What I earned this year

Full-time writers in Australia have an average income of around $12,000 (I know, yikes). In Canberra, which has a lot of good public service jobs, the average income is around $52,000.

I just did my taxes, and worked out that I earned just under $20,000 last financial year while working full-time. 100% of that came from writing (the vast majority from interactive fiction). So depending on one’s perspective, that’s either really impressively awesome, or shockingly awful.

If I was healthy and single and childless, I could probably survive on $20,000 a year. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve lived on the edge before. (I once spent $5/week on food for several months—but that was certainly not sustainable, even for a young and healthy person during friendly weather.) On the other hand, if I’d been babysitting for the same number of hours I spent writing, I’d have earned at least twice as much.

So, again, whether it’s awesomely good or awesomely bad is a matter of perspective.

It should be noted that I’m not healthy, or single, or childless. I keep a complicated house running fairly smoothly, and I look after two little people (and, in some respects, Chris—he is my carer in many ways, and I am his in some ways too). I am overwhelmingly not a healthy person, and some days I barely function at all.

So. $20,000. It’s both a huge and a tiny amount, and it’s $20,000 more than I earned for most of my writing career. Plus I can say “writing career” without sarcastic quotes these days.

It’s in my nature to always push myself for more. I’m sure that if I earned $100,000 last financial year I’d be looking for ways to earn more, or work less, or something. A lot of creative people look at others and think, “Wow. If my career was where theirs is, I’d be so satisfied!” I definitely remember specifically aiming for the impossible amount of $20,000/year at some point—a point at which $20,000 was as laughable as $100,000 is now.

I also have a book published—two, in fact, and at least four more on the way. I’m so famous that people seek me out at conferences, waiting for my latest book. I get fan mail quite often. I get people—quite a few people—saying “This is the best story I’ve ever read”. I even get actual reputable game companies emailing me to offer me work (I have two REALLY COOL projects on the go at the moment that I can’t talk about). My income doesn’t even cover our mortgage (or the medical expenses of this year), but why should it? I’m the closest thing to a stay at home parent our household has, so I’m doing a bunch of important and often difficult work before I earn a cent.

Have I convinced you that I’m not just messing around with this writing thing (after more than twenty years of devoting myself to the craft)? More importantly, have I convinced myself? Maybe a little bit. Certainly it’s time to pause and celebrate how far I’ve come, and to shift some of my pile of insecurities into the “irrational” pile.

So, yay. Much yay. And I suspect this financial year will be even better!

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Artist’s impression of a life of leisure.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

One of the gifts my parents gave me was the belief that writing is not a job, but a hobby. I didn’t write full-time until I was unable to do any other work (and I’m still not making minimum wage, even though I’m well above the average Australian full-time writer’s income of $12,000/year)

I am giving Louisette the same gift, assuring her that her stories are excellent and at the same time teaching her that if she’s a writer she’ll be something else as well.

It happens that she really is a good storyteller, with an epic imagination. At one stage she had had about thirty imaginary friends, puppies, horses, and relatives (including imaginary parents), as well as a range of vehicles to bring them all along with us.

She also has a great mind for science and engineering, which I loudly and unconditionally encourage. Last Christmas we bought her ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, which she loves, and which led to her winning a school prize for a House-Car-Plane device this year.

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This year one of her gifts is this building kit, which includes its own motor! How cool is that, for $25ish!

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But I digress.

Today, for the first time, she pointed out a plot hole in a TV show (specifically, “Why doesn’t the yellow dog go with the blue dog to make the fence? They’re both builders.”) That warmed my writerly heart.

But then I read her the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, bracing myself for my harshest review ever. Not only did she like the story and immediately care about the outcome (phew!) but she understood and extrapolated the universe of the story.

Rahana is a fairly low-tech world (although their ships are more advanced than the rest of their tech due to the fact that the world is made up of thousands of islands), and in the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE an isolated and defenceless island wakes in terror at the news that a pirate ship is approaching.

I asked Louisette what she was worried about in the story. She said she was worried about the pirates coming, because Dance and her family, “don’t have swords or shields or anything”.

Here’s the thing: I never mentioned any kind of weapon in the story. She figured out the technology level because of her knowledge of history and/or the conventions of fantasy fiction!

I’m misty-eyed just thinking about it.

THEN she blew my mind a second time by suggesting, “Maybe they’ll invent electricity and that will help them fight the pirates.”

She’s five years old, and she’s a master of military tactics. That’s my girl.

 

 

Pictures worth thousands of words

I’m not a visual artist, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of influence I was allowed to have on my books covers (Odyssey Books has a top-notch cover game).

It’s a good thing they go through a few drafts, too.

Can you see what’s wrong with the first draft of SILVER AND STONE?

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Thank goodness for Chris, and for my fellow ‘Oddies’ (we Odyssey authors are constantly talking book stuff together), who noticed what I didn’t.

So that was changed.

I was SO PROUD to finally have the finished cover, and to be able to put the two covers side by side on facebook. Only to realise (due to facebook’s arbitrary cropping) that half my followers were wondering why I’d called my first book “Fart of Bras”.

Does one’s underwear usually fart? If so, why? And how?

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In unrelated (but still vaguely visual) news, I was amused by the juxtaposition of these two reviews on the “Choices That Matter” Google Play app. The first made me laugh out loud, and the second was just icing on the cake.

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That’s an excellent screenshot summary of the review-reading experience.

There’s reviews on iOS too, but barely any (and they get deleted every time there’s an update). I gather it’s a lot easier to leave a Google Play review, since there are several new ones every day.

Conflux 13: Day 3 (& ChoiceScript)

Today, Sunday, was my Big Day. Not only did I have a Book Launch at 2pm…

Silver and Stone cover

…but I also ran a three-hour interactive fiction workshop in the morning.

Which was seriously awesome. (So was the Book Launch. If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.)

The workshop was very biased, naturally, since it is all about my own notions regarding interactive fiction. This article, which I wrote last year, is an excellent summary of the IF scene (as I see it, having stumbled across it very recently).

This article focuses on the different elements of writing interactive novels as opposed to regular novels.

Today’s workshop was brimming with people who’d already written novels, which was quite different to last year. Last year we focused on Twine, the free tool that makes a useful map as you write and is the most user-friendly tool ever. This year we focused on ChoiceScript, which is a lovely elegant engine, also designed for non-programmers, made by Choice of Games. It’s easier to write longer works with ChoiceScript, because it’s set up for that (you can write longer pieces on Twine, but it’s trickier to do anything clever). More on that in a bit. FYI I’m not associated or affiliated with Choice of Games in any way.

I believe I promised a pic of yesterday’s outfit. Here it is (next to an ad for the excellent “Sentinels of Eden” series which I also mentioned yesterday).

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I’ve spent the rest of the day in Conflux mode… that is, hanging around talking to interesting people. My love for the venue is only growing with greater familiarity. Apart from anything else, they DO have special free conference wifi. And SO many power points, just everywhere *swoon*. The staff continue to be absolutely excellent. The food is pretty good but expensive and the menu is fairly limited. Huge portions.

A lot of local people are unhappy Conflux is at the airport, which isn’t great for most Canberrans (especially those who rely on buses—the special shuttle to or from Civic has been helpful). Next year’s venue is TBA. Parking underneath the hotel costs $6 for up to two hours but over $20 for a full day. For people that validated their ticket at reception, a whole day costs $14. There was plenty of space.

People like me (ie with a disability card) can park in a funny little 2-hour carpark that’s on the right as you drive around the hotel on your way to the front door. There are no designated disabled spots but with a card you can use public 2-hour parking for a full day for free. So the key to Conflux parking is to have a disability card but still be able to drive. For me, it was a breeze, and much much nicer than anywhere in civic.

And it’s pretty.

There’s a moment at sunset when everyone in the foyer suddenly has a golden halo. When the moment passes, the brass lamps all come on (not these ones; other ones). It’s quite lovely.

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The banquet was suitably glorious, and a very fine evening. Each item on the menu was linked to fairy tales. I ate a Goose’s Golden Egg for dessert (filled with panna cotta).

 

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There’s a Trivia Night tonight, but I shall be going home to sleep.

Thus endeth today’s Conflux Report.

I promised to write out a few very useful bits of code for those who are learning ChoiceScript. This is reinventing the wheel to a large extent, since the official ChoiceScript guides, including a free link to download it, are excellent.

So is the wiki, which has had many years to be refined and expanded. The Twine documents are improving, but they’re newer and trickier, and there are significant changes from Twine1 to Twine2.

When you download ChoiceScript, it has some very basic intro scenes, choices, and statistics set up for you. When you want to start writing, you can just delete a bit and begin.

HOW TO WRITE A CHOICE:

To “play” the example game, follow this path (it works on PC or Mac):

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It works best with Firefox, but most browsers are fine (other than, oddly, Google Chrome).

It’s fairly ordinary-looking visually, but it is immediately obvious how to progress the story (Click on a choice, then click on ‘Next’). Your text will be different to this image, because I’ve long since replaced the example with my own.

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To see the code behind the story, follow this path (using a text editing program—I recommend Notepad++ for PC and Sublime for Macs):

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The right-hand column above shows the startup file for the story I’m currently writing (so nobody look, okay?)

Don’t panic when you see a bunch of words and symbols. It will be okay.

NB: Each chapter of your book will be in a separate text file. You can name them whatever you like.

You can switch between the browser and the text file to see how the text file alters the story that you’re reading in the browser. The best thing to do is to just put your own words in, and you’ll be able to see them immediately fit the playable ChoiceScript format.

So if you write exactly this (at the END of the startup file, replacing the kingdom bit):

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Then you go back to the index.html file, it will look like:

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The * and # symbols are vital, and so is the spacing at the beginning of your lines. You can use either tab or spacebar to indent what needs indenting, but you have to pick one and stick to it or the game will break. Those three keys are the heart of your writing from now on.

If the reader picks “I choose option one” above, the line of text will appear, saying, “You chose option one.” Your story works—but so far you haven’t told the program what to do next (thus, the game will break immediately after that line).

Some structural info:

Many stories have a “branch and bottleneck” structure. Choices (often a whole series of nested choices) branch off in different directions, then different directions again… and then there’a a point at which they all come together, and then the choices branch out again from there. Here’s a diagram example using twine:

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As a writer, the hard part isn’t branching your story; it’s bringing things back to bottlenecks (so you don’t end up with literally millions of utterly different stories). One handy way is with time, eg:

“The sun is setting. Enough mucking around. It’s time to…”

“Mucking around” is non-specific enough to cover all the possible adventures the character might just have experienced. Or you can leave out that sentence altogether.

Back to your basic ChoiceScript thing:

A lot of choices within a story bottleneck immediately, which is written as:

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You can name your label whatever you like. Use lower case, avoid special characters, and remember each label must be different.

This is a simple choice structure that works. You don’t actually require the “goto” and “label” stuff unless you’re nesting choices, so a lot of the time it’s even simpler.

Whatever you write after “*label bottleneck” will be seen by all the readers, no matter what choice they made beforehand.

Anything that’s on a line marked with an * will not be seen by the reader.

If you want, you can write an entire story like this. The lines of unique text above (“You chose option one/two/three.”) are only seen by the readers that chose that option. Those lines can be expanded into literally any length, and can have other nested choices inside. ChoiceScript authors don’t have a wall diagram with string going everywhere; they have a ludicrous number of indentations as they write choices within choices within choices.

But you can also just bottleneck after each choice. That’s what smart authors do (for most of the choices, but not all of them—after all, you want your reader to have a unique experience). That’s how authors stay sane.

But how to make the choices matter in a deeper way?

[Tired? Breandead? Stop here and write some scenes. Come back later. This is where I stopped for a day when I was learning ChoiceScript.]

Choices have long-term consequences because of stats. Stats don’t create work; they are a brilliant and cumulative way of making hundreds of choices matter without writing a million-page book.

The two main types of statistics are personality based and skill based. So as your player makes their choices and has their adventures, you’re also noting what kind of character they are creating (think of them as a co-writer who’s in charge of the main character’s personality), as well as building their skill set (for later challenges that can be won or lost).

In ChoiceScript, you make your own unique statistics. The more unique the better!

One of the most distinctive & fun things about the ChoiceScript tool is that it often uses opposed statistics—so for example, you might have ‘Tactfulness’ versus ‘Straight Talker’. If a player chooses to be tactful, their tactfulness stat will go up and their ‘straight talker’ stat will go down.

HOW TO DO STATS:

First, go into the startup file. After the *scene_list but before the story begins, write this:

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You can set any number of (single, lowercase) words as beginning stats.

Your Tactfulness versus Straight Talker opposed statistic will all be expressed (code-wise) as + or – tactfulness.

Your name stat will be a one-off choice (and the players can enter their own; instructions here).

Your strength starts at 0. It will grow with strength-based choices, and it will be tested at later choices.

The “show stats” button on the browser version of the story (that the players see) appears automatically.

To make the stats page look good, go into the choicescript_stats file (which you already have in the same “scenes” folder as the “startup” file), and write this:

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It will look like this to the player:

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The numerical values will change as the player makes choices.

The ! makes sure that a word is capitalised (it’s also useful for pronouns—which we’ll talk about next—when they’re at the beginning of a sentence).

Here’s your first-choice example, with stats added:

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Now players who choose Option One have Tactfulness 60% (and Straight Talking 40%).

Players who choose Option Two have Straight Talking 60% (and Tactfulness 40%).

Behind the scenes, opposed stats are really just recording one stat going up or down, but they’re displayed with a red/blue bar for the player.

If the player chose Option Three, then “Bob” will appear after “Name:” in the player’s stat screen, AND their strength will be 5.

In the line “*set strength %+5” the % symbol is the key to avoiding maths. I have your attention now, don’t I? Long story short, if you use “%+” and “%-” for your stats, you will never get under 0% or over 100%. Is good.

Congratulations! You’ve written a functional choice that doesn’t break the game and that makes a difference to your statistics.

HOW TO DO GENDER:

In your startup file, write:

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Then have a choice (early on) like this:

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As you may have noticed above, you can put the stats and the text in any order. Since the player doesn’t see the stats (until they click on the button to see the stat page), it doesn’t make a difference. But consistency is a good idea.

Once you’ve done that, you can use pronouns, like so:

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This text will appear normal to the player, but will have the right pronouns, eg:


 

You hear two people talking about you.

“What do you think of them, really?”

“They’s okay I suppose.”

“Really? I hate their dog.”


 

There are two important things to note here. (Okay, three.)

-You can write an entire novel without player-character (PC) pronouns if you’re determined (as I’ve done for “Choices That Matter” stories on iOS and Google Play via Tin Man Games).

-‘They’ is grammatically distinct. You probably noticed the painfully incorrect “They’s okay” above. If you include they/them pronouns, you will need to be very careful to avoid a similar grammar fail. But it’s worth it. The IF (Interactive Fiction) community works hard to be inclusive, especially with gender and sexuality.

-Using he/his/him as your “base stat” in the startup file works well because the three forms are distinct (unlike for she/her/her).

Erm, it’s just occurring to me that it might work better to use they/their/them as your base. I’m not smart enough to check the idea is sound without writing a novel to check, but I THINK it’ll help a bunch with both Point #3 and the Point #2.

 

WELL that was a long blog entry. Are you still here, dear reader? I’m off to eat dinner and have a lie down.

PS Guess what! It’s October! Who knew?

More Conflux tomorrow!

PS Two more super-useful sites for when you’ve finished that brilliant interactive fiction game.

Dashingdon hosts ChoiceScript games, and Philime.la hosts Twine games. Both are free, and both allow you to show your game to a select few (editors) before uploading/publishing a finished version.

Novels Versus Interactive Novels

This is a post written for Games Versus Play.

I write both novels and interactive novels, and I’m fascinated by the style differences between the two.

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(This is how fascinated I am.)

When I write novels, I often write in first person (“I don’t deliberately make things explode”), and sometimes third person (“She doesn’t deliberately make things explode”). It is extremely rare to find a published novel written in second person (“You don’t deliberately make things explode”). Most people find second person very jarring. The famous exception is “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, and I’ve seen a couple of modern children’s books written in second person.

The great thing about first person is that it’s easy to use a quirky writing style, and to see inside the main character’s head. In my opinion, it’s particularly good for young adult or crossover writing, when internal thoughts are often an important part of the plot. On the down side, you can’t see the thought processes of other characters, or any information the main character doesn’t know (such as, there is a bushfire coming).

Second person is favoured by a lot of interactive fiction, because it emphasises the reader’s involvement in the story.

It’s also common to have a different style for the text of the choices themselves. For example, Choice of Games uses second person for the main text, and first person for the choices (which is reversed in the Tin Man Games “Choices That Matter” serial story app).

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The overwhelming majority of novels use past tense (“Quit it!” said Bob), but quite a few interactive novels use present tense (“Quit it!” says Bob). When I’m writing a first draft, regardless of the form, I tend to switch back and forth between the two, which is always the most obvious thing I have to fix when I edit. It’s never okay to release a story like that.

This blog entry is in present tense. It feels more immediate to the reader—more like a face to face conversation. That’s useful for interactive fiction, which is a more conversational reading experience than novels. Quite a lot of writers fall into present tense in a first draft (whether they mean to or not) because they’re watching their own story as it happens in their head.

A story in its simplest form involves an interesting character with a serious problem who faces obstacles and then either succeeds or fails in solving their problem. The crucial structural elements are:

  1. How to make a character interesting. Flaws? Features? Quirks? Relate-ability? Pain (physical and/or emotional)? Unusual skills? Danger?
  2. What is the problem? It needs to be serious to the character, so it can be as simple as being thirsty or as complicated as saving the universe.
  3. What are the obstacles? They need to appear unsurmountable, and costly. The most difficult part is often having the character attempt to solve the problem in a way that should work (so the character doesn’t come across as an idiot) but instead backfires (raising the tension in the story). It’s a tricky balance.
  4. An ending must feel satisfying, even if the character fails or the problem has grown worse.

There are plenty of other elements to the story—worldbuilding, themes, scenery, subplots, etc etc—and of course other characters.

The greatest difference between a novel and an interactive novel is #1. The main character of a book is entirely under the writers’ control. They grow and change during the story. A crucial issue for any interactive fiction writer is how to make an interesting main character while also giving the reader control over the story. Often the solution is to make the main character a “Blank Slate”, an effect that works very much like a prototypical “Mary Sue”. That is, the reader can project their own personality onto the character.

Companies like Choice of Games work hard to allow the reader to fill in the blanks—choosing their own gender, sexuality, personality, and even the type of story. A single story with the same general ending can tell multiple stories eg a story ending with a prom can be a romance (the main character gets the girl/guy), horror (Carrie), action (Buffy), or tragedy (the main character doesn’t get the girl/guy) depending largely on the climactic scene. This means the writer needs to be able to think of their own main character and plot in several contradictory ways, and write their scenes accordingly.

A good interactive story writer also needs to think about the tangled fictional ethics of non-player characters. This is especially true in stories with a romance. Most interactive stories offer several romantic options, which immediately begs the question, “How are so many different people all attracted to one person? And is everybody bi?” NPCs really ARE just pieces on a board designed to make the player feel good, but good writing makes them feel like living, breathing individuals.

In the “Dream Daddy Dating Simulator” one of the potential romances is doomed no matter what the player does. This is frustrating to experience, but also makes the game more satisfying, because—as the creators point out—not all romances end well.

Some writers use statistics to block or allow romance, eg Kevin is only attracted to players who have shown high levels of empathy. Others have different sexuality for different NPCs, eg Kevin can only fall for male characters. That can be problematic, because far too much entertainment is pitched to a straight male setting. In my opinion, it’s better to have all bisexual NPCs than to give players less choices based on their gender.

The other tricky style element of interactive fiction is the dreaded “block of text”. In general, interactive fiction writers often aim for less than 300 words between choices. That means long passages of description or dialogue are a no-no. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general readers want a LOT of choices, and will get bored with lengthy prose (no matter how beautiful or profound). IF can be beautiful and profound, but it needs to use less words to do so (or to use the same number of words, but break up paragraphs with choices).

The experience of reading an interactive novel is both more and less involving than reading a book. As an interactive fiction reader, you can have a huge amount of control over the story—who to love, who to kill, what to learn and how to use your skills—but you are also constantly breaking the fourth wall as you pause to consider your choices along the way. I tend to read non-interactive novels at night, because the decision-making process of reading IF is too stressful.

Whether you’re writing, reading, or playing… good luck!

News about “Choices That Matter” story app.

Eep, I really haven’t written for a while.

In my defence, I am in a whirlwind of writing as I finish “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”, write the sequel to “Heart of Brass” (it’ll be a trilogy by the end of next year), and research and write [redacted] for [redacted], which is terribly exciting.

First things first, the Tin Man Games story app formerly known as “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” (after the first story, which I also co-wrote) is now known as “Choices That Matter”. It’s still on iOS and Google Play, and the finished tales will eventually show up on Steam.

So, I co-wrote the first story, “And The Sun Went Out” (from arc 4 onwards)

I wrote the second story, “And Their Souls Were Eaten”

I shall be editing the third story, “And Their Heroes Were Lost”.

All in all, KG Tan and I have made sure our fingerprints are all over all three stories. (For those not in the know, KG Tan is the project head of both “Choices That Matter” and “Miss Fisher” and he wrote rather a lot of “And The Sun Went Out”. He’s the last line of defence when it comes to editing, especially coding errors, and he is a spectacularly gifted person as well as a genuine friend.)

Phill Berrie was the first-line editor for “And Their Souls Were Eaten” and he is the writer of “And Their Heroes Were Lost” (which is seriously excellent!)

 

So let’s talk “And Their Souls Were Eaten”, since it’s my big beautiful baby. It had forty updates over 10 months, and the final update will come out within days. The final word count is around 377,000 (which is impressive until you compare it to the 15-month “And The Sun Went Out”, which came in just over 600,000 words).

YES in case you were wondering, it is connected to my other steampunk stories (they’re all connected). It takes place in 1836 Europe, well before any of the other stories, and the central problem of the story is different to all the rest.

Whenever I write interactive steampunk, I decide one one version of the story that is the “canon” version—the least contradictory version. When it comes to “And Their Souls Were Eaten” the canon version is as follows:

 

SPOILER SPACE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The character is male (or appears to be), and after eating the soul of Charles Dickens they ultimately “become” the Charles Dickens that we know from “real” history (minus the horrible behaviour toward women, because I want to like him and it’s my story dammit). He writes all the Dickens stories just as they exist in our real world. The character might just show up in the novels (as “Charles Dickens”). He certainly shows up in “Stuff and Nonsense”.
  2. The soulless problem is 100% dealt with and although a few people continue to build anti-soulless towers and to keep an eye out in case any soulless escaped, by the time Emmeline Muchamore (hero of the novels) is causing trouble it’s rare to hear “soulless” or “Great Ones” even mentioned. In fact, they don’t come up in the novels at all (conveniently for those who read the novels but not “And Their Souls Were Eaten”.
  3. Activated gold is discovered during “And Their Souls Were Eaten”, and a few other magical metals are discovered in the 1840s, before the novels begin in 1853.

“Stormhunter” flounders as Satalyte falls to Earth

Most small publishers stop running within two years. Which is not surprising, when you consider that the large publishers make a loss on the vast majority of the books they produce. It’s the occasional bestseller keeping everyone afloat. People just don’t read enough books.

With that reality, small publishers deserve more credit rather than less. They know they’re probably going to fail. In my experience, publishers are greater dreamers than writers—writing, after all, costs very little.

Satalyte Publishing accepted my novel “Stormhunter” some time ago, but ultimately has just decided to close their doors. It’s not an easy choice, but I became friends with the couple running the show, and I’m glad they were smart enough to step away from their beautiful dream before it became a nightmare.

So, the fate of “Stormhunter” is once more a blank. It certainly eased my concern that I have SO much paid writing work to do already, and that “Heart of Brass” is safely published and in the hands of readers all around the world.

Despite an unfortunate end to our professional relationship, I have gained several good friends and quite a bit of useful knowledge from my journey with Satalyte. The publishing house is no more, but those friendships will last forever—and all the more because of a shared experience of grief.

Like many small publishers, Satalyte deliberately published the kind of books that are excellent, but not considered “marketable”. They made publishing better forever, and I’m grateful to them as both reader and friend.