowhere and kills you.  Whoop de do, how satisfying is that?  Not very.  However, I often find that controlled game play is often satisfying: I’m playing a lot of Torchlight II lately, too, and I really enjoy the choicelessness of it.  You have all this freedom to wander around in any order that you like…within a certain area.  You have to complete XYZ before you can pass a chokepoint, though.  It’s an illusion of choice, while forcing an action.  The choices only seem arbitrary; you can only be killed by your own stupidity or lack of skill.

BioShock, I think, deals with the problem of choice vs. not writing a game the size of a multiverse by telling a story about control vs. freedom, backing you into places where the game takes over for you.  What’s the one choice you really get?  How to deal with the little sisters.  Everything else is “how can I survive this using the fewest resources?” Which isn’t choice, but optimization.

In the end, you can’t get away from the reality that you can only give the player/reader so many real choices.  You have to railroad them down certain paths.  You don’t have an infinite amount of time to build a world for all the possible options a player might want to take.  So how do you deal with providing an illusory freedom (or even meaningful choices) in a limited environment?

Writers have been dealing with the problem of providing the illusion of freedom without meaningful audience choice for a very long time.  Nobody in a story is free to act the way they want.  Nobody.  They’re written creations, and they only have one option, which is to do what’s on the page.  The writers, we have a lot of choices to make…but once you’ve set up the story, there are only so many types of ways it can play out, in order for the story to be satisfying.  The more I study structure, the more I know how limited I am.  Which, to be honest, I kind of like.  I used to go, “How will this story end?  Howwwwwww?”  No I go, “Eh, I forgot what I put in the beginning again, didn’t I?” And I go back to the beginning, see what kinds of tools I left lying around for the character to play with, apply the lessons learned in the middle to the tools they had in the beginning, voila, an ending.

So.  Let’s say that games and stories have things in common and things different that they do, and that a CYOA-ish story might be a good place to play with the tools at hand for both.  My rules: all paths must be satisfying.  That is, they must either have a beginning, middle, and end, or they must end unsatisfyingly due to a poor, believable choice (not random crap).  All choices must have meaning, either a substantial choice about the way the character will develop, or an optimizational choice that makes the character better or worse at what they do.

The story will be organized by structure that reaches across all choices: choke points.  For example, the first phase will be the setup of the story, the debate between major options in a decision (admit to love and get shaken up or stay single and safe; try to defend your current way of life or leave it behind in search of something new–whatever). The second phase will be entering into a new world or state of being of some kind.  The third will be the ramifications of the new stuff–the problems/bad guys closing in restrictively, taking the character down to a moment of death.  The fourth will be resolving the problems of the new way using tools from the old ways of doing things: a synthesis.  I intend to have multiple paths through the choke points in order to keep continuity, but the choke points must be passed through.

Most MMORPGs don’t do this; they don’t admit to nice structures like this (well, not that I know of).  You set up the character and choose your specializations, and that’s the extent of your substantive character choices.  After that, it’s all in how you optimize your character, including your gear, skillset, and style of play.   Game play changes depending on what level you are, but you can get to different levels using different methods (like by not actually killing anything, or by not actually completing any quests, etc.).

MMORPGs get repetitive, and add things like new character classes or new play areas or new abilities or whatever to keep people interested.

Books, on the other hand, never have to add more material (except as sequels of one kind or another), yet people will go back to them repeatedly, if they like them.  Nothing ever changes, yet they are still satisfying. Fiction writers have to know how to control readers who had no choices, and yet make it feel impossible that the character could have made any other choice, to the point where you will reread a book on purpose, even knowing how it will come out.  Movies, too.

BioShock has worked really well for me so far, because it uses fictional techniques to railroad me, mixed up with some satisfying gameplay.  (But, again, I’m no FPS expert, so maybe it’s just me as far as how good the mechanics are.)

I wrote the intro up to the first choice on this kids’ story this morning.  The first choice is whether the kid enters the video game world or not; if he doesn’t, boink! Out of the story he goes.  I think I’ll give three or four fantasy MMO class choices for the character he “plays,” then carry him through a structured story, using each of those classes.  I’m debating over whether to use specializations or not.  –And, if he makes it through the challenges in the game (which will be of a fantasy quest nature), he will get booted out into the real world (I’ll force this, but provide a couple of options so the reader can try to avoid getting booted out first), deal with his real problem, and THE END.  I may even use the turning points in the game-world to give the character a couple of thoughts about his real-world situation, because I’m all clever like that.

We’ll see how it comes out, though.

And I have NO idea what to call this story, either.  Oh, well.

New children’s fiction: The Girl and the Genie

Available at Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.

Cover for De Kenyon's "The Girl and the Genie"

The Girl and the Genie

by De Kenyon

In this fairy tale, a girl finds a magic bottle with a genie inside (she can tell there’s a genie inside, because she can see it having adventures), but the genie won’t come out to give her wishes.  What does she do?  She goes inside…

Like a story from The Arabian Night’s Entertainment, the girl has to travel far, posing as a traveling teacher (of things like math problems and standing in line), making friends with some curious demons, and surviving a revenge that was meant for someone else before she finally gets the genie to give her at least one wish.

(For children 8 to 12 years old.)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who found a genie bottle. She could tell it was a genie bottle, because it was a clear bottle, and she could see the genie in it, strong and magical and half-made out of smoke, having adventures.

The girl immediately opened the bottle to let the genie out, in expectation of getting three wishes. However, when she opened the bottle, nothing came out—no smoke, no genie, not even sand—when she turned the bottle upside-down and shook it. And no matter how much she yelled— “Genie! Genie!”—the genie didn’t answer, but only kept having adventures. Without her.

And so the girl did the only thing she could do, which was to go into the bottle.

At first she thought she wouldn’t be able to fit, but at last she managed to fit in a single finger, her pinkie finger. With her pinkie finger inside, she was able to fit another finger, and another, until finally she had her whole arm inside, then her legs, her body, and her head and other arm, until she was hanging from the inside of the bottle by one hand. She was afraid to let go, because inside the bottle was dark, but her hand was getting weaker and weaker by the second, so eventually she did let go, because after all she had not climbed into the bottle in order to not have adventures.

 

New children’s fiction: The Girl and the Genie

Available at SmashwordsAmazonBarnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.

Cover for De Kenyon's "The Girl and the Genie"

The Girl and the Genie

by De Kenyon

In this fairy tale, a girl finds a magic bottle with a genie inside (she can tell there’s a genie inside, because she can see it having adventures), but the genie won’t come out to give her wishes.  What does she do?  She goes inside…

Like a story from The Arabian Night’s Entertainment, the girl has to travel far, posing as a traveling teacher (of things like math problems and standing in line), making friends with some curious demons, and surviving a revenge that was meant for someone else before she finally gets the genie to give her at least one wish.

(For children 8 to 12 years old.)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who found a genie bottle. She could tell it was a genie bottle, because it was a clear bottle, and she could see the genie in it, strong and magical and half-made out of smoke, having adventures.

The girl immediately opened the bottle to let the genie out, in expectation of getting three wishes. However, when she opened the bottle, nothing came out—no smoke, no genie, not even sand—when she turned the bottle upside-down and shook it. And no matter how much she yelled— “Genie! Genie!”—the genie didn’t answer, but only kept having adventures. Without her.

And so the girl did the only thing she could do, which was to go into the bottle.

At first she thought she wouldn’t be able to fit, but at last she managed to fit in a single finger, her pinkie finger. With her pinkie finger inside, she was able to fit another finger, and another, until finally she had her whole arm inside, then her legs, her body, and her head and other arm, until she was hanging from the inside of the bottle by one hand. She was afraid to let go, because inside the bottle was dark, but her hand was getting weaker and weaker by the second, so eventually she did let go, because after all she had not climbed into the bottle in order to not have adventures.

New children’s fiction: The Girl and the Genie

Available at SmashwordsAmazonBarnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.

Cover for De Kenyon's "The Girl and the Genie"

The Girl and the Genie

by De Kenyon

In this fairy tale, a girl finds a magic bottle with a genie inside (she can tell there’s a genie inside, because she can see it having adventures), but the genie won’t come out to give her wishes.  What does she do?  She goes inside…

Like a story from The Arabian Night’s Entertainment, the girl has to travel far, posing as a traveling teacher (of things like math problems and standing in line), making friends with some curious demons, and surviving a revenge that was meant for someone else before she finally gets the genie to give her at least one wish.

(For children 8 to 12 years old.)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who found a genie bottle. She could tell it was a genie bottle, because it was a clear bottle, and she could see the genie in it, strong and magical and half-made out of smoke, having adventures.

The girl immediately opened the bottle to let the genie out, in expectation of getting three wishes. However, when she opened the bottle, nothing came out—no smoke, no genie, not even sand—when she turned the bottle upside-down and shook it. And no matter how much she yelled— “Genie! Genie!”—the genie didn’t answer, but only kept having adventures. Without her.

And so the girl did the only thing she could do, which was to go into the bottle.

At first she thought she wouldn’t be able to fit, but at last she managed to fit in a single finger, her pinkie finger. With her pinkie finger inside, she was able to fit another finger, and another, until finally she had her whole arm inside, then her legs, her body, and her head and other arm, until she was hanging from the inside of the bottle by one hand. She was afraid to let go, because inside the bottle was dark, but her hand was getting weaker and weaker by the second, so eventually she did let go, because after all she had not climbed into the bottle in order to not have adventures.

 

Two types of lies (for writers)

Let’s stipulate that there are two types of lies that writers can use: the lie that comes from the heart, and the lie that comes from the head.  Neither is true.  Even when you’re telling a true story, it’s not true.  Your memory is wrong, and your emotions are wrong.  What you think and feel happened wasn’t what really happened.  I’m serious about this.

But it’s the lies that come from your heart that the good stories come from.  The things that you long to be true, instead of the things that you think ought to have been true.  The lies that come from your heart bother your head: “Don’t say that.  People won’t like it.  And anyway, it wasn’t true.”  Your head isn’t any better, though, assembling and reassembling a bunch of crap that never sticks together, a lie that, no matter how well structured it is, nobody will believe, because belief isn’t about facts, even though it should be.

There’s a time for your head; it’s called editing.  When you’re writing, you have to write from the heart–even if it’s a lie.  Maybe even especially if, because that kind of lie is the one you tell because you can’t go on otherwise, in some small but important way.  Even as adults we have to face things we can’t face, not really, and stories can heal us just enough to let us go on.  It’s a lie.  No matter which way you go, it’s a lie.  It couldn’t have, and it didn’t, happen that way, no matter how much you needed it to have done.  But there it is, that story, and it rings true, because you wrote it out of the lie that came from your heart, that said, “Please, for just a second, let it have happened this way.”

 

Author Fest Recap 2012

Recap schmecap.  I didn’t take notes, I just went.

Getting me to go to a new public event is a big deal.  I kind of feel bad for the people who got me to go: who invited me to speak.  Because I had to have been whining and digging in my heels, at least subconsciously.  But, having worked with writers to get them to give me the information I need to post their good news on the blog, I shouldn’t be surprised.  You don’t think of yourself as an ornery cuss on a day-to-day basis, but dealing with all the crap of being an “author” comes as a bit of a shock.  What?  Me?  Have a book out?  It can’t be so, and thus your request for more information to help promote my book therefore also can’t be so.  Writers don’t really invest experience points in not making an ass of themselves.

I went.  Ruh was there.  I have to admit, this being the first time that I’ve seen him since he had his leg off for cancer, that it was startling.  It was like being in the Matrix.  Unless you knew, unless you were watching for it, it didn’t seem like he was missing a leg.  I could look at the stump, just look right at it, and so not want to see it that I felt like it was deja vu or something, a living illusion.  There was a leg there, I just couldn’t see it.  I sat down next to him and gave him scritches, getting down into the skin.  While I was doing it, Chris, his owner, said that he’d been losing weight, every time he went to chemo, he lost weight, but until she said it, I couldn’t see it.  His skin was loose, and his harness seemed like it was too big for him, but I just couldn’t see it.  I ended up putting a film of dirt and dog hair all over my black pants, and I had to use Chris’s de-linter roller to get it all off.  She just carries that kind of stuff around with her.  Normally, Ruh doesn’t make all that much eye contact with people, but this time: he was staring at me, not teeth-bared or anything, just staring at me like a little kid would do, to get you to come here when they had to be quiet.  Come here and be with me.

I talked at a class for indie book publishers; it went fine.  Deb had been talking the hour before, so she didn’t talk much.  Ron Cree talked about getting screwed over by his publisher, and explained (it seemed logical) why he wanted to go indie (he hasn’t yet).  He’s still keeping his options open.  Bob Spiller talked about getting screwed over by his publisher, and explained that indie publishing was kind of fun.  I talked about…well, being petty and jealous about a friend who was indie publishing as I was in the middle of the “get as many rejections as possible” challenge.  And about getting a book rejected because publishers had too many similar things in their lists.  I could have talked about getting screwed by my publisher, too, but–them’s the breaks.  Newbie writers = sheep.

Barbara Samuel/O’Neill gave this shining beauty of a speech asking what, as a writer, you believed in.  She stood up there in teal flip-flops, a housedressy-looking thing, and a long, white sweater that went all the way down to her calves, which look strong and ropy enough to run marathons with, and looked exhausted.  Part of me hopes she doesn’t read this, but she did, she looked exhausted.  I’ve never seen her other than polished up to a high sheen, looking like she loves life and is beautiful without trying.  But there she was, looking exhausted, and giving one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard.  I’m tearing up over it now.  That was Friday.  On Saturday, she looked more like I’m used to.  It was like an illusion, except I remember that it really happened.  I feel like she gave me a gift, that she bent over backwards to show up to give it to me, and I think I’m more grateful for it, because she didn’t have the juice to do it that day, and she did it anyway, and I needed it.  It also made me realize that, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be Barbara Samuel, and that even to try would be a kind of eye-rolling stupidity.  She does the best Barbara Samuel there will ever be; I just have to let that go.

But, here’s a starter list of things I believe in:

  • I believe that none of us are wise enough;
  • I believe in soft blankets, in shirts that are soft on the inside, in secret, so you can wear them when the days are hardest and nobody will ever know that you’re surrounded by softness;
  • I believe that kids don’t cry in grocery stores because of brattiness, but because of an essential injustice of someone not listening to them;
  • I believe that it’s bullying to threaten to throw away your kids’ toys if they don’t behave;
  • I believe that being among trees or in a garden or in any place is different than seeing a picture of it, that it’s important to go;
  • I believe that sometimes I love the idea of mice invading the house in the winters, and sometimes I hate it, and it doesn’t make me two different people;
  • I believe in the power of putting things in order, but not in any old order, in the order that they were meant to have, even when that looks like chaos;
  • I believe in cleaning in order to make room for a new mess;
  • I believe in cleaning in order to get my head on straight;
  • I believe that people will tell you all kinds of shit to get you to behave, even if you tell them that you have special dispensation not to have to behave the same way they do, and they won’t even know it;
  • I believe that I like to follow rules more than I like to disobey them, and that scares me;
  • I believe in the power of comfort, not so much of comfortable–I’ll refuse to eat, to drink, to get up to pee, to take a Tylenol, all kinds of things, when I’m busy–but when I’m hurt, where I go is for the chocolate and my husband’s big arms.
  • I believe that there’s an art to babble, but not a craft; you just have to let go and try it;
  • I believe in stories, although I often find that movies are too slow;
  • I believe in knitting, and how it makes movies go at just the right speed, which amazes me;
  • I believe in laughing when someone makes an ass of themselves, not because they’re ridiculous, but because it makes me feel like we share something in common;
  • I believe that editing might be the opposite of LSD, that it anchors you so hard in reality that it becomes painful to be there, like when Terry Pratchett describes Vimes as being two drinks too sober and whatnot;
  • I believe that writing has to invoke the power of babble, that you can learn all the craft you like, but you still have to get to the point where it all just runs out of you, without…stuttering;
  • I believe in cracked sidewalks with tree roots under them being better than new sidewalks;
  • I believe in trees;
  • I believe in looking at the world as though you could break everything into bits and pieces and use them to make something else, or that you could use what’s there as the basis for pasting something else on top of it; the world as balanced between a wrecking ball and decoupage;
  • I believe in being a smartass;
  • I believe in doubt as a type of belief, as a calling, as a craving, as a beautiful embrace that forgives just about everything;
  • I believe that I have something inside me, that everyone has that thing inside them, but that we don’t know it for what it is;
  • I believe in walking my daughter to school;
  • I believe in telling her the truth, even when she’s not ready for it, even when I quail in fear that she might ask;
  • I believe that my memories are full of holes and re-recordings and scratchy remixes, but for all that, they are all I have to truly remember with;
  • I believe that it’s good to take naps, to drink tea, to stare off into space and make people say, “What?  What?”;
  • I believe in cats and guinea pigs, and I believe in some dogs but not all of them; they’re too human;
  • I believe in the power of boredom and of brainstorming log lines while in meetings;
  • I believe that sometimes when you meet someone, you really do fall in something with some of them, although it’s not necessarily love as we normally think of it;
  • I believe that good hearts are inheritable, and that what some people think of as bad hearts are really good hearts that have gone too long inside a fortress, trying to keep from getting hurt, being bored, being railroaded into something they didn’t want;
  • I believe that yes, when the little kid brings you the plastic ringy phone and says it’s for you, you answer that shit.
  • And more, but I’m bored of typing this stuff up now.

The staff that ran the catering was incredible: I heard that two days before the event, the original caterers dropped the hell out.  I ate and ate and ate and tried to stop eating, oh, but the chicken soup, oh, but that salad, oh, but those cookies.  I had to leave the gluten-free stuff alone.  Everyone was like, “Oh, that gluten-free stuff is great!” But I was trying so very hard not to be selfish with it.  I know that the people who need it, really need it, and it’s hard to find a replacement.  I felt like I would be denying someone else a snack, just because I like to try everything.  But I broke down and ate some of the GF cookies anyway.  They were delicious, mostly better than the regular ones.  There were figs on the cheese plate.  I tried to explain to someone–Deb Courtney, maybe?–that figs were the fruit that made me realize that still lifes with fruit weren’t just completely idiotic.  She wanted to know–yes, it was Deb–about kiwis.  I explained that they were the wrong color.  Then, afterwards, added that they wouldn’t have been contemporary for the still lifes I was thinking off, the 18th-century masters, I think.  The sepia tinge, the anatomical exactitude of detail.  Nope, couldn’t have been kiwis.  Kiwis are an Andy Warhol kind of fruit.

I stayed for the last session to listen to Deb Buckingham talk: about turning hobbies into nonfiction books.  She’s having a new book come out, Dishcloth Divas. For some reason, the way she explained how to go from one to the other made sense, and I felt like lo, the heavens opened, I can now conceptualize how to write that kind of thing on my own, instead of following other people’s outlines.  It was a nice moment, but probably more complex than that: I’ve been going, “Could I come up with a class for that?”  lately, too.  Plus, talked about craft stuff.  Apparently, I should be able to listen to nonfiction–podcasts–on audio, but I shouldn’t expect to be able to both knit and listen to fiction; it seemed to throw most of the group.  More people knit than you know, I guess.  I’m looking forward to the book, but I want to get it in print, because it’ll be so pretty.  Deb talked about using Pinterest to store pictures with good color design, so she could design projects around the colors: I love that.  I just love it.  I wanted to ditch the next day of Author Fest at that point and go knit shopping, but I knew that that would be an irresponsible thing to do.  I’m going to pick up mats for my next project before next weekend, though, so I’ll have something soothing to do in the middle of stressful times.

And then I went home, because.  Other writers can throw themselves into the maelstrom of art and other people at the same time, but it drains me.  For example, when I come home from Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference, I’m exhausted and depressed.  I feel like I’m not a real writer, not even a hack, just a wannabe, just an idiot.  Emotionally drained.  But here–I came home tired, yes, but still able to function.  “Oh, you have a family to take care of,” people said.  Now, days later, I have the better response: “They can take care of themselves.  I need to take care of me.”  But then, I kind of just stumbled throug it.  It’s hard to resist peer pressure wittily; at least I resisted it and went the hell home.

Okay, I’m bored writing posts now, so I’m off.  (The real reason I started writing this was that I’d burned out my editing eyes on two current editing projects today, and I wanted to try to wait it out so I could get more work done, so really, I should jump back in and finish the current section.)  More later, maybe tomorrow if I get stuck on something.  For some reason, that kept coming up this time, too: “Do you work on multiple things at the same time?” Everyone wanted to know.  Is it in the water?  What?  I kept telling people: “I do, but it’s not like that’s a good thing.  I just work on something until I get so stuck I feel like I can’t go on, and then I work on something else.  Sometimes I come back–I always promise myself I’ll come back–but sometimes I don’t.  It would be better to just be able to focus.”  It would, but I run out of one particular type of attention, and I just have to switch gears or give up for the day.

–Lee’s truck door slams with a content kind of thump.  Now it’s really time to go.

 

 

 

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