Featured Posts

Carry on up the Amazon I've been thinking a lot about Amazon lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about them since the end of July, when I did my end-of-financial year tally of ebook sales. I have two sale/publication channels - Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), who fairly obviously handle Amazon (and nothing else), and Smashwords, who convert manuscripts into a variety of formats...

Read more

Signal boost - Snapshot 2014 Hi folks, Tonight, rather than talk about myself and writing, I'd rather talk about other folks, who are in turn talking to other, different folks about writing. Lemme back it up. Back in 2005, Australian SF author Ben Peek decided to interview 40-odd Aussie spec-fic writers . It was a pretty interesting glimpse - one might even say a snapshot - of the local...

Read more

Framed Scene framing: Threat or menace? Messiah or Antichrist? Floorwax or dessert topping? ...well, I thought it was funny. Here's a simpler question: What the hell is scene framing? Scene framing is a term thrown around a lot in gaming these days, and it's the simple act of setting a scene for play, ideally play that is immediately interesting. Here's one description...

Read more

Moving day (weekend) (week) (fortnight) Like any writer worth his/her salt, I work in a garret. Well, a back room in our house, anyway. It's reasonably garret-y. But the time came to expand my study into a larger office, one that would accommodate more shelves and an extra desk. And that time came, and went, and came back again, until two weeks ago we decided 'okay, time to move furniture this afternoon'! ...it...

Read more

A Q-and-A with Jason Nahrung It's been aaaaaaaages since I've had another writer on here to discuss their work and their process - blame me and a year of just wanting to talk about myself. But I'm shrugging that off, I hope, and so it's a good time to start getting a few other perspectives on things. And who better to start with than Jason Nahrung, whose profile has become bigger and brighter in...

Read more

Carry on up the Amazon

1

Category : publishing

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amazon lately.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about them since the end of July, when I did my end-of-financial year tally of ebook sales. I have two sale/publication channels – Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), who fairly obviously handle Amazon (and nothing else), and Smashwords, who convert manuscripts into a variety of formats and act as a distributor to 14 other outlets, from Barnes and Noble and the Kobo store to libraries and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd.

Saying which channel is ‘better’ is difficult. While you might think that its breadth made Smashwords the much more valuable channel, especially as their royalty terms are also better, I sell more ebooks through Amazon – although I actually make less money in the process, because Amazon’s royalty terms aren’t as good. Since starting this whole ebook racket caper program in 2010, I’ve sold 182 ebooks and and made $317.25 from Smashwords, and sold 219 ebooks and made $253.38 from Amazon.

(If you find those numbers pathetically/depressingly low, imagine how I feel.)

That spread of numbers is uneven, just to make things more complicated. Smashwords was a lot more financially viable a few years ago, then fell off sharply in 2012 and 2013, to the point where I sold just one ebook through them in the 13-14 year and made only 82 cents from it. Meanwhile, Amazon sales have stayed reasonably consistent, especially for The Obituarist, which has been about twice as successful on Amazon as on all other channels/sites combined.

From my POV, the clearest reading of this is that Smashwords was a strong platform at the start, but its value has significantly dropped as the Kindle (both device and tablet-app) has cemented its stranglehold on the ebook reader market. It still has its uses – I have seven short stories on there that I can’t put on the Kindle Store because they’re free – but it looks to be on the down-cycle while Amazon stays firm.

Which has made me start thinking about the potential benefits of going Amazon-exclusive, both with my stubby little backlist and with The Obituarist II (I’m behind schedule but it’s coming along, I swear to god). Sticking an ebook in the KDP Select program means it’s exclusive to Amazon for 90 days (more if you renew) and can’t be sold on other platforms or in other formats. In exchange you get to make the book free for five days, which brings in no money but can greatly increase its visibility on charts and for browsing, and possibly take advantage of other discounts that still generate some royalties. The book also goes into the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited programs; when readers access the book for free and read a certain amount of it, you get a share of funds from a monthly pool that Amazon maintains. How big a share? That depends on Amazon’s arcane accounting, but various accounts have it somewhere between sweet-fuck-all and maybe-two-bucks-per-read. Which is still more than I’m getting right now, frankly.

So yeah, KDP exclusivity has been on my mind. There are definite drawbacks, particularly the worry of cutting out my Nook/Kobo/iBooks audience – but then again, if that audience is smaller (and shrinking), perhaps that’s outweighed by the possibility of stronger Kindle sales, higher Amazon visibility and a share of the lending fund. Assuming that fund is actually going to pay anything worth a damn, and Kindle Unlimited isn’t going to be the failure some observers are predicting.

Should I try to expand my reading community? Should I focus on cementing the income from the one I have? How can I make enough money to pay my rent? These are questions that any indie ebook creator really needs to consider at some point.

But then, on Saturday night, the Failboat sailed right up the Amazon and beached itself.

 That’s when the ‘Amazon Books Team’ sent me and every other KDP-using self-publisher a long email that… I mean… it’s hard to describe it without getting embarrassed on their behalf, you know? It’s like they tried to send someone private dickpics but accidentally CC’d their entire mailing list. And had a really ugly dick to boot.

But basically, they begged me to email the CEO of Hatchette and abuse him for not discounting his ebooks more. And gave me his email address and some possible talking

Seriously. I mean it. You can read the whole facepalm-inducing thing right here if you don’t believe me.

Someone got paid to write that pile of wank. Someone got paid to organise sending it to every email address they had. And then they had to go home and make eye contact with their loved ones. Poor bastards.

As you may be gathering, I don’t have much respect for Amazon as a result of this. Their ongoing battle with Hatchette is messy and unprofessional, but until this point it’s been a fight between two corporations doing corporate things – shitty things for any Hatchette-published authors caught up in it, absolutely, but not super-relevant to those of us outside it. (Even if some authors wanted the rest of us to pick one side or another.) Trying to co-opt uninvolved writers, uninvolved clients and customers – as Chuck Wendig put it, ‘asking the serfs to pick up sharpened shovels and become knights for the realm’ – just opens up a whole new world of desperation, sleaze and fail. (Especially since some self-pub authors are taking the bait and sending the Hatchette CEO grumpy emails, to which he’s responding far more politely than those schmucks deserve.)

Fortunately, most people are shaking their damn heads about all this. And the books themselves are calling for a time out. So the fail boat may yet be pulled off the rocks before Amazon drowns.

In any event, the upshot for all this from my point of view is that I spent weeks considering the KDP Select option, trying to weigh up the pros and cons, and composing the first half of this post to get my thoughts in order. Then this turd-in-the-bedsheets email arrived in my inbox and made me think that the last thing I wanted was to ally myself more tightly with jerks who willingly misrepresent George Orwell while asking me to be an unpaid author for their standover business.

So. You know. Take the time to think things through, kids. That’s the moral of the story.

In other news, our landlord had kicked us out and we have four weeks to find a new place and move in.

Hooray! Excitement! Panic!

So my priorities for the rest of the month are finding houses, looking at houses, applying for houses, applying for different houses and eventually packing everything and putting it in a different house.

Given this, blog updates are likely to be sporadic. As is progress on the two books on my to-write list. Will see how I go.

Signal boost – Snapshot 2014

Category : writers

Hi folks,

Tonight, rather than talk about myself and writing, I’d rather talk about other folks, who are in turn talking to other, different folks about writing.

Lemme back it up.

Back in 2005, Australian SF author Ben Peek decided to interview 40-odd Aussie spec-fic writers . It was a pretty interesting glimpse – one might even say a snapshot – of the local scene, its opportunities and how people were working towards them.

There have been several more snapshots since then, and this week is seeing the newest – nine years later, spread across a dozen-or-so blogs and talking to nearly 200 writers, published and emerging, novel and short fiction, print and ebook. Some questions are consistent across the board, some are unique to each writer; some folks are replying succinctly, some at length.

If you’re at all interested in local spec-fic – SF, fantasy, horror, whatever – then you should really click around the following blogs and check out some (or all) of the interviews as they progress over the next week:

(Full disclosure – I’m one of the interviewees, and you can find my bit on Jason Nahrung’s blog. But it’s pretty much the same stuff I always talk about here, so you can also skip it without guilt if so inclined.)

And that’s enough out of me this week.

Framed

Category : writing

Scene framing: Threat or menace? Messiah or Antichrist? Floorwax or dessert topping?

…well, I thought it was funny.

Here’s a simpler question: What the hell is scene framing?

Scene framing is a term thrown around a lot in gaming these days, and it’s the simple act of setting a scene for play, ideally play that is immediately interesting. Here’s one description from the Story Games Codex:

 At its most basic, Scene Framing means focusing play on only the interesting events within the narrative of the game, deciding what occurrences are too mundane to waste time describing and which entail enough conflict to play out in detail.

That seems so basic an idea that it hardly needs to be spelled out, but I’ve sat through enough three-hour-long rolling-on-the-random-shopping-result table sessions to tell you that it’s a learned rather than an innate skill. Sometimes we feel that we have to include boring or unengaging details for the sake of realism, or verisimilitude, or because one guy really likes rolling on that goddamn table-generation table. And the end result is that while the game might feel more realistic (spoiler: it never does), it doesn’t become interesting, because those two words are not the same.

But scene framing isn’t a skill unique to gaming; it’s a natural part of writing fiction – and again, it’s a learned skill that not all writers have mastered. Too many books start with a description of the weather; too many chapters only exist to get the characters over to the next chapter, where stuff actually happens. And I say this as someone who’s written about weather and written too many bits that are just there to bridge to the next bit.

So if you want to up your scene framing game, or even dare to tango with its grumpy cousin ‘aggressive scene framing’ (which just means leaving more stuff out), here are a few tips that make sense to me as a reader, writer and filthy roleplayer.

Start as close to the action as possible

The ‘action’ meaning the conflict, the drama, the tension that gets people reading, whether it’s a fistfight or an argument or a hurricane hitting your house. ‘Start the story at the start’ is a common enough writing adage, and it applies within the bits of story too. Open the chapter right before the first punch hits, or perhaps just after it lands; push the reader as far as you can to the heart of things, rather than making them walk up the garden path and quarrel with their elderly aunt before she snaps and goes the knuckle. You don’t have to start in medias res, although that’s a great way to snap right into the thick of it – but the closer you can cut, the greater the urgency, the stronger the hook to the reader.

But maybe not too close

The thing is… context matters. It doesn’t always matter as much as we think it does – but sometimes it’s important. Readers are smart and can work things out for themselves, but put too much work on their shoulders and it starts to become annoying. You don’t want to drop the reader into the guts of a scene and have them say ‘Who’s that guy? Why is he being chased by mummies?’. Actually, scratch that – what you don’t want is for them to say ‘Why do I care that that guy’s being chased by mummies?’ and then stop reading. When you trust a writer, you have faith that the answers will come after the hook; until that faith comes, you need to bait the line and frame the framing. Give some scenes a little background to fill in the situation, a little breathing room to develop tension, then crack that tension like it was Rama-ho-tep’s sundried fibula.

And maybe not all the time

A movie that is just supercuts of all the best fight scenes of all time sounds amazing, and would be great to watch for ten minutes, but after a while you’re going to zone out. Similarly, a story where every scene is BANG! CONFLICT! IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES! BRIGHT LIGHTS! SUGAR! would wear out its welcome pretty quick and leave the reader feeling like they’re trapped inside a cement mixer full of typewriter keys. Every scene should matter, but not every scene needs to revolve around the core action – again, breathing room, time between OMG moments to slow the pulse and recover your strength. Use the scenes that aren’t about conflict to connect characters to each other, the setting and the story – those connections are the stakes that then become important when the yelling starts.

Everybody in the frame

One of the trickiest things for game masters when framing a scene is making sure that every player is involved – they’re both the actors and the audience, and they need to be engaged both as story participants and spectators. It’s easier when you’re the only one calling the shots; you don’t have to worry about entertaining your characters, just making their lives miserable interesting. But you still have to make sure they’re involved in the scene; few things are more obvious than when a character doesn’t belong in this bit of the story or have anything to do. When you frame a scene, don’t just think about what’s happening, think about who it’s happening to – give everyone a reason to be there and something to do, even if it’s just to run away and get out of the scene as quickly as they can.

Ride the rhythm

A story is like a sine wave – peaks and troughs, highs and lows. Well, it’s usually more like a jagged EKG readout from a heart patient that’s swallowed too many pills, but the principle is the same. You build up to points of tension, you come down to bleed that tension off and then you build up again. Effective scene framing is about starting things in the upward curve – maybe just after the bottom, maybe just before the top – and ending things in the downward curve. Don’t end a scene at a higher point than it starts, or it’s exhausting; don’t end it lower than it begins, or it’s dull; don’t jump right across the curve or it’s bewildering. Your story has its own waveform, its own rhythm – listen to it, get the beat and move with it, rather than trying to fight it or push it into a shape that doesn’t fit.

Did I say ‘tips’? That last one is a bit vague for a tip. But I’ve crossed the 100o-word rubicon and I don’t have space to explain how to build a text-stethoscope for listening to your story’s heartbeat. Maybe next time.

Moving day (weekend) (week) (fortnight)

Category : Uncategorized

Like any writer worth his/her salt, I work in a garret.

Well, a back room in our house, anyway. It’s reasonably garret-y.

But the time came to expand my study into a larger office, one that would accommodate more shelves and an extra desk. And that time came, and went, and came back again, until two weeks ago we decided ‘okay, time to move furniture this afternoon’!

…it took longer than an afternoon.

Possibly because this was my workspace, the place where the magic happens:

002

 

It contained the normal things you would expect on a writer’s desk: papers, more papers, Post-it notes, index cards, bits of Lego, dice, pens, photographs, coffee cups, toast crumbs, character sheets, thermal gloves, assorted cables for devices I no longer own, CDs for albums I long ago converted to MP3, vitamins, cufflinks, a really big thesaurus, poker chips, clothes pegs painted to look like Batman and Wonder Woman, tax records and dust.

So much dust.

Anyway, most of that material got put somewhere for safekeeping…

003

 

…while the rest of it moved about four metres down the hall.

This process took two weeks.

In my defence, I also assembled a bunch of furniture in the process. And broke-and-then-fixed the internet. And discovered that you shouldn’t mix tequila and major painkillers.

Oh, what an adventure that was.

But! I’m happy to report that I’m in the new office, along with my wife and our dog. All the shoes are lined up neatly, all the graphic novels and D&D sourcebooks are in a neat Ikea-grid, a new office chair that won’t break my spine is being picked out…

…and I’m back to the writing. Of course.

(PS For this, and for other reasons that mostly involve Real Life and me being crap, The Obituarist II is behind schedule.)

(At least try to look slightly shocked.)

 

 

A Q-and-A with Jason Nahrung

Category : writers

It’s been aaaaaaaages since I’ve had another writer on here to discuss their work and their process – blame me and a year of just wanting to talk about myself. But I’m shrugging that off, I hope, and so it’s a good time to start getting a few other perspectives on things.

And who better to start with than Jason Nahrung, whose profile has become bigger and brighter in the couple of years since I was introduced to him by one of several mutual friends. Jason and I both followed a similar arc of movement down the country, starting in rural Queensland, living in Brisbane (and hitting its goth clubs) and then drifting down to Melbourne to follow our writerly dreams – but then he kept going, moving recently to Ballarat along with his partner, award-winning author Kirstyn McDermott. There are other key differences between Jason and I, too – he works a lot harder than I do, his work focuses more on traditional Gothic themes, he’s really strongly engaged with the Australian genre writing and publishing scene, and he has much longer hair.

So I thought it would cool to talk to him about these things. Well, other than the hair.

red_couchI always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

Well, I DO have a regular job that pays better. That’s why I can afford to spend inordinate amounts of time transferring those stories reeling through my mind on to the page. The idea of making any kind of living from writing fiction seems unlikely; I don’t buy lottery tickets, either.

So, indeed, why writing?

Simply, I can’t help myself. The stories are there, they demand to be written. I think some of them are worth sharing. What’s more, I enjoy the art of seeing intangibles made real on the page, and the thought of them becoming intangible again – and something new – in the mind of a reader. It’s am amazing process!

I can’t play music, I can’t draw, I’m no good at woodwork or anything like that. But since I was a young tyke, the words and I have got along passingly well. I give thanks to having had parents and teachers who’ve encouraged my reading, and by extension, writing – the two have gone hand-in-hand for me as long as I can remember.

It took me a long time to consider my stories were worth the attempted selling, if not just the telling. It still feels a little precocious, to be honest. Every – any – sale comes as something of a surprise to me. A pleasant one. There’s a definite thrill in finding that someone likes your stories enough to pay to read them, or indeed, to publish them in the first place. That’s a kind of benchmark for me: is this yarn good enough that someone will pay me for it?

But yeah, we’re not talking sheep stations here. A bottle of wine will do.

When I think of your work, two recurring things leap out at me, and the first is the emphasis on the Gothic – both in the literary and the cultural sense. What draws you to that theme, and what keeps you coming back?

That’s a question I keep coming back to as well!

I love the Gothic mode – it’s probably a function of a love affair with Hammer Horror movies, the impact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had on me as an adolescent, a social awkwardness that found its comfort zone in the smoke machines and atmospheric beats of Brisbane goth clubs.

Dracula had a profound influence: its sexuality, its mystery, its isolation. I grew up on a farm, so isolation was something I was used to, and my grandfather told me of the wrongs done to Aborigines and Kanakas, so that Gothic trope of the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present might also have struck a chord. The sexuality and sensuality, well, what teenage boy wouldn’t react to that? Plus I’ve always had a thing for myths and legends – they were amongst my earliest readings – and the supernatural has always had appeal; perhaps it was the appeal of the exotic in the midst of ultra conservatism …

Discovering the gothic subculture and its music – especially the music, which is what I found first – as a country kid was eye opening. I think it was the romanticism, the otherworldliness … they appeal to me still. I feel I belong there, that it makes sense: outsiders, cynics, a certain fatalism. I love the variations within the subculture, the evolution of style as well as the more traditional fashions.

I keep tapping that vein in my writing because it fits, I guess: my themes, my atmosphere.

The other recurring element is this very strong sense of place, and local place at that. Salvage is a ghost story set on a Queensland island; Blood and Dust is a vampire story set in the Queensland outback. What is it about the Australian landscape (or even the Queensland landscape) that makes it so suitable for horror stories?

salvage cover webIt’s interesting you’ve pegged Salvage as a ghost story – to my mind, it’s more of an homage to Carmilla, although the heroine is definitely haunted by an event, rather than a spirit. It’s set on an island off the Queensland coast, an amalgamation of Bribie and Fraser islands customised to the needs of the story – primarily isolation.

Isolation is the one thing Australia has plenty of – the tyranny of distance was coined for this country, not just in its distance from other countries and particularly the European motherlands of many of its early colonisers, but also within it: those tracts of land sparsely inhabited and in places barely habitable.

For those not used to the bush, it’s a pretty alien place, and even for those who are used to it, it contains perils. It’s an unforgiving landscape made up of extremes: fire, flood, drought.

The other thing Australia has going for it is a massive range of landscapes –  beach, red heart, rainforest and alps; small towns, big cities –  that can not only make for interesting backdrops but work as a sympathetic mirror for the characters’ emotional state, or contrast it. It’s nice at times to have some utterly bizarre event occur in the brightest, hottest sunshine, rather than in the middle of darkest night or at the height of a storm. I particularly enjoyed doing that in Salvage, where my vampire is trapped on a subtropical island, and my heroine is fighting off depression in what for most people is an idyllic seaside location – where people go to get away from their troubles.

As well as your novels and novellas, you’ve written an awful lot of short stories. Last year you were part of the judging panel for the Aurealis Awards, specifically for the Best SF Short Fiction Award. What’s the SF/F/H short fiction landscape like in Australia at the moment, from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective?

I don’t think 20-odd is an awful lot compared to some, but thanks!

I’ve been fortunate to have had exposure in recent years to a lot of quality writing due to judging the awards, in both collections and anthologies and the science fiction short stories category, and the one thing that really comes through is the way our writers are fearless genre blenders. It’s not unusual to see stories entered in more than one category, for instance: SF, fantasy, horror.

And we’ve got some beautiful stylists, too, telling affecting stories: a starting point, but no means all, could be Joanne Anderton, Thoraiya Dyer, Angie Rega, Cat Sparks, Angela Slatter, Lisa L Hannett, Kaaron Warren, Kirstyn McDermott …

In writing terms, we appear to have a flourishing local market for spec fic, with the likes of FableCroft and Ticonderoga putting out regular anthologies; mags such as Midnight Echo, SQ, Dimension6 and veteran Aurealis exploring the digital realm; plus some hungry new small presses such as IFWG and Cohesion making their mark. Then you’ve got Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets (now 13!) collection series, one of the most exciting projects around, actively encouraging some of our best women writers to produce work that, certainly in some instances, otherwise might have struggled to find a market, due to awkward subject matter or sheer length.

At least digital, and to a lesser extent POD, publishing makes it easier to get longer shorts and novella-length work out there, at a time when 5,000 words, or fewer, seems to be becoming the most sought-after length.

And thanks to the interwebs, overseas markets are more accessible now, too.

You’ve worked with a number of independent Australian publishers, such as Twelfth Planet Press, Xoum and Clan Destine Press. What’s that experience been like for you? What are the positives, and are there any negatives?

My relationship with Clan Destine is just starting – they’re bringing out my vampire duology Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke – but so far, it has felt very similar to my experience with the other two: flexibility, dialogue, professionalism, passion. When a small press picks you up, you know they’ve made a decision to expend reasonably sparse resources on you, so they’re not just throwing your work at the wall to see if it sticks – they’re convinced, they’re committed.

The downside is, those limited resources, both financial and labour, usually present through difficulties in distribution to bricks-and-mortar shops, and in pursuing publicity, particularly in mainstream media where boutique, especially genre, publishers might have less traction.

You grew up in country Queensland, lived in Brisbane and then in Melbourne, and now you’re living in Ballarat. Is it just wanderlust that keeps you moving? How has it been to go from a big city to a much smaller one? Surely it gets cold out there. I’d be frightened.

Everyone who heard Kirstyn and I were moving to Ballarat told us how cold it was, but no one mentioned the wind! Luckily, Ballarat is a well-established town with suitable warm places for artists to gather –we’ve just got to get around to meeting some to gather with!

But to answer the question, I’ve moved originally as job opportunities presented themselves, moving to increasingly large population centres until I hit Brisbane. Then I met Kirstyn, who was in Melbourne, and so I moved to the chilly south. We headed west last year because house prices were way out of our reach in Melbourne, and Ballarat is close enough that I can still pop in for work, or an event, without it being too onerous a commute.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke with Clan Destine now heading toward publication, and an old outback occult yarn still waiting to be knocked into shape. I’ve also got a few short stories on the go, primarily what promises to be a suite of yarns set in Brisbane around the year 2100, when the risen sea has surged past the dykes and wreaked some watery havoc  –  the first, ‘Watermarks’, was recently published in Cosmos, and I’m exceedingly chuffed about that.

watermarks---cover-page

You can find out more about Jason’s work, stories and books at his website; you can also follow him on Twitter at @JNahrung.

The state of the union, 2013-14

Category : Uncategorized

Hiya kids,

Last week’s post was a bit epic; this one is a lot shorter. It’s the end of the financial year, so I’m doing a bit of an audit of projects past, present and future to see what’s what.

In no particular order:

  • I spent about eight times more on publishing my ebooks this year than I made back in sales. This may be some kind of record. Oh well, good thing I don’t rely on writing (or at least this kind of writing) to pay the rent.
  • I made 82 cents from Smashwords sales. Pretty much ready to stick a fork in that site. But how else to get my books onto non-Amazon sites?
  • Alpha-reader reports on Raven’s Blood are coming back in, and so far they’re all pretty positive. There’s work to do, but it’s not like the whole concept and/or execution is fucked. And believe me, I was worried.
  • I’m behind schedule on Obituarist II, which I’m sure comes as a huge fucking shock. But the cover is done! And it’s great!
  • 015Kinda gotta start getting my shit together for this year’s US trip in November.
  • Speaking of shit, plotting out a new short story. It’s about the Devil. And bowel movements.
  • Trust me, it’ll be good.
  • My dog is pretty freaking cute.
  • Even if he does keep stepping on my crotch when I’m trying to write.
  • The X-Men: Days of Future Past soundtrack is boooooooooooooooring.

Okay, that’s me done. See you on the opposite side of the profit/loss ledger.

What’s the Storium, morning glorium?

4

Category : games, writing

If you’re on Twitter, Kickstarter or probably every other site online, you’ve probably heard about Storium - it made a big crowdfunding splash back in April/May, raising like a quarter of a million dollars and drawing in an astounding number of writers, artists and game designers to create content.

If you somehow managed to miss all of that… well. Storium is an online storytelling game, as the above logo indicates – although it’s one where ‘game’ plays a very distant second fiddle to ‘storytelling’. It’s primarily a platform for collaborative writing, where contributors use prompts to guide their efforts and work towards building a coherent story. There are RPG-like elements in there, such as one contributor being a ‘Narrator’ that directs the group effort and the prompts being measured out using virtual cards, but they’re pretty light, and a like-minded group could probably ignore all that if desired and just use the clean, intuitive online platform to write-jam-party together.

I’ve been a Storium playtester since last year, through the Alpha test (which was quite different) and the Beta into what is now the… I think it’s the open Beta? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve been using it for a while, and currently have two games/stories on the hop – Zero Zero One, a cyberpunk story about memory husking and treacherous corporations, and Ravenloft Redux, an experiment in turning a old location-based D&D adventure into a more narrative experience. And those games are a lot of fun; they don’t replace roleplaying for me, but they’re an enjoyable aside.

Enjoyable and educational. Because Storium is also a concrete demonstration of some key principles of writing, and I’d like to look now at five things using it has borne home for me.

Plot is character

In Storium, every player (other than the Narrator) controls a single character, designed once the stage has been set and the context/setting/genre decided. Characters are sketched lightly using prompt cards – a central concept with Strengths, Weaknesses and Suplots attached to it. Backgrounds can be added/written to your heart’s content, but aren’t necessary. Once play starts, the Narrator sets a scene with a situation or event and then the players write their characters’ actions and responses, with (some) freedom to also write the way the scene changes as a result. Players write back-and-forth, possibly with occasional extra inputs from the Narrator, until things are resolved and the scene ends.

The key point here is that every scene revolves around these characters – what they feel, what they say and (especially) what they do. If you set up a scene and no-one acts, then nothing happens – all you have is a dead screen. There’s no option for a scene without characters – I mean, you can write it, but only by ignoring all the structure that’s set-up. Importantly, Narrators don’t have characters (well, not in the same way) and can’t write a scene that just involves other people doing stuff – they have to open it up and let the main characters drive the story.

The stuff around characters matters too

Most of Storium’s stretch goals were about bringing in well-known creators to make worlds – sets of prompt cards and the story concepts attached to them – and Narrators can create their own from scratch as well. In addition to their base cards, characters can pick up Goals and Assets to help define them, while Narrators have sets of Place, Character and Obstacle cards. (The full Storium release, due later in the year, also promises other non-card world material, such as opening scenes, setting data dumps and so on.) As play progresses, more of these cards come into play to sketch out the world and reflect the story.

Call it a world, a setting, a context – stories have to happen somewhere, not against a blank backdrop. Characters may drive the story, but the story is better if they drive through interesting scenery . A bland set of setting elements don’t have to damage a story – you can do a lot with stock elements, especially if you tweak them here and there – but a rich, vivid set gives it real colour and flavour. Maybe too much flavour – you have to be careful not to overload things and pull the spotlight off the characters. (Storium gets the balance pretty right, but I do wonder how much fun some of these heavily-defined worlds will be to work with.) Keep the focus on the character, but make sure what’s outside the spotlight throws up fascinating shadows.

Conflict drives story

Storium players have their characters and associated cards, so what does the Narrator have? She has Challenges – the Character and Obstacle cards, each of which is given a numerical rating when put into play. That number is the amount of player cards that have to be played on that challenge before it’s met in some way. Scenes end when all the challenges are met – and once players write their moves to demonstrate how those elements of the character impact the challenge. With limits on how many and what types of cards can be played by each character in each scene, there are lots of ways in which challenges can be met and scenes can unfold.

You can pitch a scene where characters just talk to each other, and for some people I’m sure that’s fun – but nothing actually happens until the main characters rise to meet conflicts, either pitting themselves against other characters or against situational dangers and problems. Conflicts bring the drama, the tension, the uncertainty – even if it’s uncertainty about how characters will overcome them (and the price they pay in doing so) rather than whether they overcome them. A story without conflict is a squashed doughnut, edible but unappetising – or possibly an inappropriate metaphor that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, they suck. Don’t write them.

Failure is as interesting as success

Depending on the cards that are played on it, every challenge has a Strong, Weak or Neutral outcome – and players, not the Narrator, write the Strong and Weak outcomes. The player of the last card gets to decide how their character has met the challenge and what that means – whether they get what they want or not and how that impacts the rest of the scene, the next challenge and the rest of the characters. Narrators write neutral outcomes, which tend to maintain the status quo or have a smaller, more ambiguous impact on the story – they’re serviceable, but they’re not as much fun as writing it yourself.

The single smartest thing in Storium may be the way challenges are handled. Letting players write both good and bad outcomes is inspired – because the story remains focused on them, even if things aren’t going their way. Narrators get to shape this to an extent by suggesting strong/weak outcomes for each challenge card – and the best pre-written ones all give broad suggestions, with weak/failure outcomes that keep the story going but introduce complications, rather than grinding things to a halt. It’s glorious stuff; it means that failures are fascinating, maybe even more so than successes, and both are much more engaging than neutral coasting.

Storium

Pacing is hard

How many challenges should you use in a scene? Is one 6-point challenge easier or harder than two 3-point challenges? Is it better to conserve your Strengths or to alternate them with Weaknesses? How often should the Narrator hand out Asset and Goal cards? Are Asset and Goal cards worth playing? These are the questions that really affect the pace and flow of play/story, and Storium doesn’t give a lot of guidance on the best way to answer them – so pacing is a really tricky beast, especially on a platform where players might go days or weeks between moves. It’s the roughest part of the product, and I hope they give more clarity once the full release goes live.

Just as every Storium game is its own beast and needs its own unique practices to keep things interesting and moving, so does your writing. Your pacing and flow issues might not relate to card play, but they’re still there and they’ll probably never go away. You just gotta try different things until you find something that works – and it might work differently in the next project.

Well, I wrote a lot more on that topic that I’d planned. That either means it’s super interesting or that I get carried away – you decide.

Anyway, in summary: Storium’s pretty cool. And like any platform that you can use for telling stories, there are things that are unique to it and things that might be applicable elsewhere. If you get a chance, dive in and give it a try; it’s fun in and of itself, and you might learn something. Or you might not. I mean, pulling apart the progress of a Storium game won’t fix your novel – but fuck it, try it, it probably can’t hurt.

Probably.

Intergalactic planetary

2

Category : writing

Greetings, fellow spend-what-you-can-before-the-end-0f-the-financial-year-folk.

While (as previously noted) 2013-14 has been a pretty rotten year for ebook sales – although I did sell a dozen copies of The Obituarist after that teaser of the sequel, which is rather awesome – it’s been a pretty decent year for the ol’ day job. And so, with an eye towards getting a nice tax-deductible tool that can be used for publishing, writing and wasting the precious years I have between now and the ever-dark, I bought myself a Samsung Galaxy Tab last weekend.

So sleek. So light. So claimable as a business expense.

(This is the second Android tablet I’ve bought this year. The first was a $99 reconditioned Pendo Pad I bought off eBay, and if it was possible for me to melt plastics with the power of my hate, that goddamn useless piece of shit would be a puddle still cooling in the corner of my study. Whatever you do, do not buy one; just pay someone a hundred bucks to repeatedly punch you in the dick instead.)

I bring this up not to boost or make myself look cool – because hell, we already all know that I’m cool as a motherfucker. But the Galaxy is hopefully more than an executive toy; I want to use this to help with my writing, my business and my general ability to remember to wear pants every day.

So what can it do? I’ve downloaded a fair few apps already; here’s what’s on my mind.

Reading

I’m not giving up my Kindle; I think there’s a real advantage to having a device that can only be used for reading, with no other distractions (plus e-paper is better on the eyes). But I’ve got a Kindle app on the Galaxy, if only so I can check how my ebooks look on it. The Galaxy also comes pre-loaded with Google Play Books and Samsung Readers’ Hub, which let me discover that my books aren’t on their respective stores anyway – whoot.

One of the main things I needed the tablet for was reading PDFs; it came installed with Aldiko, but that was a bit unsatisfactory, so after much testing of various apps I replaced it with Mantano. And you know, it’s interesting how much both those apps sound like kaiju. Or sex toys. Or both. Anyway, Mantano’s got its quirks, but it renders PDFs fast and has strong tagging/metadata functionality, which let me spend many a pleasant hour tagging the hundreds RPG PDFs I’ve put on it.

No, I’m not kidding; I really love doing that kind of thing. This is probably why I’ll die alone.

Writing

I’m not a big fan of writing directly to a touchscreen; at some point I’ll need to get a keyboard add-on if I’m going to actually use this as a serious writing tool. If/when I do that, I’ll need to look at writing apps; all I have now is an MS Office emulator with limited functionality, good for editing stuff in Dropbox (oh yeah, it has Dropbox and Google Drive) but not much else.

I’m more interested in tools that might help with writing, specifically with tracking and developing ideas and keeping me focused. Evernote was an obvious option; I’ve never used it but I’ve seen other people use it or OneNote to excellent effect as a way of creating notes and collecting information. And I thought I might try mind-mapping ideas occasionally, so I got Mindomo and will see if that does anything for me.

Plus, of course, Wikipedia to look up information. And Urban Dictionary to find out what the young people are calling the stuff I look up on Wikipedia.

Productivity

You know, I really hate the way we fetishise ‘productivity’ these days. It’s this all-important principle, as if efficiency and output and KPIs were all that mattered. It shits me. On the other hand, I’m lazy and unmotivated and I need to write and to do my job, so a couple of tools won’t go astray.

So far, a couple of tools are all I have; Todolist to make, um, to-do lists, a pomodoro timer to break my various tasks into manageable chunks, Skype and GoToMeeting to communicate with people… I think that’s about it so far. I need to do more thinking here about what I’m trying to achieve (finishing projects, meeting deadlines, not getting fired) and what assistance I might need to do that.

Day Job Stuff

Got quite a bunch of these. But I generally don’t talk much about the ins and outs of educational publishing on this blog, and I’m not going to start now.

Games and Social Media

Nope, not doing that. Leave that for the phone.

Entertainment

Generally not doing that either, except for a music player for bumping soundtracks during gaming writing sessions. The two built into the Galaxy – Samsung Music Player and Google Play Music – are both a bit unsatisfying, and I need to look at alternatives, especially ones that allow me to update song titles and visuals.

Oh, and I found an animated image of a red galaxy slowly rotating through space to use as my wallpaper. Because why the hell not.

What else?

The upshot of this is that I have a very respectable chunk of computing power that I can now hold one-handed while drinking coffee with the other. And I want to do more with it than just stream pirated video while leeching cafe wifi.

So what else can I do? What other apps can I download that aren’t distractions but might instead improve, enhance or at least focus my writing (and publishing) work?

Send me links, people. Recommend me stuff. Tell me what to buy.

I AM YOUR MEAT PUPPET.

Diving into Dead Men’s Data

3

Category : obituarist, writing

Welcome to June, or as I call it, The Month (and a half) in Which I Write Another Bloody Novella.

Yes, the omens are clear, the nights are still warm enough to write without losing a finger and I won’t have my Raven’s Blood notes back until the end of July, so it’s time to knuckle down on The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data!

1208 - Obituarist-ol - newThis book has been on the agenda since, well, pretty much since people finished reading The Obituarist – still available from all fine ebook retailers, and also Amazon – and started demanding a sequel. I wrote the short story ‘Inbox Zero’ as a quick thank-you to tide them over, but that was ages ago. Now, two years since I published that first story about Kendall Barber, social media undertaker, it’s time to visit Port Virtue again and see what’s hiding under its grease-stained rocks.

This time around, Kendall is hired to disentangle the online affairs of the late, unloved Earl Northanger, a scrap metal tycoon who killed himself in his private zoo. At the same time, he reluctantly takes on a job for a Port Virtue police captain whose online identity was hacked – and he’s being pursued by a local journalist who wants to find out all his secrets. And Kendall has more secrets than anyone else might think.

The world of the digital afterlife industry is again the focus for this second book – a world that’s had some interesting developments in two years, a world that’s no longer so unfamiliar to people. But Dead Men’s Data also explores some other ideas – secrets, lies, death, identity, Nazis, poor tattooing decisions, unexamined privilege, urban decay, the speed at which limbs decay in cement and more.

It also has a fight between a badger and a baboon, because I don’t know why just roll with it.

Anyway, this is the start of the writing process, and I’m hoping to get through this book faster than the last couple. The target is around 24 000 words, writing a full 1000-word-odd chapter (two pages of manuscript, because I find it’s easier to calibrate by page than paragraph) a night, four nights a week for six weeks. I could write it faster than that if I knuckled down – my friend Peter Ball is cranking out 2000 words of novella a day, because he’s hugely talented and works hard. I, on the other hand, have both a terrible work ethic and I’m (as usual) pantsing the hell out of this book. I know the start, I have a pretty good vision of the end, there are some snapshots in the middle… and then the writing process is a day of typing, a day of checking my Port Virtue map, looking through all my digital-afterlife-links and working out what the hell to do next.

(That approach also tends to mean I miss that 1000-word target at the start of the book, but nail chapters thick and fast by the end. It’s all much easier when you have some idea what you’re doing. I should probably learn from that. But I won’t.)

Anyway, enough talk of process – let’s wrap this up with the WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE first glimpse of the novella-in-progress! (Please note, this is unedited, untweaked and not yet funny-clever enough. But it’s a start.)

ONE

ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE COMMITS SUICIDE-BY-BEAR read the headline. The subtitle underneath directly contradicted it – Scrap metal tycoon Earl Northanger shoots himself; body mauled by bear in his private zoo – but who reads subtitles? The headline was pure print-clickbait and it did the job of grabbing eyeballs and sales. God knows the Port Virtue Voice and Advertiser needed them.

‘I’m very sorry for your loss,’ I said to my new client. That sounds like a lame platitude, but it’s usually the right thing to say to someone in mourning. You’re not saying you know how they feel, you’re not claiming to also be in mourning. You’re just expressing a personal sympathy for them and the difficulties they’re having in their time of grief.

Imogene Northanger shrugged; she didn’t seem especially grief-stricken. ‘My grandfather and I weren’t what you would call close, Mister Barber,’ she said. ‘I just want to focus on sorting out his affairs, execute his will and then go back home.’

‘Understood,’ I said, and mentally trashed the remainder of my sympathetic-yet-professional-in-this-difficult-time routine. Fortunately I could use the let’s-get-this-over-with routine instead. I had a bunch of these filed away in my head; I’d practiced them in front of the mirror.

I tried to give her back her newspaper; when she waved it away, I put the Voice and Advertiser to one side. In truth I’d read the paper a few days ago when it was new, although I’d only skimmed the story on Old Man Northanger. I was more interested in the story about the human remains being recovered from the bridge construction site, which had already faded back to page four. There was also a story about me on page twelve, but that was a problem for another time.

Ms Northanger was a well-dressed, well-accessorised woman in her I-would-guess-forties, with short hair and square-rimmed glasses, and when she took those glasses off it was an obvious signal that she was ready to Tell it Like it Was.

‘Let’s just cut the bullshit, Mister Barber. My grandfather was racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic – if it wasn’t like him, he hated it and he let everyone know it. Family gatherings were dire at best, at worst… it was a relief when I came out and the family just shitcanned the whole idea of ever getting together in case it gave him apoplexy. I’m sure he was furious that I was the only family he had left, and if he’d realised that I’d be the one made executor of his will he would have broken his neck sprinting to change it. But too bad for him. Now I just want to wrap up his affairs, sell off his assets, put him in the ground and get the hell out of this town once and for all. Can you help me with that?’

 Oh, I liked this lady. She was not at home to Mister Fucking About.

 More to come. Watch this space. And so on.

Beware the ides of May

Category : appearances, games, obituarist

I know I said I would take time off after finishing the foundation draft of Raven’s Blood, and I have. More or less.

But May has had other ideas, and in fact it’s been a bit hectic down on the ranch this last while. Some of that hecticness has been respectable and productive, and some of it has involved the kind of aggressive, determined sloth that accomplishes nothing but leaves you nonetheless exhausted.

…holy shit, that is a really scary-looking aggressive sloth. Calm the fuck down, man. Have a burrito or something.

Anyway, in lieu of a more substantive post – that may come next weekend, once I regrow some updates – here’s a swag of updates, links and disconnected bits. Which is pretty much like the rest of the internet, I guess.

Continuum X is in two weeks! The programme is out now, and you’ll find that I am speaking on a number of panels, as if I had something to say rather than just being some random yahoo off the street. Those are:

  • Remembering Iain Banks
  • It’s All Been Done: Writing in the Age of TV Tropes
  • Modern Roleplaying

Those are all on Monday 9 June, the last day of the con, so come along to hear my too-rapid ramblings after you’ve had your fill of everything and everyone else. On the other days, look for me in the local bars, especially if they’re karaoke bars; I have a feeling some of the GenreCon crowd and I are going to want to belt out ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ over a couple of tequilas.

As we all know, when I’m not writing I’m slacking off playing games, and I felt I deserved to play something  after April’s efforts. So I borrowed Batman: Arkham Origins from a co-worker, and thanks to some time off caused by mild food poisoning (yay) I was able to play it all the way through over a couple of weeks.

And I kinda liked it! I played Arkham City a few years back, and you may recall that while I enjoyed the gameplay I thought the story and tone was aaaaallll over the shop, and that the constant misogyny just ground all the joy out of playing. Well, Origins avoids the worst of that; it has a clear, consistent direction and it knows where to draw the storytelling line to keep everything hanging together. The core storyline – Batman fights a horde of assassins in the course of one night while early in his career – stays the course, while the side adventures never drift too far away from that in mood. (And it avoids misogyny largely by having no female characters to speak off, but that’s sadly predictable.) There’s even an honest-to-god character arc.

Of course it’s still overly grimdark to the point of being goofy, Batman is a violent thug and everything in Gotham is on fire ALL THE TIME, but that seems to be the established norm for this character now. While the addition of more detective-oriented plot bits is welcome, they all boil down to [push button to have Alfred identify murderer for you], the end-game is anti-climatic, and it runs into the problem all prequels do in that it has to try to foreshadow everything that comes later.

But still. Pretty fun. Definitely worth the nothing I paid for it.

In other gaming, I finished my other ongoing RPG campaign, the extremely intermittent Weird-West game Tribulation. We were a long time getting to the end, but I think it was worth it.

It was a strange ending, though, one that took in time travel and paradoxes, and pushed those to the point of rewriting everything that had gone before. That’s a hard road for a story to follow, and it’s made me think a fair bit about the nature of stories like that, the need for foreshadowing (and how to make that work), and whether you can end a story with ‘this story didn’t happen’ while still making it satisfying for the audience for whom it did.

Hmm. More thoughts on that later, perhaps – especially once I see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which looks to be trying to pull off something similar. Hopefully their special effects budget is bigger than mine. Although will they have as many Dr Who references? Probably not, he said smugly.

My dog continues to be pretty freakin’ cute.

The Emerging Writers Festival starts this week! I’m not involved in it this year, but if I get organised I’ll be heading off to various events and seeing how many friendly faces I recognise. If you’re headed that way, let me know what you’re going to and maybe we can have a play date. Come on, motivate me; don’t let me slack off.

Speaking of writing, the first couple of alpha-reader reviews have come back on Raven’s Blood, and they’re pretty positive. I think. I haven’t really looked at them; I’m trying to keep that book out of my head entirely for a while until I’m ready to rewrite.

In the meantime, I just finished a short story for an anthology that… actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that yet. But it’s an odd little piece that was fun to write; let’s hope the editor likes it.

And then next week, to kick off June, I begin work on the next book, for which I can finally reveal the title:

 

The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data

 

Yes, the continuing adventures of Kendall Barker, um, continue. Come back to the poorly-swept streets of Port Virtue for another tale of death, social media and spreadsheet abuse! There’ll be thrills! Spills! Returning characters! New characters! Poor life choices! Swearing! And some bits that I hope take readers by surprise.

The plan is to write this novella throughout June, aiming for a total of around 24 000 words by the start of July ready to hand over to test readers and my editor. (Who I also have to hire again, along with my cover designer.) I found a good rhythm with the first novella, punching out one 1000-odd word chapter each night; if I can get that vibe again I should easily be able to hit the deadline while still taking time off a few nights each week for nerding and bourbon.

And once that’s done, it’ll be time for Raven’s Blood rewrites.

This momentum is probably good.

I may need defibrillation by August.