775 Words | Reading Time: About 3:52 minutes
How about a new flash piece? It’s an answer to a challenge by Chuck Wendig again, this week asking for a story about an invasive species. I might have misinterpreted that adjective slightly. Or hit his hidden meaning on the head. I don’t seem to be the only one going this route, at least.
Warning, though: Not for the squeamish.
“Tell me, Mister Sammer, do you happen to sleep on your side?”
“I do, but I don’t think my arm has just become numb from me sleeping on it. This has been going on for far too long now to be that.”
Doctor Gern mustered the inner side of Georg’s arm once more. Passing his forearm, his eyes fixated on something they seemed to have found in his armpit.
“That’s not what I mean by that. I can see a very peculiar wound down here. Do you happen to lie on the left side sleeping?”
“Almost circular and looking rather new. You say, your arm feels extremely light and your hands don’t respond like they should. I have to assume there is a problem with your muscles’ attachment to the bone, and I think I know the reason why. Did any liquid leak from your armpit, did you spot any discolorations in your mattress the last few days?”
“Not as far as I remember. Is that something more common?”
“It wasn’t before, but this month your are the fifth showing symptoms like that. I expect the X-ray any minute now, it should tell the rest of the story.”
As if she heard the doctor’s call for it, the assistant entered the room, x-ray under her arm. She put it on the illuminated wall for displayed x-rays and left without a word. The outline and bones of an arm showed. One of the forearm’s bones seemed very pale in comparison to the glowing white the light gave the other bones in the picture.
“Just as I thought,” Doctor Gern said, moved in to take a closer look of the image again, return with eyes calming Georg with the confidence reflected in them, gripped Georg Sammer’s arm with both hands, and smashed it on the table. CRACK it went as his ulna easily burst into pieces. And yet, the pain was no worse than that of a hand slapping his skin.
“Are you nuts?! You’re supposed to fix my arm, not shatter it!”
“That’s just what I did. Didn’t you realize this barely hurt when a bone shattering should cause excruciating pain?”
“I don’t have my arm broken all that often,” he replied perplexed.
“Look at the x-ray, don’ you see something peculiar there?”
“One fo the bones looks really pale.”
“I don’t see anything special.”
“You don’t? So you think it’s normal there are six white beams coming out of the ulna’s side and two more going into your hand?”
“You’re the doctor, you tell me!”
“No, it’s not normal at all. Most bones in the human body don’t have legs and antennae sticking out.”
“They don’t have what?”
“Legs and antennae. You see, you have caught a parasitic phasmid. Had caught, it should be dead now. We remove the remains of the dead phasmid in a minute.”
“I caught what?”
“A parasitic phasmid. A stick insect making a home in the victim’s limbs by replacing certain bones with themselves, living off their blood. All painless thanks to chemicals they give off, but the effects still bewilder the patients, as you just experienced. Did you know stick insects can give birth to live young without involving a male? They then crawl out of the entry wound and nestle into the mattress until another person sleeps there or they can enter an uninfected limb on the original host. Nasty little bug climate change has begun to draw out of the tropics.”
And that is the story how Ludwig Sammer convinced his son to take over the family business as an exterminator after all. All thanks to the help of a friend who was also the family doctor with a strange enthusiasm in parasitology and a few genetic engineers he knew from college. And the story how they introduced a new terror to the world, keeping people awake at night. Oh well, some eggs ought to be cracked. It was all for the good of the family, after all.
1596 Words | Reading Time: About 7:58 minutes
Doing a series is very common advice given to authors who ant to sell more. So, many authors do a trilogy, maybe even a series of four or five. But when we look at the world of traditional media, we often see series that are far longer. How do these series manage not to run out of steam?
There are many perils to having a long series. The conflict the series is based on might get resolved, the conflict might become pointless through character and world development, or reader preferences change away from the initial focus of a series. So how do some of the longest-running series attract reader interest for decades?
Let’s look at some of them.
It may be a series virtually unknown to most English-speaking audiences, but a feature like this has to start with Perry Rhodan. Running for 56 years, reaching over 4,000 books (including spin-offs), not counting comic books, short stories, and the like, this is the most successful science fiction series in the world sales-wise. In fact, it is the most successful book series ever written at about 2 billion copies combined.
This brings with it serious challenges. The first issue has titular character Major Perry Rhodan become the first person to set foot on the moon in 1971, meeting some stranded aliens in the process. Basically, everything is completely outdated. The publisher can’t expect anybody to start the series at book 1 — it’s hard to come by, completely outdated in almost every way from the writing to the science, and the sheer number of books in the series is intimidating.
To keep the series accessible to new readers, the series is separated into series much like seasons. A series may be anywhere from 25 to 100 issues long (half a year up to two years). Everything outside this specific piece of the overall series is largely irrelevant to the current story and becomes part of the worldbuilding. E.g. while it is vital information to know Terrania is the capital of Earth and its various space empires, you don’t need the story of its foundation and how it ended up being located in Mongolia due to the Cold War.
In addition to this, every now and then, the series will skip some time between seasons to further separate their interdependence. Or some centuries (the main characters do not age). Whatever option works best for the changes to the setting introduced for the next story arc. Star Trek works in a similar way. Each series of the franchise focuses on the crew of one ship (or space station in the case of Deep Space Nine). It was only after several series failing to click with viewers the franchise entered a reboot. And a weird one at that. We’ll get to that in the section on comic books.
Let’s switch to the second-longest running science fiction series of all time. Doctor Who has ben running for 54 years. Even when it got canceled in 1989 and restarted in 2005, books and audio drama continued the title.
With its restart finally managing to capture American audiences, the franchise has become one of the largets in the world.
As a tv series, it has the problem of actors aging and eventually ending their careers, be it from death or just retirement (followed by death, eventually). So they invented regeneration, a process by which characters that have the rank of a timelord (a noble title among the Gallifreyan species, later changed to the name of the species itself) gain a new life upon death (with or without previous retirement plans). This creates an in-universe explanation why the actor suddenly changes.
But this is also a viable refreshing method for authors: Along with the face, the character’s personality undergoes some major changes and in the end, a completely different person might go out, traveling through all of space and time.
The similarly long-lived movie series James Bond tip-toes around a non-science-fiction variation on this, with Ian Fleming stating the name is not 007′s real name, but an alias that comes with the job. Some of the movies contradict this — e.g. Daniel Craig’s character in Casino Royal is clearly named Bond even before he becomes 007. Still, it’s an example of a more down-to-earth version of the same idea.
Anthology series are nothing new, with both Tales from the Crypt and Twilight Zone being major brands of stories that are mostly disconnected from each other, giving them a lot of creative freedom. But German tv crime fiction series Tatort (translates to crime scene) is a beast very much its own.
What Tatort does is being composed of several series running intertwined. Imagine there was only one series of CSI, but every week it would change its cast and setting to return a few weeks later. What this does is, it gives the writers more time to craft a new story for the characters of one setting while giving fans of the genre something else to see and keep their connection to the brand. Different teams and in fact different publishers work on each series within the series to market it under one joint brand.
Even when some of the sub-series are bad (which happens all the time), the overall brand persists. It’s been running for 47 years now, reaching 1,000 feature-length episodes.
80 years of continuous publication is quite the feat, probably a record in fiction. It is held by Detective Comics, home to Batman. Superman’s Action Comics follows along, running for 77 years now.
For a long time, comic books did not care much for being series. Characters would get introduced and return, and the hero’s powers would be fleshed out, but other than that each issue was a story unto itself. When that changed from the 60′s on, problems arose. Problems that needed fixing.
Because of their disjointed nature, comic books were a mess of conflicting information from different books. Often, this got resolved by splitting the shared world of a publisher’s books into several universes. That did anything but making this easier. Now readers had to keep track what character was in what universe, including things like three different supermen having adventures at the same time at one point. Thus, universe reboots became a regular thing.
What happens in comic books is that every now and then, characters or whole worlds get restarted. DC Comics did this twice with its complete lineup by ending the world and starting anew. Marvel Comics tends to kill off characters to restart them on their own, like when villain Onslaught killed the Fantastic Four and Avengers, for them to return after being reborn in a separate universe.
And this leads us to the reboot spin-off. Where a series continues on its own while a modernized version runs parallel for new readers who don’t want or can’t get into all the stuff that has happened over the decades of publishing. Marvel’s Ultimate series are an example with the most popular books getting spin-offs that completely restarted a character while the same character would go on unaffected in their old book. Naturally, that creates confusion and eventually, all their series would merge again, coming full circle.
I guess the take-away here is how comic books manage to stay afloat even though even after more than 70 years, they still don’t know what they’re doing, and keep repeating their old mistakes.
I promised to get into Star Trek a little more, so: Star Trek managed to simultaneously delete its history and keep the worst parts of it. Basically, Mister Spock traveled to the past and deleted the future he came from in the process so iconic character James T. Kirk could be cast with a new actor to experience new adventures. In theory, this creates an original universe that still offers space for new adventures as well as a new universe to be defined. The same goes for Star Wars when almost everything except the movies was declared a separate entity from the main franchise (Star Wars Legends) after Disney took over the brand. Weirdly, both franchises have not done anything with that so far. Maybe they saw the struggles comic books go through with this. And, on the bad end of this, both series retained their most controversial additions for their new versions, Enterprise and Episode I-III, respectively.
63 years and about 30 movies feature everybody’s favorite Lovecraftian abomination, Gojira, king of the monsters and especially the kaiju. Godzilla‘s most noteworthy strategy for staying current is probably its inherent iconicity, but its regular reboots help. The former makes it its own genre surviving even the most terrible of movies by sheer reputation, the latter ensures those most terrible of movies can just be ignored.
The series had its misdirections, but everybody knows by now that just means a reboot is coming to try and return the giant dinosaur that is definitely not a mutated iguana to its former glory.
Thing is, I don’t think authors will be able to deliberately recreate this strategy.
Soap Operas are fascinating. They do persist and nobody knows, why. I’m a little too removed from that genre to pick one, but I think their solution to the problem of continuity is the same across the board: Have none!
And because I feel like being lazy after about 1,400 words in a single blog post (instead of a book), I just let Austin McConnell take this one, including a very impressive description of how long some of these series have been running:
999 Words | Reading Time: About 4:59 minutes
Okay, let’s finish this then. So far, I have covered the two large narration-driven types of games: Visual Novels and their ambitious younger brother, the mighty role-playing game.
Of course, these are only two types of games in a universe of such. Howeve,r the other genres tend to be gameplay-driven. This means, they are games first and are defined by the way players interact with their world. That is perfectly fine, but there is little to discuss here for writers: The plot tends to either be integral to the play (which is very hard to do for anybody new to this), or to be told in short film sequences (so-called cutscenes) serving as a pause in between sessions of shooting stuff.
There are two more narrative-driven types to mention. I skipped over the interactive fiction category for being outdated, but Gamasutra has created a nice list of recommended titles I can recommend. Then there’s the point-and-click adventure which I am simply not familiar enough with.
What I will do now is a short overview over the most important remaining gametypes.
Yep, this is the one featuring everybody
Let’s Do This!
First Person Shooter (FPS)
Arguably the most successful type on the market at the moment, the first person shooter has you see the world from a character’s eyes and your main goal is to shoot your enemies and progress in the game. Story is usually told through videos pausing the game, though characters talking about stuff during the game may also appear. Extremely sophisticated genre with high expectations to be tackled by experienced developers.
Notable examples: Doom, Halo, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, countless others
Third Person Shooter
Basically the same as the First Person Shooter, but you see the main character from the outside, a virtual camera following him around.
Notable example: Gears of War
A weirdly ill-defined type. In general, games that focus on puzzle-solving get lumped into this category. Often, the story is told through the puzzles or in the form of cutscenes typically following after the player successfuly solved a puzzle. Characters talking to each other or the main character during play commonly add to this.
Notable examples: Tomb Raider series, Uncharted series, The Last of Us. Currently the most popular type with emphasis on narrative, but hard and expensive to create.
Any game where the player can explore a big world on his or her own doing anything they want. Storytelling is mostly done during task and mission assignments. The story will usually make up a series of missions the player can choose to do or not to do. This type will frequently mix with others.
Notable examples: GTA IV, Far Cry series
Games where the main challenge is to navigate the environment, often through jumps to platforms (hence the name) strewn about. Enemies tend to be an anonymous force to be taken out by jumping on their heads. Think the Super Mario series. Tends to feature very little story that is provided by text before and after traversing each area.
Shoot em Up or Shmup or STGs
Bullets, bullets everywhere! You shoot colorful bullets to shoot down your enemies. Your enemies shoot hundreds of colorful bullets to avoid. You see your character either from above or form the side, constantly flying or driving upward or to the right on your screen, avoiding or shooting down enemies. Little to no story with some players even complaining about story in their shooters. Rather easy to create, but their players like to be challenged and are a tough crowd to please.
Players control not one character, but an army. They see a map of the surrounding area and order units to move around on it to uncover more of the map, encounter enemies and engage them while more units are built in your base to defeat the opposing army. Again, light on story with a few exceptions providing it in between missions. Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri is a notable strategy game with a deep storyline.
A game with a horror vibe in atmosphere. The character is often weaker than his or her enemies or running low on ammunition for their guns. Story is delivered by characters talking to each other and through world-building.
Notable examples: Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil.
Here’s one genre authors might want to consider. The name was supposed to be an insult, but fans embraced it, esepcially as this game has not yet gained an official name. Exploration Games gets thrown around a lot, though. These are games that find you wandering a world, often completely alone.
The player does not get told a story, but the story of the world they’re exploring gets discovered through the marks it left on the world. Notes, seemingly out of place objects, messages through the radio or phone, and so on. Despite their bad reputation, those games are a challenge, but an interesting one. Creators have to make sure their story shines through in their worldbuilding. Actually an interesting type to practice on the old “Show don’t tell” rule. Often in these games, you don’t get the opportunity to tell much. All you can ever do is show things. There are no characters present, except in what they left behind when they existed.
Notable exmaples: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther
This was a rough overview over the most important videogame types that tend to provide notable stories at least every now and then. This list is anything but complete. Sme types like racing or sports games require little to no explanation on what they are and are also almost completely devoid of plot. Others are too specific or exotic to include, with many mobile games becoming their own thing followed by countless copies (e.g. clicker games).
Maybe I will expand this later down the roaad. But next week, I’ll tackle soemthing different again.
836 Words | Reading Time: About 4:10 minutes
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
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
Let’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 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!
Now 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
One 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.
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.
1237 Words | Reading Time: About 6:11 minutes
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.
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.
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.
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.
727 Words | Reading Time: About 3:38 minutes
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
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.
In 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.
Boiling 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
Are 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
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
Okay, 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.
849 Words | Reading Time: About 4:14 minutes
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
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.
1386 Words | Reading Time: About 6:55 minutes
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 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
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.
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?
855 Words | Reading Time: About 4:16 minutes
So, 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.