Shady and I had an adventure with some very good friends from the Netherlands towards the end of 2019. We visited Dumbarton Castle and Auchentoshan Distillery, and at dinner they gave us a ‘verjaardagskalender’—a birthday calendar. They laughingly explained the rather Dutch gift to my American husband:
“You write the birthdays of all your friends in and hang it in the guest toilet, and whenever people go to the toilet at your house they sit on the pot and check to see if they made it into your calendar. So when we visit your house we’ll check if our birthdays are there.”
Shady hung up the calendar as instructed, and he fills out each month as we get to it. May’s picture is of a place I’ve never been: a terrace in Museumdorp Orvelte, in the province of Drenthe.
The thing is, I have been there. Not that specific location, but that sunny afternoon. The cobbled terrace outside a beautiful old building, the bicycles going by, the sound of women gossiping in fluent Dutch. It makes me homesick for a place I haven’t lived in over a decade. Self-isolation makes me long for places less than three miles away—let me walk down a busy street in town! let me sit in a bustling café!—but the curious mix of nostalgia and longing I get when I look at that picture hits like a freight train.
It’s no surprise. The ongoing isolation heightens emotions I’d know how to handle at other times. The whole thing feels like being a teenager again, with that sense that something is fighting to the surface of you and your body isn’t big enough to hold it. Just like back then, it has nowhere to go; there’s just a morass of uncertainty. What will the future hold? It can’t be predicted—not because you don’t know the world, this time, but because the world is changing too drastically for your past experiences to help you.
As if being a teenager once wasn’t enough!
I’m continuing to reach out to people, and my daily life isn’t that different from before. My musician dad does wonderful livestreams on Facebook every Sunday. My grandad sings “we’ll meet again” in the background of my phone calls with granny. I’m grateful for all the ways this isn’t affecting me—but sometimes I sit on the toilet for longer than I need to, and fall into a picture of a sunny terrace in the Netherlands.
I’ve wanted to do a blogpost about how Ash and I collaborate for ages. HOWEVER, we sent in the latest draft of our book last month, and it’s left us at loose ends. We’ve worked a little on our book 2 outline, but neither of us want to get really stuck into anything big while we wait for edits. As a result, for the first time in a while, I’m writing a new project (a short story) solo.
Unlike the triumphant song I just linked you mainly because it has the word ‘solo’ in it and I like it, going solo for me has been hard. Did you know that when you write alone, you have to write everything yourself? Did you know you have to ask other people for help when you need it, rather than having the help supplied without your asking? Did you know I’ve forgotten how to do all that?
Sometimes when collaborating, it sucks. Bad moods happen, and sometimes you get tired of having to communicate well. Both of us are needy for praise from the other, and when there’s no immediate positive response, feelings get hurt. That’s basically the worst part, and I say that as a person who used to HATE group projects.
So read that again: sometimes, in the process of writing hundreds of thousands of words together, Ash and I hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to. In terms of crosses to bear? That is a feather-light cross made of soft, foamy material.
Contrast with the positives. They’re too numerous to count. Built-in discussion partner who is exactly as invested as I am: check. We can joke and laugh about the characters, come up with silly scenarios (that sometimes make it into the book), and whenever one of us feels insecure, there’s a person who can provide immediate reassurance. No, the scene you just wrote doesn’t suck. Here are all the things I liked about it! Yes, this concern you have is valid… I have some ideas on how to fix it.
Do I sound nostalgic? I’m nostalgic. The short story I’m writing is cute, with swashbuckling and magic talents, but motivating myself is hard. I’m no longer used to building momentum alone. I get so tired of my own writing voice, and how often my characters fall into introspection I have to delete later. I can do it—it’s just less fun. Even with Ash reading it and encouraging me, it’s not the same.
I don’t want to lose the ability to write alone. That’s how most people write, and it’s good exercise for my brain. At least some of my reluctance is laziness. It’s hard being alone with your thoughts and wrestling with yourself without someone there to help—but it’s important too. To an extent.
To all you writers doing this solo: I have more respect for you than ever. Well done! To my future self NOT doing stuff solo: you lucky dog. Send me some of your energy; I need it.
* They haven’t gone anywhere I’m just being dramatic.
Lots of days are bad days. If I measured my moods by my grief and panic over political events—not to mention ecological ones—I don’t think I’d have a good day in my life. Constant sadness isn’t an option, but on the day the UK formally leaves the EU I think I can allow myself to feel it. I am what smug twitter commenters with the overall demeanour of Nelson from the Simpsons call a Remoaner. They tell us to face facts: we lost. The people voted. Men without compassion or integrity won—and now I have to see their glowing, victorious faces everywhere.
I’m not sure how I’d feel about Brexit if its proponents were less smug. If I felt this vote represented some true desire Brits had for a better, more unified country, maybe it would be easier to take—but I suspect it wouldn’t. It’s too personal. My childhood was a bona fide manifestation of the European dream. In this dream, my Scottish parents moved to the Netherlands, learned the language while having my brother and me, and I grew up with two home countries instead of one. It was an enormous privilege. The fact that my passport said ‘United Kingdom’ didn’t matter. UK meant EU. Maybe I was odd, not-quite-Dutch and not-quite-Scottish, but it’s an oddness that enriched my life rather than detracting from it. Sometimes I’m jealous of people with deep roots in one single place, who can answer “where’s home?” without stumbling through the answer, but that doesn’t mean I’d change anything. My odd upbringing, as well as the seven years in the USA after, mean no one can tell where I’m from by my accent—but I know where I’ve been. I’m grateful for the opportunities my family and I were given.
I want others to have them too.
Fast-forward through my years in America. I moved to Dundee in late 2014: not in time for Scotland’s vote on Independence, but in plenty of time to vote Remain in the EU referendum. Boris Johnson is selective in choosing when Scotland’s votes matter. They matter when Scottish people vote to stay in the UK—under threat that leaving the UK will force them out of the EU—but they don’t matter when Scottish people vote overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. It’s almost like he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.
(Spoiler alert: he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.)
In the interest of full disclosure—despite what my pro-Indie family might think of me for admitting this!—I wasn’t convinced on Independence when I moved to Scotland. Some part of me was glad I didn’t get a vote. I didn’t know the situation, and sentimental feelings inspired by folk songs and tragic stories of oppression don’t add up to a functioning government. Now I’ve lived here, and it’s a different story. I’ve seen clearly how the Scottish government shields us, at least in part, from England’s endless appetite for privatisation. The people in charge of England want their country to be just like America, where the environment and poor people’s lives come second to companies turning a profit. Makes sense for Tory politicians; they’re rich. They’ll never have to live in places like Grenfell Tower, and they don’t have to face the negative consequences of their policies. They don’t even have to face the consequences of lying to voters. It’s harrowing, and my heart hurts for all the people in England anticipating more of the same austerity that has already claimed too many lives—but I believe better is possible for Scotland. I see the work the people around me are doing, whether they were born here or simply adopted the country as their own. They’re working to get better pay for teachers, or to protect the environment, or to shine light on the horrific imprisonment of immigrants at Dungavel. I see them caring deeply about their communities and the public good. These are the people who deserve to inherit the Earth, not slogan-slinging hypocrites who confuse politeness with morality.
Regardless, I’m getting off track. This was meant to be about the EU, and it’s becoming about Scottish Independence. The thing is, I trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to human rights. I even trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to caring about Scotland. You’d have to walk around Scotland with blinders on not to see all the roads, parks, and organisations that have been supported by the EU. The fact that some EU rules don’t have their intended effect and ought to be reconsidered is par for the course; that’s how governments work. It’s an EU rule that stopped businesses from dumping their waste into our waterways. I’m sure that was extremely inconvenient at the time, but is anyone going to argue we’d be better off with polluted rivers?
Never mind—I’m sure someone would argue that. Letting businesses pollute your country is great for economic growth, after all.
I’m disappointed. I grieve for a thing I thought I couldn’t lose. Growing up I thought progress was inevitable, that society would always improve on itself until we built a world so great it was boring. I thought that when we saw injustice, we’d fix it—not capitalise on it. How ignorant was I?
Instead the reality is this, and I suspect many people born with less privilege knew it all along: movement towards a more equal society is driven by good people fighting for their rights and the rights of others. Women weren’t given the vote. African Americans weren’t given freedom. Not much is changing on this day—not in any physical sense—but something good is slipping further from our grasp. The EU’s founding values are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Things worth fighting for, and things worth holding the European Union accountable for when it falls short. I don’t want to leave. A majority of Scotland’s people don’t want to leave.
I don’t intend to go quietly. My friends and I will organise and whinge and protest. ‘Remoaner’ is right. Screw every disingenuous, rich prick who pushed us into this mess. They deserve to live the lives they consign others to.
Happy Friday. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Despite the title, this blog post is long overdue. If we’ve caught up recently you already know, but it finally happened: Ash and I found our agent! We’d just begun sending out queries for another project, and all of a sudden we got a response on the full manuscript request we’d dismissed as a rejection months ago. The day after the call where this agent offered us rep, we got two full manuscript requests for the other project. I’m glad I wasn’t documenting any of this at the time as my posts would have been just confused, high-pitched screaming. Is this real life? Why is it all happening at once?
The agent was Bobby O’Neil at FinePrint Literary, and we were half in love with him from the get-go—not the least because he liked what we’d begun to refer to as “our problem child”. Aka, book one of a space opera where flashy heroes do spear combat in vacuum with creepy alien parasites who call themselves Shepherds. This is the same book I talk about here in my long post about getting treatment for depression. It’s also not the same book, because we made so many changes, but that’s not relevant here. What’s relevant is that we learned and grew through this book, and generally had a beautiful but hard time with it, and someone came along who appreciated it. (Actually multiple someones—we apparently had a champion at the agency to whom we owe our eternal thanks.) I thought Ash might die when Bobby quoted a line from one of their sections of the book during the call; it was so weird for them to hear their lines read back by someone other than our inner circle.
After the call we had to let all agents with our manuscripts/queries/etc still in their inboxes know about the offer and wait two weeks to see if they’d throw their hat in the ring. It should have been a happy time—we had an offer!—but instead we were both impatient and antsy to sign with the person we felt such a preference for. Waiting turned out not to be our strong suit when something was actually happening.
That was months ago though. Well, two months. It feels like an eternity now. Since then, we’ve revamped the book and sent it back off for Bobby’s approval. I’m really proud of the changes we’ve made, and I think it’s a better book than before—and I liked it before! But I am biased, so maybe I can’t be trusted.
Anyway, that’s the update. I’m not sure about the next step—work on smaller stuff or edit our other project?—but I can’t wait to dig back into the space opera when we get comments back. Wish me luck having patience this time!
“Why would you frame such a non-event like there’s actual news?”
My reason is simple: “because”! Writing/publishing updates seem less interesting than reading updates. The querying process for book one of my space opera with Ash continues to be a waiting game, and we’re working on other things in the meantime. There are thousands of advice posts that can tell you about querying in general, so it feels boring for me to rehash it, even though I’m sure it’s at least mildly interesting for non-writers. The short version is: we’ve had lots of rejections and a few full & partial requests, but waiting on an answer is like waiting for a warm, non-windy day in Scotland. Suffice to say I’m not holding my breath.
This is where anyone reading with a focus on my career should stop reading, as no more progress-relevant details will be discussed from this point onward. My computer scientist husband beta-read this post and said that, while he enjoyed it (which I think he was telling the truth about), it’s ‘definitely a ramble’.
So here’s the actual subject of the post: the concept of being out of your time. Beyond your time. (Not to be confused with the platitude “ahead of their time”.) Does that make sense? You’re right, it doesn’t. Let me try to explain:
I’ve always loved stories about loneliness brought on by displacement. Being alive and a human being is hard, and in fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—we can see characters we love struggle through a landscape that makes this struggle more literal. A character can leave their home, their loved ones… but they can also leave the time they know, whether they spend years in stasis or walk into a mushroom circle to be transported three-hundred years into the future. That’s what I mean by “out of time”: a character leaves behind the world they know, and suddenly they’re somewhere temporally separated from all the things they care about. You can get a sense of the past that birthed them reaching for them, but that time will never reach them again. The people who were important then may have thought of the character, may have wished to speak to the character again, but those people are only memories now. And in the present, the character may long for those people—but can’t return.
It’s grief and change and the march of time we all experience put in more obvious terms, and no mushroom circles are needed in reality—but SFF dealing with characters “out of their time” gives a vivid illustration of something I know to be true:
You can’t go back.
The trope reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:
I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between places.
It’s simple truth, but I love seeing it written into the plot of a story. One story I love that dealt with a character out of her time is Medair, by Andrea K. Höst, which involves a champion who goes to find a mythical weapon that will turn the tide of the war destroying her empire—only to return, weapon in hand, centuries too late. Then there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game, where an outcast in a post-post-apocalyptic world goes in search of her mother and the truth of her society. She becomes a force to be reckoned with in the present, gaining recognition she would have longed for when she was an outcast child, but the search for truth leads her again and again into the distant past, to people she can’t possibly gain recognition from. She can’t punish those who did wrong; she can’t reassure those who hoped they did right. She’s a witness to a story that’s already unfolded, and it’s heartbreaking as well as hopeful as she’s forced to do what she can in the present.
Thousands of non-genre novels deal with the same theme. Characters try to connect with their ancestors and draw meaning from history—but I’m a shallow person who enjoys the shininess of fantasy and science fiction, where this quandary can be brought to the fore in especially beautiful ways.
Anyway, I digress. The nature of reaching for the past and falling just short of it brings us—at last!—to I Capture The Castle and the reason for this rambling post. This classic novel by Dodie Smith isn’t fantasy or science fiction, and doesn’t deal with any sort of time travel. It was just written in the past, which is the relevant point for me today. Smarter and more literary people than me can explain the book better I’m sure, but it’s an exploration of a girl’s adolescence as set down in her journals. She’s imaginative, introspective, given to flights of fancy and melodrama—and in her extremely sincere attempts to get to the heart of what this whole “being alive” thing is about, she has reminded generations of readers of their own adolescence, when they were experiencing things for the first time and filled with their own questions and musings.
And so: a book written in the past, depicting an imagined past inspired by the real past, sends readers back to their pasts. Then we come to what inspired this ramble. After the ending, I leafed back to a random page of the introduction to skim, and read the line “by her death in 1990—” about the author’s life and legacy.
I’ve looked it up: Dodie Smith died towards the end of November in 1990, about 3 months before I was born. There’s always something strange about people whose lifetimes didn’t quite overlap with yours. If I reached out towards the very start of my life, and she reached out to the very end of hers, our fingertips would almost—but not quite—touch. Yet the girl, time, and place she depicted in I Capture the Castle long ago connects with the me existing now and the imagined me I remember from my own adolescence.
The whole time connect/disconnect is a fanciful study in contrasts Cassandra Mortmain, main character and dreamer, would probably like. And the image excites me for all the intersections of past, present and future we get to experience just by being alive and interacting with our environment. Perhaps more importantly for me as a writer, it excites me for the way fiction allows us to connect beyond gaps that seem unbridgeable. Time is the longest distance, and anyway, I don’t want to brush shoulders (or fingertips!) with all the authors whose work I admire even if they happen to be alive today; meeting heroes can be disappointing. Still, it seems like a huge privilege that we get to share these experiences, whether the distance between author and reader is temporal or simply the distance between two squishy, differently wired brains.
Sometimes I look at the length of my to-read list and see it as a chore to be managed instead of an opportunity for the kind of connection that makes art seem worthwhile and life worth living, but I prefer it when it feels like this. All sparkly and full of opportunity.
Memories of my early writing days are patchy, but I still remember bits and pieces—and one thing I remember, quite fondly, is how I used to think I had to describe everything.
Imagine this: you are thirteen. You are a reader and a writer. The stories closest to your heart are the ones vivid with colour and meaning, so what do you do when you write? Well, that’s obvious: you try to do the same! Your unsuspecting characters (who have probably been described in excruciating detail) wander the world noting carpet colours and types of trees and what everyone is wearing, and you think you’re doing a good job because your readers will know exactly what to imagine.
It’s cute! It’s really cute. I love growth trajectories. My favourite parts of movies and TV shows and even books are often the training montages. Mulan going from trainwreck recruit to superstar in the Chinese army, the girl in the Grisha series learning how to use her magic at the academy, Kageyama Shigeo working his little heart out in the body improvement club to go from 0 stamina to 0.3 stamina…
You get the gist. That moment before you knew better is just the jumping off point. The twelve year-old girl who thought it was important to mention the carpet colour, dimensions, and smell of a room that was entered once in chapter three then never again is gone, because she learned better. But deciding what descriptions to keep and what to leave out is still a form of art, and I love to hear opinions from people as readers more so than writers. What descriptions are important to create a vibrant world in a reader’s mind, and which ones are duds that just slow the whole thing down to a crawl?
It’s an ongoing question for me. Sometimes I choose not to add environmental details, trusting readers to know their own minds—until I reread my work and realise the characters are floating in a jelly-like mass of nothing. Other times, I won’t shut up about the angle of light slanting in through a window. There’s a balance to be struck, and every day of writing is an effort in finding it.
What do you think as a reader? How much is too much? Can you read Lord of the Rings without skimming? Do you wish Brandon Sanderson novels were longer?
This wonderful post by Patricia C. Wrede (author of the fantastic Enchanted Forest Chronicle series & enchanted chocolate pot fame) is an interesting view of the subject. I don’t totally agree—I have friends who love reading who have read nothing but fanfiction for years because they enjoy the slower pace and the way fanfic can linger on details without caring too much about plot—but there are published novels and saga-length fanfictions that lost me as a reader because they refused to get to the point. There’s beauty in brevity:
Tastes differ. There’s no “right” way—but if you’re in a talky mood today as you read this post, I’d love to hear your opinion on what descriptions catch you. What books strike you as particularly vivid? When have you been annoyed by a lack of description, if ever?
I might know now that rooms entered once but never again should be described sparingly, but there’s plenty left to learn. If I think of authors whose descriptions have enchanted me in the details and phrasing, the first one I think of is Juliet Marillier, who writes lush historical fantasy romances. She cheats by being an author I read as a teen, but that’s not her fault. My quotes page bears the following passage from Child of the Prophecy, and I haven’t stopped loving it since I first read it a decade and a half ago:
It was a night of restless dreams, and I awoke before dawn, shivering under my woollen blanket, hearing the howl of the wind and the roar of the sea as it pounded the rocks of the Honeycomb. Not a good day to be abroad. Perhaps Dan Walker and his folk would decide to stay a little longer. But it never did happen that way. They were as true to their time as birds flying away for the winter, their arrivals and departures as precise as the movement of shadows in a sacred circle. You could count your year by them. The golden times. The gray times. It seemed to me the voice of the wind had words in it. I will sweep you bare… bare… I will take all… all… And the sea responded in kind. I am hungry… give me… give…
Child of the prophecy by juliet Marillier
Are you shivering? I’m shivering. I’m transported to beneath a woollen blanket, with the sea and the wind raging. Of course, a science fiction author writing about ship-based life (me) might envy Marillier for getting to harness these powerful natural images while they—poor SF authors that they are—deal with life aboard a dinky spaceship… but that’s all right. Even when I don’t get to play with certain images as a writer, getting to experience someone else’s talent as a reader is pretty awesome. It just makes me excited for other projects, where I will get to play with those things.
SO! I’m ready for homework, if you have homework to give. I refer to the questions above. You’re not required to answer—but I’d love to hear from people reading this. What descriptions have you enjoyed, and what details complete a book for you?
We could all stand to push our limits here and there.
Today my husband told me he was tired of seeing the otter on my front page. Putting aside the fact that people should never be tired of seeing cute otters, he did have a point: this blog has been gathering dust for a while. Well, let’s change that.
2018 was an incredibly uncomfortable year for me—and also a plain incredible one. It started, as all calendar years do, in winter. I had a good, consistent exercise routine, I endeavoured to eat healthy and write a lot, I was surrounded by people I loved and talked to them regularly… and I was miserable. At the time I put this down to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which didn’t make a huge deal of sense as I’d just spent almost three weeks in Florida celebrating Christmas and New Year with my family, but it turns out that feeling miserable all the time doesn’t leave you a lot of energy for accurate self-reflection.
Thankfully, it wasn’t just me seeing me. My misery was closely tied to my writing, and 2017 had seen me try something entirely new: co-writing a book. My co-author was Ash, a friend I’d met in fandom, and we had no idea what we were doing—but we did it anyway. We raced our way through NaNoWriMo, and then Ash kept going and I stalled out.
It wasn’t writing I hated—I still loved writing fanfiction—but I hated producing original content. It made me feel vulnerable, unqualified, forced to make decisions I didn’t want to make. (This post from July 10 2017 seems, in hindsight, a fairly obvious attempt to conquer those feelings; it didn’t work.) Ash and I had poured ourselves into this book we both loved, with characters we both loved, and I couldn’t stand to work on it. Needless to say, Ash had a few questions… and a few theories.
Eventually, I accepted the idea that I might need help. This became another problem, as my denial turned out to be the only thing keeping me afloat. Once I stopped denying how I felt—and how I’d been feeling for a long time—I became terrified that I’d visit my GP and he’d tell me I was fine. Worse: that this was just how I was going to feel for the rest of my life.
I went to my GP, and he didn’t tell me I was fine. He told me that, given my lifestyle (ie: doing ‘everything right’ yet still depressed), I was a good candidate for antidepressants. An uncomfortable adjustment period followed. The nausea was no joke, but over the course of about a month I started feeling different. It was REALLY odd. Music brought on a storm of emotions. I got angry sometimes, instead of feeling resigned. Colours seemed more vibrant.
Anyway, the ins and outs are too many and too legion to properly discuss in a blogpost that’s meant to be about writing. Suffice to say that, once I had Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors on my side, I had the energy and the capacity to make changes. It’s amazing what a brain can do when it’s not waging war with itself; knots years in the making began to untangle, and my relationship with myself improved. Finally I could relax—and once I could relax I could have fun.
It took time, but original writing became something I loved again, the way I loved it as a teenager before it ever occurred to me to doubt myself. I’ve had more joy in original writing the past year than I did in the five years previous. Being a ‘tortured artist’ helped me about as much in my writing career as repeatedly stubbing my toe would have.
Antidepressants aren’t the solution for every depressed person, but my experiences have given me some insight. I have no patience for people who see antidepressants as a quick fix or a band-aid. For one thing, it wasn’t quick. Every week I stumbled over a new stupid thing I had to change about myself to be happier. For another, so what if people need chemical help to feel happy? Sadness is not inherently more authentic than happiness. It’s just sadness. It feels bad and it drains your energy. It stops you from being able to fix the things that make you unhappy, then calls you lazy to boot.
I’m calling it: you can’t “mind over matter” when your mind doesn’t have the right matter. I’ve spent the past year unlearning all the unhealthy coping mechanisms I picked up in half a decade of struggling to overcome depression without medication; I ought to know. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe The Good Place actress Kristen Bell. She speaks openly about her mental health struggles, and hearing this from people like her—who seem bubbly and successful and like they couldn’t possibly struggle with anything more laborious than picking out cute outfits—should help people realise this isn’t about trying, or weakness, or a person’s community being unsupportive. The worst thing about going on meds for me was the sense that I had all the tools to be happy and yet somehow failed. I’d failed my family and my friends and myself. I’d taken all the love people around me gave, and I’d squandered it by letting myself fall into this pit.
Screw that outlook. Sometimes love isn’t enough. It doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s, and it doesn’t cure cancer, and it doesn’t cure depression. How lucky we are, then, that we live in a world where people are learning to treat these diseases.
I love writing again. I love coming up with characters and pelting them with problems. I love messaging Ash about what would happen if we stuck our characters in a supernatural novel instead of a science fiction one. At the most basic level, I love forming sentences in aesthetically pleasing ways, and letting an image take shape. I love this skill I have that, by my fifth year post-university, I’d learned to resent.
Some things don’t change with the right amount of serotonin. Rejection still sucks. Putting myself out there is still hard—but I’m lucky. I am so, so lucky. And thanks to modern medicine, the NHS, and the people around me, I can finally feel the truth of that statement.
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 Agegame—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, somehow, 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.