Author Opportunity Gaming, Part 2: RPGs

Last time I introduced you to the idea of writing for videogames and started talking about the options using Visual Novels. This time, aside from learnign that I sometimes miss a week because life, I will take a dip into the big one: RPGs. Not the rocket launcher brand, role-playing videogames. Lets go!

Evoland showcasing the graphical evolution of RPGs through the decades  Image: ShiroGames

Evoland showcasing the graphical evolution of RPGs through the decades Image: ShiroGames

So, RPGs

If you boil it down, the RPG is remarkably simple in concept. Think back to the visual novel with its characters talking to each other the whole game through, interactions happening almost exclusively in dialogue options.
The RPG retains those dialogue options, often down to the way dialogue is presented and adds a few layers to that. At its most basic, it adds a map for the characters to walk around in. Here the player can find stuff and other characters to interact with, adding a layer of space to the social interaction. Most RPGs will also add combat of some form to keep players occupied between story scenes, or to directly enhance the story if it is about combat.
There are many ways an RPG can appear. 2D RPGs show a flat map on which characters move around, adorned with buildings, trees, and other features one may or may not be able to interact with. 3D RPGs are essentially worlds to move around in seeing either through the player character’s eyes or following them like an invisible camera. They can be story-driven or gameplay-driven (i.e. combat-driven), though I will concentrate on the story-driven ones.
Writing an RPG can be a daunting task. All characters need dialogue throughout the game, even if it is just somebody saying they don’ want to talk. The map needs to be built, adding environmental design on top of character and background design. Luckily, many parts of the map like trees and different types of ground tend to be readily available to fill the landscape. Still, there needs to be a world to move around in.
In return, players will reward game authors by acknowledging it as a game, at least. Even if they call it a terrible game, they still call it a game. This can’t be said of visual novels. So that’s a plus.
Expectations are for an epic tale filling upward of 70 hours, often hundreds of hours. But short tales can be done and garner positive opinions from players and critics if they are good. Actual Sunlight took me less than 90 minutes and it is considered one of the most profound RPGs currently available. Similarly, the heavily praised To the Moon takes about 4 hours to finish.
So really, the RPG form is so diverse, anything is possible as long as players know exactly what they get into.
Genre-wise, the form skewers toward fantasy, with the occasional science fiction tale in the mix. Everything else does exist but is exceedingly rare to the point I have never seen a romance RPG.
For those wanting to try and make a 2D RPG without programming experience, there is basically one option only: RPG Maker. This is a commercial software available in different editions for a range of prices from about US$20 to just under US$100. The only competitor worth mentioning is the RPG Creator.
I can’t really talk about software for making 3D games because I have almost no experience with those, even though I do own a license for Game Guru and have played around with it a little. Game Guru is nice enough to get some idea how 3D games work, but I can’t recommend it for any actual products one would want to sell.

Get to Know the Genre

The RPG genre is one of the most durable and diverse ones out there. Listing the important or good ones alone would take up entire books, so instead this list will focus on games that showcase RPG storytelling potential. I will also focus on games that can be made be newbie developers willing to learn the basics.
This means the usual favorites are out for various reasons. For example, Chrono Trigger is an extremely well-told game, but to large in scope. Pokémon is rather simple, if large, but not that noteworthy in its storytelling. Skyrim is something that takes the equivalent of a Hollywood studio to even approach. And so on.
Mind you, 3D RPGs are perfectly doable with software usually used for things like first-person shooters, I just have not managed to find any remarkable ones that stay small enough to be handled by a newbie. For whatever reason. And I refuse to scare people away with the daunting titles available. I am, however, planning to close just that gap at some point and would like to encourage you to try so, too. I believe a small-scale 3D RPG is sorely missing. They have proven very effective for 2D titles, as we’ll see with stuff like To the Moon.
is the title of the header image, but while it does do a nice showcase of the genre’s evolution in terms of graphic, it is unremarkable in its storytelling aspects.

The Princess’ Heart

princess_heartLet’s start with something typical.
A fantasy tale about a princess fighting her inner demons. And quite a few outer ones. Fantasy is the most common genre for RPGs from tradition. True to the form’s Japanese origins, the story heavily features emotion and a personal journey behind its superficial plot and can get very close to the visual novel. There are hundreds like this one out there, it features for being a good example of your typical 2D RPG, aside from the framing device which is somewhat unique to it.
Available on PC (Steam) for about US$ 5.

Actual Sunlight

actual_sunlightActual Sunlight is here as an example of a simple game going for a smaller, more emotional and intimate scope. It’s about depression and compresses its protagonist’s adult life into a few pivotal moments to cover as much of its history as possible.
The writing here is not perfect. At various points, I got the impression the writers are trying to hard to make the protagonist’s depression justified. Still, it’s an attempt worth mentioning for tackling such an issue.
Available for about US$ 5 to 6 for PC (via Steam and Itch.io) and Playstation Vita.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

scmrpgNow here’s a controversial one. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (the exclamation mark is part of the title) is, for the most part, a satire on the media’s coverage of the 1999 school massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, CO.
The incident has by now passed into history far enough to talk about it, but back in 206 it was an extremely controversial title. This game drips with sarcasm, and in the context of an actual school shooting, no less.
Crudely done on an aesthetic and gameplay level, it nevertheless is a milestone title in the evolution of games into an artform.
Available for free for Windows on its dedicated website.

To the Moon

to_the_moonOne of the most praised 2D RPGs of the last few years, To the Moon tries for an emotional story, and it succeeds.
In the near future, it has become possible to alter memories. The player takes the role of two doctors using that technology on a dying man to give him some happiness. His memories are to be altered so he believes he achieved his life-long dream of traveling to the moon. As the doctors travel backward through his memories, they learn the reasons for this dream.
To the Moon is an impressive game with commentary on topics such as loss, psychological illness, and the nature of lies. This is actual literature coming in the form of a game.
Available for PC and Mac for about US$ 8.

Interested?

Try it! There is a very active and supportive community surrounding RPGMaker. Creating an RPG is certainly a project in the same scale as creating a novel, but it is doable in just about the same vein. Nevertheless, doing this comes with a completely new skillset, so don’t expect your first project to be a masterpiece.

Next time, we’ll tackle the remaining forms of games in a quick overview. Realistically, an author with little to no experience in making games will be able to use visual novels and RPGs well to tell a story with some training and relatively cheap software taking away the need to learn too much actual programming. The others are harder to pull off, either requiring actual programming knowledge or just being less fit for storytelling.


Predator of Flame

Good news everyone, I will have two blog posts this week! Because I will not skip on my promise to continue the series on game writing on Wednesday, yet Chuck Wendig has a challenge out to which I actually want to post a response. So you get both. Lucky you. (edit: I failed you, I’m sorry)
Short note: I consider this sort of a companion piece to last year’s Master of Man, hence the similar title.smoke

Predator of Flame

Laura awoke to heat and light and red and yellow eating up the walls around her. To thick dark smoke spreading in the place of clean air. The house was on fire!
Recalling her training from school, she let herself fall out of the bed instead of standing up, to crawl underneath the poisonous smoke toward the door of the bedroom. The handle was warm, but not hot, so she opened the door and got out. The flames were everywhere already. Burning carpets blocked the way to the stairs, so she crawled the other way.
There was a window just above a garage the other way. Low enough to get out and let herself fall down on the garage’s roof safely.
She crawled ahead, passing a room with no fire but filled with a column of smoke that seemed to come in through a hole in the floor. Around a corner and – parts of the roof had already collapsed, blocking her way in this direction, too.
What she needed now was time to think. The room from before. There was smoke, but she could keep her head down. At least there was no fire yet, this could give her precious time. So she went there, careful not to close the door behind her.
Think. Somebody must’ve seen the fire yet. The firefighters had to be on their way. Was waiting for them an option? No, too risky. Maybe if she could find another way to the first floor. Where did that smoke come from, anyway? A hole in the floor was all she needed to get down and hopefully out.
That smoke column. What was that? It just stood there in the middle of the room. But it did not seem to dissipate or fill the room, quite the opposite. It looked like smoke from around the room flowed toward the column to be absorbed.
There was something in the smoke. Not really a form, more like a recurring pattern in the vague shape of a human fading in and out of the dark layers of thick smoke. A face there, an arm here, flickering in and out of existence as if the fire wanted to mock her.
More a form of modulated wind then a voice, words reached her ears: “Hello there.”
“Who’s there? Help! I’m here!”
“So am I.”
Needles filled her chest, but she managed to cough out the pain in her lungs.
“Where? Who?”
The smoke formed a more pronounced form now. A featureless human shape emerged, fading from solidified ash into thin air at its edges.
“What the hell are you?”
Snickering from nowhere. “I am me. One of my meals called me the Predator of Flame. One of the few who could still talk for a while, like you. A wannabe poet, I think. So few of you manage to stay conversational as I prepare to nourish. But I like those that do. It is a special quality of some to become even calmer than usual when meeting things like me.”
“Nourish? D’you wanna eat me?”
“In a way.”
“And you think I’ll be okay with that?”
The smoke snickered again. “Even if you would ask a pig before eating bacon, would you accept its answer? It is not like you could fight me.”
“Then why are you talking to me? Why bother? Entertainment?”
“Yes, entertainment while I wait for you to burn. But I would not know the concept had I not learned from your lot. I saw your struggles and through instinctual emulation I found consciousness. Then language. The sense of enjoying my life. Some of your most beautiful traits. I am quite fond of arrogance, for example. What a terrific notion.”
“What about guilt?”
“What about it? I do not do anything. I do not kill you I consume the exhaust of fire’s kills. This is how I became, this is how I persist, this is my nature. I am smoke. This is the most solid I’ll ever be. I could not kill if I wanted to.”
“You’re clearing your conscience, then?”
“I chose not to have one. No, I entertain myself. After all, you cannot change your fate anymore. Already, I taste your burning flesh and hair nourish me.”
“I’m not even on fire yet.”
“Do not lie, I can taste it. You started burning, it cannot be anybody else. There is nobody here. You are alone. You burn.”
At the edge of her sight, something dark snuck through the fire. Were there two of these smoke creatures? Another one to mock her? The dark figure appeared again, barking at her. The dog wore a fire department jacket, but it had caught some fire on its tail. Acting like that was not an issue, the dog barked again, to then start trying to pull Laura out of the room. She jumped up, and her lifesaver immediately starting walking out, showing her a clear path through the debris and the flames. It was way easier than before. Laura had not thought the carpets would burn up as fast as they did, and now the path to the stairs down was clear.
In the kitchen, she managed to grab hold of the dog and extinguished the flames gnawing at its tail by squeezing it in between her arms and belly. Pain advised her not to ever put out a fire this way again, reason likewise advised her not to do this right then. But depriving the smoke creature of some food seemed worth it.
She did not see it again until well after she had finally reached the back door of the house and fled into the garden. If she saw it after that, she was not sure. There was that particularly dark huff of smoke bursting out from a window and drifting away just before the firefighters closing in from the front of the house got the flames under control. Off to taunt its next meal.

Some Background

I’ve had this idea of a creature living off the ashes in the smoke from great fires for some time, yet never employed it so far. I have the plot for a complete fantasy novel revolving around them ready, but other stuff takes top priority before I come to that.
In the meantime, I took that concept and ran with it for this short. The being is now smoke itself instead of being a normal solid creature filter feeding from smoke much like large whales filter feed from the oceans. Feeding off the victims of fire makes it the malevolent counterpiece to the more neutral or even benevolent (if manipulative) fire elemantal encountered in Master of Man.
The Master of Man is a symbiont. The Predator of Flame is a parasite or, well, a predator. I like this creature and the more ethereal quality it grew to assume for this short.


Author Opportunity Gaming, Part 1: Intro and Visual Novels

Every now and then, a writer sets out to create a book in the style of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, which, by the way, I think is a trademark. And also pretty much dead for one extremely simple reason: Videogames now exist and they do the whole interactivity thing far better. So, let’s talk videogames (or video games, whichever you prefer), and make it a topic less intimidating in the process. Now, I’m a player and an author, not a developer (yet). So I am drawing from my experience as a gamer instead, but I do think this offers a fresh perspective on the media itself.

So far, Watanabe-san failed to deliver, though. But it's a good example image - Source: Wikimedia

So far, Watanabe-san failed to deliver, though. But it’s a good example image – Source: Wikimedia


Videogames are the most profitable and largest of all media industries today. They have come a long way during the last few decades, growing from simple tests of skill and reflex into a giant pool of diverse types of games. Some are purely puzzles, some have you point and shoot at enemy after enemy, and some tell interactive stories. Yet others do all that at once, but this series will focus on the types of games marked by being centered around their stories. This has the advantage of these games representing some of the easiest to create, with special software available to make it even easier.
A short heads-up: In gaming, different types of games are called genres. However, because genres mark content differences in literature and to avoid confusion, I will use the term types here, instead. Gaming is severely lacking in terminology for content categories, although the word theme seems to get common.

Games and Writing

Before computers became powerful enough to do more than that by the 70′s and 80′s, games fell into two categories: Simple games of moving pixels around according to a set of rules, and text-based games reacting to typed player commands.
Lucky for us, text commands got replaced by choosing from options later on, making the creation of those games much easier when writers did not have to anticipate every possible input from any unknown player’s vocabulary.
As time went on, computers and gaming systems became more powerful, and developers became more experienced, resulting in more and more games getting additional story elements on the one side or additional graphical elements on the other.
The so-called Adventure game went through many forms as time went on. Text-adventures were mostly a digital version of Choose Your Own Adventure books and are mostly gone now. Point-and-Click Adventures are a niche one might want to tackle, but it does require some experience with these games and familiarity with their numerous conventions. 3D Adventures I will lump in with RPGs next week, leaving this week’s space for the game type with the most obvious connection to literature, the visual novel.
What this post will not get into are the more intimidating and complicated types of games that require very specific techniques and are very different from book writing. The third part will go into these a little, but overall it’s a completely separate kind of writing were text, image, and player actions all have to be accounted for. Doing this requires experience.

The Visual Novel

The visual novel is pretty much what you would imagine when you hear of a video game genre based on Choose Your Own Adventure. There are events, you are presented with options to react to them, and according to the option you picked, the story may play out differently.
The story may not change at all (Shan Gui), change but head toward the same ending anyway (Emily is Away, Girl Crush), or change completely depending on your choices (Hatoful Boyfriend). Thus, the volume of writing can greatly differ, ranging from much less (Girl Crush thanks to repetition), as much as (Shan Gui) all the way to far more than a novel (Hatoful Boyfriend needing dialogue for all possible chains of events).
Games of this type look very similar in basic design: There is a static background showing the location, one or two static character images showing the characters currently talking or acting and their current emotional state, and an area showing either descriptive text or dialogue, including your own options whenever you get some. There are exceptions ( below is about as far as you can get away from the default setup), but these are rare. Text can be spoken, but more often than not it’s not.
Content-wise anything goes. The form means visual novels are predominantly about characters interacting with each other in some form of relationship. This lends itself well to romance and indeed, romance of all heat levels is by far the most popular genre for visual novels. The type is somewhat infamous for leaning strongly toward porn and while the gaming equivalent of it, called eroge, is indeed very successful and common among visual novels, having pornographic content is not even remotely required, neither is romance.
There is software for creating visual novels with no programming knowledge whatsoever, easing you into development. From my own experimentation, I can recommend Novelty and Ren’Py. Both require little to no programming but allow programming for people who know how to code to expand the abilities of the software.

Get to Know the Genre

Like with literary genres, writing requires knowledge of what is written. Here are some suggestions where to start. The selection is diverse on purpose to show what’s possible in content and presentation.

Hatoful Boyfriend

hatofulIn Japan, the visual novel is an extremely popular genre with strong competition. This is usually resolved by audacity, meaning either pornography (which I will not include), weirdness, or both.
How weird? Well, this weird. If you have never heard of Hatoful Boyfriend and the above picture didn’t clue you in: You are a human on a highschool entirely populated by pigeons. This is highschool, so you romance the pigeons. This eventually leads to a tale of the apocalypse, genocide, and revenge. Duh.
It’s on this list for being one of the most famous examples of this type, but also to show the ease of getting art to use in such a game. These are photographs of birds made by the developers in a zoo. As far as execution goes, Hatoful Boyfriend is an absolute textbook example of the type. Weirdness optional.
Available on PC (Steam), Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Android, and iOS for a few dollars.

Shan Gui

shan-guiBoiling down the visual novel to its bare minimum, we get a simple story with no branching like the Chinese visual novel Shan Gui. Noteworthy for its simplicity while still getting good reviews.
Available on Steam for $1.99.

Emily is Away

emily-awayAre the art assets what intimidates you? Enter Emily is Away, a game told entirely within a simulated messenger software. A few boxes with some text in it. That’s all this story needs.
Noteworthy for the strength of its implications and how it manages to tell a story happening just outside of itself. This one’s a downer, though. Also about the furthest a game can stray from the basic formula in presentation.
Available for free on Steam.

Girl Crush (NSFW!)

Yes, it has a wetness meter. The NSFW is there for a reason

Yes, it has a wetness meter. The NSFW is there for a reason

The newest game on this list Girl Crush is clearly in the erotica genre. It’s about a girl named Quinn and her female BFF (the player). Quinn starts taking “kissing lessons” and with time, they get increasingly intense.
It’s interesting for letting you easily see how it works (there are two meters, one for love and one for arousal). Apart from that, there is text with some options to click and answers the game gives for those. From a writing perspective, it’s interesting to see how much it accomplishes with little actual writing and lots of repetition, something completely unacceptable in book writing.
The game is available for free on its own site, either online or as a download

Analogue: A Hate Story

analogue-hate-storyOkay, enough with the romance. Here’s a science fiction tale set on a lost generation ship from the perspective of those who have found the ship a century after its last crew member died and are now starting an investigation into what happened.
Picked as a critically acclaimed example of a different genre, even though some romance is present.
Available on Steam for about $10.

Interested?

Great, I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.
Next week, I’ll delve into the worlds of roleplaying games (RPGs), the most popular of the story-based game types.
In the meantime, some recommended posts about visual novels from other blogs: Why you shouldn’t make a game (or, why you should make a visual novel) on how this is a good idea for writers, and What I Learned While Working on Visual Novels, which is exactly what it says on the tin.


Flash Fiction: Pilgrim’s Refuge

This week, let’s go for a new piece of flash fiction, written for last week’s competition at Indies Unlimited. I don’t think I’d written something from one fo their prompts for a little over a year, making 2016 one of my less productive years in terms of flash fiction. Ignoring a few pieces on this blog in 2016 and my collection published that year, of course.

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks


Pilgrim’s Refuge

The pilgrims were sacred. The village had tried before to get rid of them. They came here with their foreign culture, their greed, the strange currency they paid in. They paid in music. Not the crude sounds one would expect from their barbaric kind but actual orchestral music. But music still, not something you would use for payment in any civilized society. Then again, nobody had thought them civilized at first, and science was still looking for ways to discredit their civilization’s acceptance as one.
Then, some started to stay and work the fields. They learned of money, of their value, and how we shared their greed, just directed at other things. Soon they had built their own little village around the destination of their pilgrimages, a village impenetrable to any but their kin by force and law. Yet, the pilgrimage lured tourists by the thousands, pilgrims by the hundreds of thousands, and coin by the millions. This earned them their sanctity.
Their prayer was music, and they prayed outward.
Inward, they were silent. Only their god rising from his slumber had the right to initiate new music in this sacred place.
Inward, there stood but one monolith made by men before the pupils of their god had even started to spread his word.
Here rested forevermore Barnum Quentin, the man who told the crickets how to sing.

About This Story

Originally Published at Indies Unlimited
I am terrible with image prompts, they rarely do anything for me. This is one of the reasons my flash fiction production dropped badly in 2016 when writing blog Indies Unlimited switched from written prompts with a photo to just using photographs for prompts. Most of these seemed too mundane to me, inspiring nothing.
The gift of writing a story from anything is not something I possess, as enviable as that ability is in an author.
On February 18th, 2017, one of their photos struck a cord with me nonetheless. It’s shown above the story, but just in case it didn’t load: There was a large group of young grasshoppers sitting in the grass, some of them in a line along one blade of grass. That part of the picture reminded me of an orchestra, so I came up with the grasshoppers creating actual music. Looking at the other entries of that week, I was not the only one, two others ended up working with that same idea and took it in different directions. I also changed them into crickets just because I liked that word better.
At first, I wanted to tell the story of the composer who taught the insects to make real music from their chirping. I quickly shifted focus to the composer’s memory among the crickets and how it affected his hometown. That was less of a conscious decision and more the result of my hands starting to type words into my keyboard. I call it discovery writing. Mainly because I don’t like being called a pantser.
Animals displaying unusual intelligence and a culture of their own turns out to be a recurring topic in my fiction. Other examples include octopods in Introduction (collected in How to Sing Butterflies) as well as several examples in concepts for future works ranging from rats to dinosaurs.
What’s special here is how science actively tries to ignore non-human intelligence. This is something that happens a lot in actual science, especially neuroscience and related fields of research. At least I strongly hold the opinion that science does so whenever animals show signs of anything we’d like to be reserved to humans to feel unique. Intelligence, language, all these nice things that apparently popped up out of nowhere in humans according to the relevant fields of science. Which is completely absurd and unscientific. Humans just like to feel special that much. No matter what that Darwin fellow ultimately implied about this.
Readers with a keen eye might find some parallels between the crickets and a somewhat generalized idea of foreigners and immigrants. The prayers beign music is a reference to Islam included to strengthen that connection. I tried to put in more parallels and make this more about our relationship with foreigners and especially immigrants but in the end, the scenario was just too otherworldly to work with that. But it did make for an interesting cricket cukture. Yet, I wonder if anybody will pick up the hints not reading this here addendum.
Barnum Quentin is named after P.T. Barnum even though, unlike many of Barnum’s circus attractions, the cricket orchestra is not a fraud.
Everything else about this story is, naturally, crickets.


Let’s Murder Some Trees!

I wanted to do it for quite some time, and now I finally sat down to finish preparations and make all my readers compliant in my sweet act of mass murder. And now both How to Sing Butterflies and its expanded edition How to Sing Butterflies DX are available on paper via Amazon.
But or floral enemies shall not have died in vain, for here are five lessons I took away from my first go at print publishing. Among those a solution to get spine text on books of less than 100 pages.

Design Itself is the Easy Part

Amazon's 3D preview is small and not really easy on the eyes, but it gets the job done

Amazon’s 3D preview is small and not that easy on the eyes, but it gets the job done

When doing a cover for an ebook, the design takes up the whole process. You create an image, and once you’re done you got yourself a cover. You will probably tweak it a few times here and there until you’re satisfied, but it’s as straightforward as that.
Not for paper books. And I’m not talking about the spine or back. You’ll have to also make it work with the print software.
The interior is easy. I imagine it might get a little harder once I add images to the books, but I did not do that for any paperback yet. But even then, the margins are quite well-defined and easy to work with.
That cover check software, though.
On the first try, I had issues with spine elements getting too close to the edge of the spine. This was mainly caused by having put the spine content a little too much to the left. No biggy, I fixed that.
When the error message didn’t disappear I realized the problem was two-fold. I had fixed the positioning of my spine content, but the software still acted up, marking the yellow lines you can see crossing the spine in the preview image as erroneous. That was annoying. I wanted to have those, and I had seen others having graphical elements going all around their cover, spine included.
What was causing the problem was the way I had realized that design. The lines are part of the text element that also forms the title, meaning this was identified as text by the KDP software. Turns out only text elements are restricted like that. I did not know this. I found out by getting bold and upload a version of the cover that had this whole element converted into polygons. The system raised no issues with a polygon going across the spine, so that was fixed.
All problems fixed, I then switched to working on the thinner of the two books, the standard edition. It happened to be exactly 100 pages long. I thought I was in luck by having just made the threshold to put text on my spine.
Yeah, not according to the preview check. It did tell me I had to have at least 100 pages. But what it apparently meant was I had to have more than 100 pages. That rule is stupid and I realize in hindsight, I could have remedied that by converting the spine text into polygons to circumvent Amazon’s restrictions. I ended up adding four empty pages to the end of the book.
By the way, it would have been nice to know beforehand that Amazon would put a barcode on the cover and where they put it. Because my initial upload ended up with two identical barcodes (one included by me, one by Amazon) with Amazon’s copy printed right over my website URL. So, yeah, know beforehand Amazon will put a barcode in the lower right of your back cover. It did play nice with my squiggly lines, though.
There seems to be a problem with the centering on the DX edition’s cover, but I can’t be sure of that without seeing a printed copy. It’s easily possible to change covers after publication, though.

Yes, You Can Have Text on Thin Spines

So here’s something we all can learn from my adventures in getting stuff on the spine: If your book is below 100 pages, just convert your spine text into graphical elements (polygons or curves) to trick the cover previewer into allowing it.
Consider that little hint my revenge against Amazon’s automated complaints about that.

Book Designers Have Weird Conventions

Okay, so English and American books have little headers above their content pages, showing the author on the left pages and the book title on the right. Got it easy enough.
Chapters are supposed to start on the right-hand page. That means there may be blank pages to the left. Makes sense.
But then those blank pages are completely blank. Why? What is the purpose of a header if half of it disappears? Why would you not display a number there when all other pages are numbered? To me, that seems like a pointless exercise to make interior design in books a tad more tedious. I have disliked it for years as a reader, and now I dislike it as a writer as well. But I’m self-publishing, so screw that made-up rule.

I'm such a rebel

I’m such a rebel

Beware of Widows

Print design knows of two sins: Those of the widows and those of the orphans. And I’m really glad I didn’t write this article in German. The German terms translate to whore’s children and shoemaker boys, respectively. The former hide in the attic, the latter bow down to shine your shoes, you see. Needless to say, we started using translations of the English terms in recent years.
In short, a widow is a single line ending a paragraph at the upper end of a page, while an orphan is the first line of a new paragraph ending a page. They look weird and can disrupt reading flow.
Orphans are easy enough to get rid of, you just add an empty line to have it go to the next page. Widows are not only harder to get rid of, they are also considered the worse offender design-wise. An empty line in the middle of the page should only appear when intended to break up the text.
Usually, I would change the text a little bit to be longer or shorter by a few words. But this is a collection of existing stories. I can change them to some degree, but not for something minor like that. It would be worse if I wasn’ the one who wrote them in the first place. So the trickery with breaks, line heights, and paragraph alignment to conceal breaks starts.
It can get complicated, but it needs to be done.

Amazon Can be Weird

Once I got my books done, and they went up, I wanted to order a proof copy. KDP does not send you a proof copy like Createspace and some others do, they have you trust the 3d rendered preview. Like I said before, there appears to be some alignment issue with the DX edition, but I want to check some hardcopies for that first. Not to mention, I want to see what my spine looks like in real life.
In addition to this, as a selfpublisher living in Germany, I am legally required to send two copies to the national library and one to my state’s library for archival purposes.
So I ordered four copies each. Simple. If Amazon wouldn’t have decided to act up by sending me a statement that my account was suspended for unpaid bills. I was like “Wait, what?”
Contacting customer support I was informed the issue was with an apparently unpaid bill from January 2010. Yes, 2010! About €10 plus shipping. I don’t know if I was victim to a glitch or whether that was true. For the record, articles I have ordered in between 2010 and 2017 include a microphone, a tablet computer, my Kindle and a lot of ebooks. Among other things. And now, more than half a decade later, that happened. So yeah, this is weird.
I’m currently sorting that out. Dammit, I want to finally hold my books in my hands!

How to Sing Butterflies (104 pages, US$4.99) and How to Sing Butterflies DX (168 pages, US$6.99) are now available via KDP Paperback in the US, Europe, and Japan.


I’m Terrible at Blogging

Let’s try to summarize my blog activity for the last two months, shall we?

Tumbleweed

Seems about right – Image base: Jez Arnold

Yeah, that’s not too good. Technically speaking, the Christmas flash fiction manages to squeeze into that timeframe by five days, but still. My problem is none of the obvious problems everybody starts to point to when a blog stays small.
My design is not utterly broken, cluttered, or ugly. My content is not bad (I hope). My posts are properly broken up by headlines and feature a nice image close to the top. My editing boils down to a quick copy-and-paste into Grammarly’s online check but that’s not that bad and I recently installed Language Tool for a second check. My URLs are lacking in SEO and I suffer from having a very common name but that’s not the kind of problem I’m talking about right now.
No, my problem is very different and probably extremely common: I ask too much quality of myself. Not even in terms of writing where such a thing is justified, but when it comes to topics.

Too Good to be Good

The thing is, I read a lot of writing advice online. And when I don’t do that I listen to a lot of it. Once you have read enough of it, it all becomes so repetitive. There is very little unusual advice, very little creativity. At least that’s what it seems like when you hear the same advice a hundred times.
The problem is, I then steered clear of that. I still read and listen to writing advice in the hope there may be something worthwhile every now and then. You see, the right piece of advice can be extremely inspiring, life-changing even.
But I avoided giving people stale advice. I felt above that, I wanted to write stuff worthwhile to everybody, new stuff. I hate wasting people’s time. Thus I rarely gave writing advice at all. Meaning, I had very little to write about. The occasional flash fiction piece here and there, a new book being published and every few months an actual piece of writing ideas I actually thought to be worth the time to write about them.
For example, there is an unfinished article about using dioramas for writing motivation on my computer. It is a completely unique idea as far as I can tell, it seems to be a very useful one to me using it, and it is almost done, just missing some photos. But it is the kind of idea I have once in a blue moon – or probably once in an even more exotically colored moon. Excellent content, but a blog cannot sustain itself from quality alone.
With that, my posting frequency went down to about one article a month. There would have been one for January but that was tied to a publication I’m still waiting for, so a once-a-month schedule breaks apart quickly.
I do believe a lot of bloggers and authors share that problem. They expect too much of themselves, they avoid writing “merely” good content in favor of great content that is rare and hard to do. Not to mention, their sense of quality is skewed from having read too much great stuff themselves. It’s not exactly intimidation, it’s humility grown to unhealthy proportions.
And I think it is important to recognize the unhealthiness of it.

Snapping Out of It

The good thing is, this is something special to my English blog. My German one can always live off of my life, my personal social networks, my non-author related activities such as political activities. It is less focused, yet more active for it. So I do know how to blog more than that consistently.
So here’s what I’ll do from now on: I will dial down my overblown standards where it comes to topic uniqueness. There will be a post every Wednesday. I will keep my focus on writing topics, meaning every post will be either advice, a piece of fiction, or announcing a new release. Seeing how I have started to try and sell my short fiction, there is bound to be a lot of writing stuff for authors.
It’ll be great. You’ll love it!
During the last few days, I have prepared about two months worth of content. Some has been written, some boils down to a note on my mobile, but it all will come up. No longer will I have a blog for content, I will now produce content for this blog. And while I will stay determined to keep it from being stale advice, I will lower my expectations toward that to a reasonable degree.

What to Expect

Crime! Little plastic people! Godzilla! Steamy Stuff! Dead Trees! The degradation of William Shakespeare! Lots of exclamation marks!
And for you, dear readers, to ask yourselves whether you suffer from the same unhealthy over-humility, if you have the same problem of not writing on your blog often enough (i.e. less than once a week). I suspect that is the most common hurdle bloggers face nobody talks about. Some may call it perfectionism, but I do think it’s not quite that. This is something related but different from perfectionism. Ambitionism? Exceptionalism? Qualitism? Huh. Any of you have a good word for that? Or is there even an existing one I’m missing?


And Peace on Earth

hollyjollybloghop_banner_12152016So, this is a day late due to the Berlin attack taking top priority in my topics for Tuesday. Living in Germany and being active in politics, that was a major event for me. But now, on to some levity.

True to the banner above, this short is part of Elizabeth Barone’s Holly Jolly Blo Hop 2016 that has various authors publish a short each on their blogs. The unifying topic here is The Wrong Gift. In my case that does become a more sci-fi variation on Christmas stories, this being my favourite genre. This marks my third sci-fi Christmas flash, the others being one unpublished story and one in German. I might do a Future Christmas collection next year if (or when) I manage to do at least 20, preferably 24 to make a kind of scifi advent calendar.
You may find all the other entries to this blog hop via Elizabeth’s site for your enjoyment. Quite a varied selection, there’s something for everybody there!

And Peace on Earth

As always, the delivery was on time. The invading Gurnock fleet had surrounded Earth to intercept the cosmic Santa entities packages to the planet in order to both take away hope and gather intel on its denizens. The plan an empire was built on.
“For the glory of the empire!” Shoobed shouted to the advisor staff as he opened the door to the delivery room. A multicolored mass of items poured out, mostly plastic. A few small animals ran off barking and meowing. At least the meowing ones made the impression to be useful in dealing with some pests from last year’s invasion. The empire really needs a policy on this, Shoobed thought. “Now sift through this for information on the enemy’s technology and abilities!”
“Sir, this planet is weird. Most of these are models of creatures and vehicles. I mean, is this world so easily conquered that of all the weaponry they could wish for from Santa, they wish for this stuff? And look at their actual weapons!” Tukard shoot one to demonstrate, its foam ammunition harmlessly bouncing off a metal beam. “They’re all like this!”
“Something has got to be wrong here. Keep searching, I want to know if these creatures can possibly be this squishy or if we are being tricked. Take as much time as you need!”
“But those humans aren’t worth it. I mean, look at it!” Körtag next to Tukard held up the scale model of a human that seemed to be very common in the package, marked as a 13arbie. “Look at them, all scrawny and long. No edible meat, no muscle for slave work, what would we even do with those? They’d just slow down the empire!”
“We do not know that this is an accurate model. There are others here.”
“But all of them are either thin or so lacking in fat, they’re all stringy with muscle. Maybe we could use their newborns as popcorn, but that’s it!”
Shoobed sighed. “Could we please concentrate on the plan? And Glypüroq, would you please put away those Legos?”
“Lego! The plural of Lego is Lego”, the answer came irritated.
“How would you even know… I mean, is that really important right now?”
“No proper argument without proper grammar.”
“Alright, that’s it, the invasion is off!”

Making Of bonus stuff

Well, that was short, wasn’t it? So why not add some background info to it?
The story changed quite abit. Originally, the invading army was wishing for weapons to invade Earth only for Santa to qwitch the gifts between Earthlings and invaders, resulting in the aliens giving up and the humans expand into space using the technology delivered a few years later, having formed a space-age cargo cult around the failed invaders.
In the end, I kept the idea of Santa as a cosmic entity and the invaders giving up based on Earth’s gifts. I decided to keep it short and sweet, not to water down the initial concept.
If you want an idea on what these aliens look like, I imagine them as massive centaur-like creatures featuring a pair of tusks and two rows of spikes each along their backs that can be folded away. During battle, the tusks and spikes are covered with poison generated by glands at the base of each structure. Often, tusks and spikes are covered in harmless crystalline residue of that poison. Imagine a cross between a Kentrosaurus and a centaur on a really bad day.
So yeah, ain’t that christmas-y?
For anyone guessing about the gifts, those are, off course, a couple of pets (btw, please don’t gift pets, I know it happens, but, please don’t), a Nerf gun, a Barbie doll, and some Lego.

Fun fact: This story was written backwards, the last line being the first I wrote.

Again, please check the other stories in the blog hop, I quite like what I’ve read so far and I hope you will, too.


Self-Editing for Bilinguals

© Jesse Burgheimer, CC-BY-SA

© Jesse Burgheimer, CC-BY-SA

Okay, we are two-thirds through NaNoWriMo. This means two things:

  1. I really need to update the progress meter, but first
  2. It’s about time to talk about editing.

Because I am me, let’s start with editing. Because doing so means I am writing something for my blog, which is something I should do more frequently anyway.

Of course, many people have already said a lot about editing and even about self-editing, its pros, cons and some approaches to it. That part you can probably google.

But my own self-editing process is somewhat different from those usually advised, mostly because it is something not everybody can do. This is for those of us who speak more than one language fluently. Luckily, English is the easiest language to gain fluency in these days, thanks to its ubiquity on the internet and in media in general. So yay for anybody who is not a native speaker of English reading this blog! For any bilingual who is a native speaker of English: Well done, you had the harder road among those two sides. Again, not because of any properties of the language, but because it is just harder to get a lot of practice in your second language.
So, let’s get to the point. In case the title has not given it away, this is it:

The Bilingual Translate-Edit Method

The short version of this is easy: Translating a text back and forth between the language it was written in and your other language, is a rewarding process, even if you don’t speak your second language fluently.

Now, the long version.

When learning a foreign language, the better you get, the more obvious it will become translation is anything but an easy task because languages tend to be very different from each other.

Obviously. Image: Natalie Moxam/Public Domain

You don’t say?
Image: Natalie Moxam/Public Domain

Different languages form sentences differently, have different figures of speech, different go-to metaphors, they even tend to involve different approaches to the world itself in some ways. This makes translation hard. This is why translators are very well-paid and why automated translation is just about the hardest task you can assign a computer.

When editing, this is good. The trick is this: Translation forces you to view your writing in context again. Thinking about the way you inform and/or entertain, many problems of a text will become obvious. You will clearly see points where information is missing because sentences suddenly become incomplete after translation. You will see redundancies when a sentence explains something you just described. All this happens because translation cannot be done word by word. When you translate, you force yourself to view every word in its context. This is what most self-editing is missing, often boiling down to a mere word-for-word grammar check.

To do this, you should be an advanced speaker of a second language, but you don’t need to be perfect. Maybe even fluent is too much. All you need to have learned is how not to translate by just replacing words with corresponding words in the other language using a dictionary (nothing wrong with using a dictionary, though). The better you are, the better your results will be, but you don’t need to be perfect to start. Remember, your goal is not really to make a translation, it’s to find errors by way of translating a work back and forth. Your finished text will be in whatever language you originally wrote it down.

How to do this

  1. Make a backup copy of your original text. Seriously, whatever you do, do not translate within your original document. I once accidentally saved a translation over the English original, destroying it. So, I can’t stress this enough, do make a backup copy. Preferably name one of them something like xyz-translation.doc
  2. Be sure you switched to writing in your translation copy
  3. Now, translate the text into your other language, ironing out flaws as you stumble upon them. Take note of any flaws encountered. This will be the hardest part of this editing process.
  4. Translate it back into the original language, again taking note of any flaws encountered. Do not check your original yet, translate this back independently. Chances are, the language will have turned clunky through the process. Don’t worry about that yet.
  5. Now, compare the original to both your list of encountered flaws and your translation. Change the original (or another copy of it for extra security) accordingly.
  6. Now, check the original again, this time for grammar, style, and spelling to make sure there are no visible “scars”, points where it is obvious something was added, deleted or changed.

Yes, this ends in another round of editing. The goal of this method is not to make editing easier or faster, it’s to make self-editing more reliable.

I hope this is helpful to a lot of you guys. Have fun! Good luck! Get all the success you earn!


Let’s NaNoWriMo!

write50kHey, there. Long time no see. However, this is precisely why I came back now. You see, NaNoWriMo is starting tomorrow, and because I have not written much the last few weeks, I will take up that challenge to get back in the groove.

NaNoWhatNow?

NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writer’s Month. It has grown international for a long time now, though. The idea is simple: Finish a novel of 50,000 words or more during November.
People who join the official site may even win prices.
While I will not join the official site (because I’m modifying the rules to better suite my writing style), I still aspire to write 50,000 words by November, 30th 2016 and call that participating in NaNoWriMo for simplicity’s sake.

Deviant!

Indeed, and a proud one at that.
The reason I plan to deviate from the official rules is simple: I do not write stories that long. In my mind, stories have to earn the amount of time they may take from us and I prefer those that give more than they take. Very few stories need or deserve to be that long. Dune needs it for its complexity, so does War and Peace due to the size and diversity of its cast. The Harry Potter books earn it by the wildness of the imagination displayed and by having each book span a year. There are more, these are just examples.
I tend toward the shorter end of tales. I have a story to tell and I do not like to meander around doing so. Maybe it’s just my own preference for reading short fiction informing my own writing here, but in short, a story of more than 10,000 words is a rarity with me just because that tends to be more than enough room for me to finish any story I decide to do.
So, instead of writing one novel of 50k words, I commit to write 50k words during the month of November. This does include all uncommissioned writing I do that month. It does not, however, include any commissioned writting as well as writing not directly related to book and/or story writing.
So, blog posts do not count, neither does any writing not intended to be published.
This means, I plan to write about 1,800 words per day. That is more words than my longest published piece of fiction at about 1,200. It is, however, less than some of my non-fiction books that were written chapter by chapter as opposed to one piece of story as you get with my fiction (ignoring the notable exception of Sleeper Hit.
I expect this to result in several pieces of flash fiction (probably enough to do another collection), finishing my English novelette Boy, as well as finishing my German novelette Neanderthalensis. As always, pieces of flash fiction I do in that time will also be available here on this blog, unless this is prevented by a contract (I will write at least one flash intended for a multi-author Christmas anthology).
So, by tomorrow, there will be a counter showing my current progress in reaching 50k words. And the occassional flash fiction piece on this blog.

Why Am I Doing This?

Let me put it this way: Writing 1,800 words per day on top of everything else I do essentially means that for one month, I will go full-time. I will have to find ways to have enough time to write thise much every day. I will have to devote time specifically to writing as if I went to an office to do so.
This will be a new experience for me and I am very interested, if I can pull this off.
In essence, I am about to decide wether I go all-in in the future, using the next month for a template.


10 Things I Learned Writing How to Sing Butterflies

Cover of How to Sing Butterflies DX

DX edition (Amazon link)

Cover of How to Sing Butterflies

Standard edition (Amazon link)

Finally, with only two days of delay, I made it, I finished my short story collection How to Sing Butterflies. It will now roll out across the ebook vendors over the next few days, Amazon being the first as usual, but others following. They just happen to have the quickest system for new publications.
As you can see from there being two covers to this entry, this collection comes in two editions, DX and standard (or, well, non-DX). This is the one thing I hope I am still going to learn, publishing this book: Does this approach work? Is it a good idea to give readers a choice between a barebones edition and a deluxe edition with additional content?
To break the differences down, the DX edition features additional commentary for each story in the back of the book. Each story has a story behind it and this is what that commentary provides: The inspiration behind each story (often a writing prompt), how that inspiration turned into the story I ended up with, interesting trivia on the creative process in its planning and, more importantly, writing. That edition I set at US$2.99. The other edition has nothing but the pieces of fiction and is priced a little lower at US$1.99.
To me, that is a large difference: The higher price point gets me about US$1.40 more per sale, three times what the lower one gets me. But I realize this is not what the reader sees, so I want to give them free choice. I also realize short story collections are not very popular and people do not want to spend too much on them.
So, if you are interested in the stories behind those stories, or just want to support this here author, go get the DX edition. If you want to read the stories, but prefer not to spend too much on somebody you maybe never heard about before, get the standard one. I think that’s a fair deal for al of us. I’m very curious how that’ll turn out.
All that being said, as with every book I learned a lot from writing this one. And yes, I am stealing this idea from Chuck Wendig’s blog. Go on, try and stop me!

1. Working Title, Shmorking Title

I set out to collect my shorts a long time ago. It started out a year ago under the guise of Glimpses. By February it had morphed into the far more descriptive mouthful of Glimpses into World Unknown.
Then, I lost my progress on almost all works to a computer crash that affected both my main hard drive and the more recent backups. There’s still hope to recover those, but it’s expensive.
Anyway, I started from scratch. What got lost was some unpublished work, but I could still recover all those entries into Flash Fiction Challenges and the like, along with everything already published in some form. I didn’t like the original title I was working with anymore, so I ended up taking the title to one of the stories included instead: How to Sing Butterflies made for a nice title and the story itself served well to represent my brand of short fiction.

2. Free Ressources can be amazing

After I settled on a title, there was the issue of a fitting cover. I did not exactly make that easy on me with such a strange title. Searching for illustrations that combined butterflies with music failed, so I started searching all the stock photo sites for butterfly pictures, hoping to find something to work with. Not to get an overused picture, I even started to order the results by least liked ones first. This is when I stumbled across the perfect cover to this title. A butterfly shape of simple yellow lines, the perfect image to combine sound with butterflies.
Beautiful.

3. But sometimes you still have to pay for stuff

Sample of the font Sound Sample

Sound Sample, err, Sample


The cover illustration was perfect, but there was only one font I found anywhere. That was Sound Sample by Anfa. Everything else was either too fancy or not fancy enough. I mean, you don’t want to pair a picture like that with something like Arial or Times New Roman. On the other hand, some butterfly font would have been way too fancy for a book of tales that often veered to the darker side of things.
Very few fonts related to sound or music in any meaningful way, but this one was almost perfect. It could be more easily legible when sized down, but other than that this went perfectly with the title illustration, the titular piece of flash fiction, and the overall content of the book.
However, unlike all the fonts I had used up until now, this one was free only for non-commercial use. Five dollars is a good price for a well-made font, though, so I gladly sent that over to the creator’s Paypal as asked to on the site.
Yeah, we are all struggling artists here, but I paid five dollars for far less useful things.

4. Translating is way harder than writing

Aside from 15 pieces of fiction previously published, this collection also includes three completely new ones and four translations. The translations turned out to be the culprit when it came to missing my deadline of Wednesday, August 3rd.
Turns out, translating already written text is much harder than writing something from scratch. The words are already there, but they are in a different language, written to suit that language’s vocabulary, sensitivities, even rhythm. You can’t just change the words into their counterparts, you have to rephrase everything without changing anything. That is hard, even when the words in the other language are your own. Maybe especially when they are your own words, chosen for reasons hard to apply in another language.
There’s a reason I write some of my work in German and some in English. And that reason is not planning with market size. Well, except for the Jurassic World book. That one I did write in English because of market size considerations.

5. A construction site does NOT make it easier

Somebody decided to build a few new houses across the road. Te last two weeks, they connected those to the water main. Meaning they opened the street with a huge buzzsaw-like contraption and then dug down with an excavator and some trucks, all driven by diesel engines. At least now they changed it to a truck with a built-in excavator.
Ain’t complainin’, just sayin’.

6. A story is never finished

Editing and especially translating my shorts taught me, you can always find something new to change in anything you did. A story can be part of a book consistently getting five-star reviews and still have jarring issues like details left out and characters changing their species (yes, species!).

7. Grammarly does help

Grammarly is by no means perfect. We often disagree about the necessity of an article for abstract nouns. But I do have problems with the use of commas in both my main languages and this is something the app excels at.

8. Backup, backup, backup!

About that incident in February: You know how barely anybody does a regular backup, even when it’s vital to what they do? Yeah, do backups. Once a week is probably a good rate.

9. I really need to finish this blog

Yeah, the English blog still has a few bugs to solve. Like something is really wrong with the book overview mixing up German and English titles. And the mobile theme needs to be replaced. I just rarely think about the latter because I rarely ever use a smartphone to go online.

10. The internet does forget

A zombie dinosaur short on io9 of all places had disappeared from their comment section when I tried to recover it. Huh.
I really liked that short. I hope I can recover it from my crashed hard drive to include in a later collection along with other tales lost in the crash.