When a friend asks you to write a short story about an otter, you don’t walk, you run! (No, wait, you sit down and write it.) Inspired by this tweet/picture:
Story under the cut!
When a friend asks you to write a short story about an otter, you don’t walk, you run! (No, wait, you sit down and write it.) Inspired by this tweet/picture:
Story under the cut!
In another post that will make me say, “I don’t play as many games as it sounds like, I swear”, I’d like to talk about a game I played recently, and choice-based gaming in general, and (of course) how it might intersect with books and fan communities.
Bear with me—
Storytelling exists in all kinds of forms. Plays, comics, games, books, movies, stand-up—and they’re not interchangeable. I once saw an interview with comedian Bo Burnham where he talks about his frustration re: every popular story being cut and pasted into other media (x) which resonated with me. Stories are stories—but the story you can tell in a video game is different from the story you can tell in a book. The story you can tell in a book is different from what you can do in a comic. My tiny bit of experience writing comics with artist friends (more on this one day, maybe, hopefully—) frustrated me because suddenly I was forced to be brief and remember that each panel can only really contain a single gesture. You’re limited in this completely new way—but you also have new tools at your disposal. Each medium has special features that (when utilised) give the story told that extra oomph.
Life is Strange is a video game that tells a story—and the video game mechanics it uses to tell the story enhances it, instead of being incidental. A Life is Strange book or movie might be good, but it wouldn’t be great. To summarise (no spoilers, promise), LiS follows a girl (Max) who starts having realistic dreams about a cataclysmic event striking the coastal Oregon town where she attends university, soon after which she learns she can rewind time after instinctively using the power to stop another girl from being shot. Throughout the game, you make decisions—whether to take a phonecall, or report a fellow student, or steal money from the principal’s office, etc. The game segues through soft indie music and gold-washed beach scenes, yet there’s a constant feeling of dread, both from knowing Max’s vision might be coming and from a sense of personal responsibility for all decisions made up till that point.
If the game is successful in roping you in, you come out of it feeling like you’ve been through the wringer—like you’ve actually lived life as Max for a while, and like her choices had real weight (probably because you pondered them so long as the choice screen flickered in front of you). A book can’t do that. No matter how great a writer is, there’s just no way to include video game mechanics in a book—and why would you want to? Well… at the very end of Life is Strange, there is one big choice that totally splits player experience. No matter what you pick, the other option is 100% different. The big leagues of “choose your own adventure” (or “choose your own trauma”, to be honest)—and it reminded me of…
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of fanfiction, it’s basically writing done by fans, involving characters and/or settings from an already-existing story. For instance, a fanfic might imagine Harry Potter falling in love with someone other than Ginny, but it might also be a story about an original character going to Hogwarts after Harry has already left, or a closer look into some time in Harry’s life we already know happens but don’t know the details of. I’ve been aware of fanfiction since I was 11 years old, and sometimes involved with it, and seeing the ways stories can be reimagined does affect the way you interact with them. Now, when I see a TV show and hate the way something was done, I don’t accept it and move on; I use my imagination to fix it in my head—and so do millions of others. Sometimes, when they care enough, they write it out for others to read. Fanfiction is the bread and butter of a community of people who love a story—or some aspect of a story—enough to want to change it, or linger there longer, or get more of the same story.
To me, it seems like fanfiction answers a need we all have for our own choices and preferences to matter to a story like they do in a video game, even in media where they don’t matter. We can’t choose love interests for the main character of a book like we can in a Dragon Age game—but we might want to. However, being aware of this penchant for reinterpretation is a double-edged sword. In my own stories, I find myself wanting to leave things open, for people to decide for themselves the details of how characters feel. This ambiguity feels good at the time, because I like reinterpretations, and I like fanfiction, and I can see multiple ways for my characters to exist and have fulfilling lives—but it weakens the narrative in the long run. You can’t tell a story with zero commitment. You don’t have to spell everything out, or write a nineteen-years-later epilogue where everyone is neatly paired off, children in tow (cough), but decisions have to be made. What looks to me like room for interpretation could look like handwaving to readers. I have to remember I trust in my own vision, my own characters. Just because I love seeing a story split into 100 different directions online, doesn’t mean that’s the norm.
Life is strange, but fiction is shaped by a vision someone had: to tell a story, and to tell it in a specific way. Even in games, your decisions are bounded by what the writers wanted you to experience. You can’t have it all; a story can only do so many things. I might look at the ending of Life is Strange with envy, wishing I was allowed to write two endings to my books, to cater to different people—but unless that becomes a thing people do, I’ll just look like a noncommittal weirdo who doesn’t have faith in the story she’s telling.
It’s fun to think about the things you can do in one medium but not another. It’s important to remember what tools you have available, and use them to the fullest—but in the meantime, I’ll probably continue to be caught between possible story endings like a diner at a buffet choosing between desserts, wanting to return to my table with all of them. Since I can’t, I’ll have to choose and hope for the best. And if people don’t like it, well—there’s always fanfiction.
Dawn was a gradual affair. One moment couldn’t be separated from the next, but the stages had some distinction. First the realisation that black was not black but blue, then the world below the tiptoeing sky turning greyish, then splashes of colour on cloud—and then, frequently, everything all at once.
The Tesco trolley wasn’t aware of the sky changing. It stood on frosty ground, wheels planted, and by the time it became aware of its surroundings—became aware that the world was no longer blackness cut by yellow streetlights—it was utterly exposed. Sometime during the night it had been deposited at the very centre of a white-dusted field, no more than a hundred feet from the Tesco Extra where it lived. Now it faced the eastern sky alone as if in penance. The ominous bulk of the Tesco jutted out behind it, looming, to be sensed but not seen. Gradual as the dawn had been, it was too late now for the trolley to escape its master’s notice.
Oh no, it thought. Not again.
I’ve been meaning to get this blog back up and running for a while now, but going to the Write Stuff event (hosted by the always-wonderful Literary Dundee) was the final push. Here I am again! Since it’s mostly family and friends following me here, I thought I’d do a quick update on what I’ve been up to. Since last we spoke I have:
So now you’re all up to date. I swear video games don’t take up as much of my life as that list suggests, but when your writing projects tend to be 70,000+ words each there’s not much progress to report on a daily basis. It’s like trying to fill a bathtub but you only get to add a teaspoon of water a day, and sometimes you have to let the tub drain for a bit because something weird got in, and then you’re only allowed to fill it with your tears after that… kidding. Mostly. (Maybe.)
Anyway, hope this post finds you all healthy and happy! Belatedly: happy 2017.
* the Dragon Age series includes no on-screen dragon riding, though players may infer a dragon ride took place at one point
I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Ready Player One this week, and it’s made me think about settings. Okay—lots of things make me think about settings, but the book is what inspired the blog post.
Ready Player One takes place in our world a few decades from now. The world is pretty crummy—natural disasters, recessions, energy crises, etc—but it includes an expansive virtual reality world that almost makes up for the real world’s crappiness. In the virtual world, you can mute other players, design your own avatar, and explore a whole universe of fantasy and sci-fi worlds. You wouldn’t want to be in main character Wade’s real world, but a shot in that virtual reality? Sign me up
barring the fact that you apparently lose all progress when your avatar dies which is pretty much the lamest rule ever and can only be there to increase story tension but that’s another matter entirely. Shh, self.
AHEM. Anyway, I’ve always considered myself more of a characters person than a settings person. I never got through the Silmarillion; I couldn’t bring myself to care about a book that seemed to be just world-building—but of course there’s no such thing as a “just characters”-person. People don’t exist in empty white rooms. The way I see it, settings in escapist novels can entice readers in by having attractive qualities, or they can force readers to relate to the characters by being so soul-suckingly horrible that readers root for the main characters to change the setting. For instance, the setting for the Mistborn trilogy is grim, but there’s a cool magic system that pretty much allows characters to fly, and it’s set up in a way that makes it seem real—and the main characters are trying to change the world for the better. The characters in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe have to fight against oppression and foreign invaders, but they live magical lives that include facetime with gods and goddesses, who are always awe-inspiring. Lastly, horrible as it is, the pageantry in The Hunger Games makes for an engaging read while readers wait for Katniss to triumph against the odds. Setting is the backdrop for any scene, and much as I didn’t want to accept this when I was still finding my footing and only wanted to write “the good bits”, it matters. A lot.
When creating a fantasy world, or even depicting a real-world town, I think it’s important to give readers something to hold onto. The changing weather patterns above Hogwarts’s Great Hall might not be essential to the story, but they add a kind of glamour people remember. The same is true for any other fictional place, even when it’s set in the real world—and even when only the story is fictional. What’s special about the place? Why would people escape to it? I think it’s important to know why you’re creating the world you’re creating, and what purpose it serves in the story. If it could be replaced by a green screen or persistent fog, wouldn’t it be better to add something else to draw people in? I think so—but then, I am a fulltime, grade A escapist. This player one is always ready to head for the fictional hills. Some flicker of hope is vital to my favourite escapes, and I prefer some scenic backdrops along the way. What’s essential to your favourite fictional places to go?
For a while now I’ve been promising the amazing Ingrid that I’d write “that post” about the Hunger Games. You know—the one that compares the books to the movies and finds the movies wanting. Until Mockingjay Pt 2 came out, I didn’t think I’d be writing a post like that, because—apart from the first film—I thought many of the book-to-movie changes had been well done.
Unfortunately, here we are..!
Turn back the clock a few years to when the first Hunger Games movie came out. My facebook feed was awash with people complaining that it was either a cheap imitation of Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale, depending on who you asked. I’ve only read summaries of these works—and passionate arguments that people miss the point of LotF by ignoring that it’s a response to The Coral Island—but I doubt they’re the same thing. Fights to the death, yes—but that’s the grisly window dressing, not the point.
The Hunger Games series, for me, was the reverse hero’s journey. It’s the Disney’s Hercules scene where Hercules jumps into the green underworld goop to rescue Meg (Prim), but he fails and never goes back to being his shiny muscle-bound self; in fact, people have to stop him several times from jumping into the underworld toilet bowl himself. Katniss doesn’t emerge from her story a hero; she emerges from her story heavily scarred and unable to perform basic tasks, at least until much later, after a concentrated effort to heal and put trauma behind her. I saw that referenced in the movie, but I never quite believed it. I waited dry-eyed for Katniss’s grief to move me (I was crying five minutes into Mockingjay Pt 1) and found myself unmoved. What the hell, movie?! I knowingly didn’t wear make up when I went to see you!
Anyway, to recap the books: at the start of the story we have a heroine who’s willing to sacrifice herself for her sister, but who still fights tooth and nail for survival. At the end (minus the epilogue), we have a heroine who just wants to die. When she can’t take a suicide pill, she starves herself. She suffers from PTSD (has done for two books now) and she’s physically so weak that, back in District 12 after going out to her old haunts, she has to be rolled back to her house in a cart used to move the bodies of the dead.
In the movie, I didn’t see that weakness. Her burn wounds healed in a matter of moments, and the next time I saw her she was made up and perfect. She was composed and beautiful days after her great loss, and I don’t recall a scene where a team made up a gaunt and lifeless Katniss—I couldn’t tell that she was empty on the inside, though of course it’s harder to show that on screen. Still, to my mind, movie Katniss went from strength to strength, overcoming incredible trauma to deliver a trite lecture on survival in the last few minutes of the film. If the movies hadn’t been split into two parts I might have accepted the lack of emotional development (or degeneration, I suppose), but with the amount of time this movie had to spend on characters I’d hoped for more, and it makes me suspicious that one of the biggest themes in The Hunger Games—the eventual helplessness and trauma of the hero—was not deemed acceptable movie material.
Anyway, that’s my two cents. I think the last movie was made too palatable for general audiences, and I say that as someone who pretty much hated the last book in the series. I hated it—but I hated it because I wanted to believe the hero could always overcome the odds, and Katniss couldn’t. What made for a dull narrative (hero is always caught up in other people’s struggles, loses will to live, is moved about by other players) made for a powerful message. If the message had happened in a literature book it would have been acknowledged, but because it happened in a dystopian YA book, I think people ignored how unusual it was, and the movie didn’t manage to carry it to a wider audience. Hence, disappointment—and that’s it for The Hunger Games post. Long story short, I believe Collins deserves credit for writing an unusual narrative that acknowledges trauma, the helplessness of political figureheads, and how long it can take to heal. The movies, while improving on certain aspects, failed to carry that message home.
This post was going to be titled “reading as a child”, but I was twelve once, and while I might look back now and label who I was then a child, I wouldn’t have done so at the time. Furthermore, I volunteered with middle schoolers for a brief happy period in 2013/4, and I volunteer with primary school children now, and while both age groups are charming in their own ways (and infuriating in their own ways), there’s really no way to lump them together.
Incoming: huge wave of nostalgia.
I grew up in the Harry Potter generation. One vivid memory I have is of primary school me feeling a huge amount of pity for my older brother, who was past age eleven and never got his letter from Hogwarts. I mean, I probably realised that mine wouldn’t be forthcoming either, but I did have this self-indulgent theory that JK Rowling was a wizarding world whistleblower who’d gotten away with writing the HP books because no one would believe her anyway.
(Nobody but me, and probably thousands of other hopeful children—but I digress.)
Harry Potter is one of the most visible book series in the world, and I love to talk about it because so many of us know it. You don’t ever have to explain the significance of Harry Potter to a 20+ year old; everyone’s used to the discourse. It’s harder to explain your other “young book loves” to friends. It’s been over a decade since I was a young girl refreshing Tamora Pierce’s site frequently to see if Trickster’s Choice was going to come out any sooner, but to this day I still remember the first line of the little excerpt she had up as if it’s a prayer I learned as a child:
Nawat stood against the wall, relaxed and alert…
I think any child who grew into a “big reader” has a few dozen books like this—books read early on, that can’t be seen objectively. A preteen reader experiences many things for the first time: kisses, betrayal, loss, romantic love. When I was twelve, I didn’t want to read about twelve-year-olds; they were too young, and that made them boring. I wanted to read about sixteen-year-olds, who got to do things I couldn’t do yet, who were amazing, who were clever and resourceful and basically non-boring adults.
It’s hard to look at young adult stories now and predict how I might have reacted to them if I’d been younger. Often, I read criticism that characters read as “too old”—adults in sixteen-year-old bodies. But would I see it that way back in my fit-the-demographic days? I never had trouble believing sixteen-year-olds could be brilliant, or could fall deeply in love with someone they belonged with, or-or-or-or. Sure, a modern-world sixteen-year-old who calls instead of texting would be absurd, unless there was some explanation, but a sixteen-year-old saving the world? Makes sense, doesn’t it?
And yet now, while I still think sixteen-year-olds are amazing and can do great things, there’s a part of me that’s just a little uncomfortable with the unintentional narrative that says you finish growing around the time you’re eighteen, once you’re done saving the world. I didn’t question this as a young teen, but now—surrounded by smart twenty-somethings who feel like failures for not having made all their dreams come true—I wonder if the boom in YA without a corresponding boom in (new) adult stories about people still growing is doing people a disservice. Still, this is mostly a question for another time, and I’m digressing yet again.
So: if an adult looks at someone 16-18 and thinks “person who is not yet fully formed and might not have the life experience to see how their decisions will affect them”, and if young adults look at people 16-18 and see “adult”, or at least “person in charge of own destiny who can make smart decisions and understand the consequences of their actions”, who are YA books written for? Should a YA writer try to move against the perception that the person you fall in love with at 14/15/16 is your forever-person? Is #veryrealisticya the way to go? (Probably not; your book would be used as a pillow more often than not if it accurately represented teenage life.) I don’t really have answers to these questions, but I know that what I read when I was 10-16 is important to me in a way no other books will emulate. And I know that teens now deserve fantastic narratives they can connect with—with better representation of race, gender, sexuality, etc. They deserve a safe place to have adventures, to experience their first heartbreak, to squirm over fictional kisses—the list goes on. These are books they will carry with them for the rest of their lives, and if the young characters are read by adults as being too mature, or too smart, is that really a bad thing? I’m not sure. Perhaps it breeds false expectations—but it inspires, too.
In sum, there’s no substitute for what it’s like to read when you’re young, when everything is a first. Being told your growth is important by the books you’re reading is a wonderful thing. But then—and I might just be saying this because I’ve aged out of the target demographic I so enjoyed being in—I don’t think it hurts for adults to read that either.
Just a quick update to say I’ve finished the first draft of my fourth manuscript. This one’s a young adult fantasy novel, and it’s been a lot of fun to write. I already know I need to make some pretty big changes before I try to sell it to anyone—basically, I need to spruce up the setting and organise scenes/events better—but I love the characters and their journeys.
I’d like to say I look forward to the rewrite but I totally don’t. I’m going to have to be so organised… there will be lists… ugh, no, I can’t think about this just now or my rough-draft-finished euphoria will straight up vanish. Suffice to say I’ve got plenty left to do when I come back to this draft in a month or two.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to celebrate, I offer up this occasion gladly.
In November of 2014, I moved further north than I’d ever lived before—to Dundee, on the east coast (ish) of Scotland. There were a lot of warnings about the weather, and how oppressive it could be in winter, but my husband and I were pleasantly surprised. “Manageable,” we concluded in the spring of 2015. “Not that bad.”
Fast-forward to last winter, when suddenly the place I lived felt less like Dundee and more like The Pit Of Eternal Night. There seemed to be two types of darkness: day-dark and night-dark. It shook me to feel so disconnected from nature, even though I don’t consider myself a particularly outdoorsy person. Seasonal affective disorder reared its ugly head, and I clung to my blue daylight lamp like a lifeline—even though it strengthened the impression of being on some spaceship where light from an actual sun was a distant dream.
Given the opportunity to write about an oppressive (not snowy—oppressive) winter, I could easily call specifics to mind. The days that barely dawned, the damp feel of the air, how grey a city can look and how little the yellow streetlights do to combat it. Each time I move somewhere, there’s a different feeling, a different way of life, a different slant to the seasons—in short, a different everything, and it makes me leery of writing about any place I haven’t lived, and even about places that I have. My memories of the Netherlands are all cycling, school, train stations. Do I know what it’s like to live there now, as an adult? Could I write it convincingly? Does Alexander McCall Smith ever worry if he’s getting Edinburgh “right” in his books?
With fantasy, local knowledge problems don’t exist in the same way. You come up with a world and a climate and you stick with it. It’s inspired by the real world, or what you imagine the real world to be, but it isn’t bounded by it; that draws me, but lately I’ve been enjoying books set in the real world too. Moving around hasn’t made me any less curious about all the other places out there, and reading books by authors with local knowledge is the only way I’ll get to experience them. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng sent me to Malaysia; Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought me to Nigeria. The fact that they were novels—not nonfic, which I still don’t have the stomach for—kept me invested. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a book like that, one that sets the reader firmly in one locale, expertly written—but it’s interesting to think about.
Could you write about your town, city, village, if you wanted to? Would you want to? And how much complaining about the weather would there be?
Orcs. Elves. Trolls. Goblins. You know them… I know them… we all know them. Reading high fantasy and playing fantasy games—tabletop or system-based—produces a familiarity with fantasy races that can make them seem just a bit, well… tedious. Hence, I propose a new swathe of fantasy races. Really original ones. Not at all derivative. Are you ready?
The name says it all: little green creatures obsessed with space. Found at high elevation on clear nights. Will beat you up for a look at your telescope.
Front part of an eagle… back part of a spider. Can shoot web from its spinner, but really doesn’t have to; most prey are too busy puking in fear and disgust. “It’s a bird—no, it’s a spider! Oh god, it’s both!” are frequent last words.
Hate trees. Will shoot you with a blunderbuss if you try to sing the ancient song of your people. Like to spray paint naughty images on hedges.
Basically beaver people. Live near rivers. Really cute. Pretend to hate politics but spend all their time on the Beavnet sharing barely fact-checked articles.
Not humans who occasionally turn into sausages, but rather humans who, on the night of the full moon, transform into their worst selves. It’s hard to tell from an outsider’s perspective whether someone is a wereworst or just a genuine dickhead, though practiced wereworsts lock themselves up in their rooms during the transformation. (Unfortunately, many of them still have an internet connection.)
Roly-poly creatures who are just looking for a home. Will often roll into the midst of a heated debate or awkward break-up. “Oh, you don’t want me here? It’s… it’s fine. I’ll go. I have nowhere else to be, but I’ll go.” Their specialty is making you feel bad for telling them to go away, then lingering in case you change your mind and apologise.
What do you think? Bring on the modern mythology books, right? Okay, just kidding, but it’s pretty fun to think of fantasy races, both existing and new, and wonder what would work in a book… and what wouldn’t. Do you have any creations to add?