Conversations Between Writers

I forgot to get a picture and his site is grumptroll.com so Fremont Troll it is.

I forgot to get a picture and his site is grumptroll.com so Fremont Troll it is.

J. M. McDermott

March brings March Flash Madness a flash fiction competition broken into brackets. Each week the participants get a prompt and then just the weekend to write it. Readers vote for their favorites and only the winners move on. This week you can vote in the battle between Sun, Moon and Stars and Circle vs. Square. For all this year’s stories check out grumptroll.com. It is hosted by J. M. McDermott who can also be found on Twitter.

J M McDermott: Okay, then. I always assume the answer to all first questions is either Royal Blue or African or European?

Minerva Zimmerman: Heh. I was going to ask you what is March Flash Madness and why are you doing it?

JM: March Flash Madness is an event, a stunt, and a lot more fun than watching unpaid teenagers make millionaires of everyone else. I pay writers more than the kids playing basketball in March Madness. It is part of why actual March Madness must die and be replaced by my flash fiction contest. It is also a lot more fun to read.

It raises money for SFWA, in its way, and the EMF, which is a very important thing.

JM: After the contest is over and winners are crowned, the stories remain live for only one month. Then, they are bundled into an eBook and sold with all proceeds going to the EMF. Many contestants also donate their payment to the EMF.

 Sent at 1:45 PM on Tuesday

JM: For writers, it is also an amazingly challenging feat to produce pro-caliber flash fiction every weekend for a wide audience. It is a very difficult thing to do, and pushes us out of our comfort zones, our usual tropes, and our easy ideas. We have to run to the bones of ideas and run with them to unexpected places. It is hard. It is also fun, and wonderful to read what happens from our diverse slate of writers.

For readers, it is also, I hope, a lot of fun to read and vote.

MZ: Do you normally write a lot of flash fiction as a writer?

I ask mostly because I mostly seem to write it for this, at least over the last 2 years I’ve been participating.

JM: No. Hardly any story I write comes in lower than 7000 words, naturally. I prefer to write short novels, or long novellas, between 60000-90000 words, ideally. It is my comfortable length. For me, less than 3k for a complete story always feels impossible.

MZ: Me TOO!

But I seem to pull it off for this… so it’s kind of weird.

JM: Currently, in Asimovs april/may, the short story “paul and his son” feels like the shortest story I can easily write, and it is about 6k, I think, thereabouts.

MZ: I write mostly dialog driven fiction and that’s hard to do in under 1000 words

JM: Yeah, for the challenge, it is almost like because it is so constrained and competitive, something just clicks.

If we had a week to write it, I don’t think it would work. Weekends are much tighter.

MZ: Yeah I’m not sure. Sometimes I think I could do better with a week, and other times… yeah no. I’d just get in my own head too much.

JM: Exactly. Cut to the bones of the idea and run fast. There is no time. It is almost like temporal writing, like that. Almost.

MZ: Not quite, I think there’s more room for editing in a weekend than “during an event” writing.

JM: You must work faster than I do!

MZ: or edit faster :)

JM: I think about the story all day Saturday (when I am working) and I write it in the morning of Sunday before my wife and dog demand my attention. It can be constraining to have responsibility, but it is a good constraint.

MZ: it’s true. I write more when I’m working then when I have time off.

JM: How do you find your process changes under the constraints? What do you do if fervently?

Autocorrect is fun. I like that better.

MZ: I’m not sure the process changes so much as is just much more condensed and I get out of my own way more.

JM: Would you do this again if you didn’t have to?

MZ: so I usually take my prompt and start trying out associations and following those rabbit holes

and sometimes I get a concept right away or sometimes it takes a full day

JM: I have been both blessed and cursed to lose in the first round both years. It is actually a relief to know I don’t have to keep going, but I also hate losing, and so early!

Hopefully, next year… But it would be poor form to host a contest and win it.

MZ: It’s probably about the same time actually butt in chair, but how much whining and carrying on before getting to that point changes.

JM: As a reader, has anyone really surprised you? I try hard to put together diversity of voice and style. Have you felt that? Did you like someone you didn’t expect to?

MZ: Alex Livingston’s entry this week knocked my socks off.

I didn’t really have expectations, but man… I wish I’d written that :)

JM: Eric Bosarge, I thought, had a stellar entry that was way out of his usual wheelhouse. I am also very glad I didn’t have to pick between Natania and Alex, first week.

MZ: Ugh, man the brackets were rough this year in particular.

JM: Alex is a real surprise! He actually came in over the transom, so to speak, during an open call, and he is KILLING IT with his work. It is impressive.

MZ: And I think it’s also interesting talking with the other writers and realizing how true it is that we’re often our own worst judges.

JM: Everyone is busting out great stories, though, so it shouldn’t be a surprise.

 Sent at 2:02 PM on Tuesday

MZ: I talked with Brooke Bolander about her entry before we both turned ours in this week and she was hating on hers… but my god, it has such a great gut punch at the end.

JM: Bolander was miserable about her story and whining about how little she did, and it looks like it might win the week. One of the readers who voted for her is noted and notable genre critic Jon Ginsburg-Stevens. Erudite ogre, himself.

Seriously, like you said, get out of your own way.

Voting is still open until Thursday. Who knows who will win?!

MZ: And this is the sort of competition that pushes you but also gets in your head and I know I’ve had a lot of “oh god, why am I doing this? I’m not even in the same league” thoughts this week, so there’s a bit of a downside too.

I mean all writers go through that at different times and I know this is just mine, and intellectually I’m good… just, ugh.

JM: All I have to say is that after six novels and two short story collections, I have lost in the first round for two years, and I still feel like I am just starting out, as a writer.

Good is good. It can come from anyone at any length who find their voice, their spark, their effortless awesome.

Some people really do well under constraint, too. It is important to try different things, mix it up, and stuff.

MZ: Yeah, I am lucky to have a really good support structure of other writers. So I can go virtually lean on someone’s shoulder when I need it. I think others do the same to me, and that’s really important to have as a writer at any point in your career.

Also I find out about all sorts of amazing writers every time I do this competition and I hope other people do too!

 Sent at 2:07 PM on Tuesday

JM: I think we, as a genre, fall into our online comfort zone, our bubbles within bubbles, and it takes concerted effort to push out of that comfortable space and find new ideas and influences. I try to make a contest that reflects that idea. Eric is a great example. You’ve probably never heard of Eric Bosarge, but he has a book coming out from Medallion soon, and until this contest, it wasn’t even a blip to a lot of people. His entry was solid SF. People read that who have never heard the name Bosarge. Now, we have this new author in our known sphere. Expanding is a good thing.

MZ: Yes! It’s my favorite part of March Flash Madness. Making new connections and hopefully picking up a few new readers in the process.

[I need to head back to work we can wrap this up with a few last thoughts from you or continue in about 10 min]

JM: I hope to increase that in years to come, and the open call for submissions is very important to achieve that. I hope to see more submissions next year, from as diverse a group as possible.

So, Polish your verbs and sharpen your adjectives out there in Zimmerland. March Flash Madness will be back, and you, too, can step into the arena!

(edit)

For more March Flash Madness read Round 1:

Water vs. Stone 

Stasis vs. Time

Breaking vs. Mending

Fission vs. Fusion

Hunger vs. Gluttony

Additional March Flash Madness Authors 2015:

Alex Livingston (website, Twitter)

Natania Barron (website, Twitter)

Eric M. Bosarge (upcoming novel, The Time Train, will be released by Medallion Press in April of 2016)

Haralambi Markov (blog, Twitter)

Steven S. Long (website, Twitter)

Steven Silver (website, wikipedia)

Sage Collins (website, Twitter)


Conversations Between Writers

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Keffy R. M. Kehrli

Keffy is one of my most favorite people in the world. He’s brilliant, kind, funny, and clones things in labs. He’s also a speculative fiction writer and is currently fundraising GlitterShip an LGBTQ SF&F fiction podcast. You can find out more about Keffy at http://www.keffy.com/ and follow him on Twitter. You can support GlitterShip at Kickstarter, check out the website, or follow them on Twitter.

Minerva Zimmerman: How are you doing? I missed you at Rainforest this year!

Keffy Kehrli: I’m doing ok. Things have been kind of up and down for the past few months, though.

MZ: It seems like you’ve got a bit of a bidding war going as far as grad school positions. You’ve been on the road more than home recently.

KK: Well, bidding war is kind of inaccurate, but I do have more than one acceptance, so I’m going to have to disappoint at least one school when I make my final decision. Everyone has an April 15 deadline for that, though, so I should know by some time next week where I’m headed in August.

MZ: That’s still pretty cool. Scary. Exciting. But different.

KK: Not *too* different. I’ve been working in a lab for the past five years, so I suspect that the PhD programs will be fairly similar to what I’ve been doing. Research most of the day with occasional classes.

MZ: I’m jealous though. I feel a bit like I missed out on grad school. I’d really like to do more research and analysis work, but it feels like I’m pretty settled at this point.

KK: If you could go, what degree would you go for?

MZ: Cultural Anthropology focusing on Religion in the United States, pretty much an extension of my BA focus.

KK: Cool!

MZ: Kind of a weird focus, but I find it interesting.

Lots of revival culture, conservative politics, superstitions, magic, you name it.

It’s pretty weird, because doing field research in the rural area where I live would be pretty much perfect… but there’s no way to do it and still live here afterward.

Even if I used pseudonyms for everyone I’d have to include enough personal information about them that anyone who actually lives here would be able to figure out identities.

KK: Eep

MZ: So, I content myself with working at the museum and writing fiction. It works out better. Less torches and pitchforks.

Can you tell me about any of the potential projects you’d be going into with grad school?

KK: I don’t really know exactly, yet. I want to focus on genomics, and I’m really interested in bioinformatics and/or non-coding DNA/RNA, but the exact projects will depend on which advisor I end up with. Luckily, most schools have “lab rotations” for PhD programs (at least in the biological sciences or genetics), so I should be able to try out working in a lab or three before I make my “final” decision. Then you’re pretty much set once you decide who you want to work with until the PhD is done.

MZ: yeah, personalities of the people you’ll be working with are important to feel out. I am pretty ignorant of a lot of the research in those fields. I’ve been interested in the nanobot cells that are delivering medicines and such. Also a little bit of some of the stem cell advancements, but other than that I know I’m terribly ignorant of some really amazing science. What’s caught your attention and perhaps your imagination as a writer?

KK: What’s funny for me is that my science work doesn’t really drive my science fiction much at all. I feel like the more I learn, the more I realize why most of my science fictional ideas are kind of ridiculous.

I’m interested in the “non-coding” DNA because most of the human genome doesn’t code for proteins at all – we have about the same number of protein genes as nematodes but are way more complex organisms. (Nematodes have about a thousand cells in their bodies, total)

So a lot of what makes us different has to do with when and where our genes turn on or off. Some of that is regulated by the “non-coding” parts of the DNA.

MZ: Oooo.

More the coding than the building blocks?

KK: Some of it is also regulated by “epigenetic markers” which are like little chemical chunks that attach to DNA or the proteins associated with DNA.

MZ: Which we might be able to trigger to treat certain conditions or symptoms?

KK: Maybe?

Shhh, don’t tell anyone but I’m more interested in how things work than curing diseases >_>

MZ: :D

KK: I know I’m supposed to be all “YES I WILL CURE EVERY CANCER” but I’m more interested in “what does that button do?”

There is a ton of research devoted to the question you asked, though.

MZ: You need the curiosity to find anything out

KK: If you look up, like, “personal medicine” or “personal genomics” and stuff like that.

MZ: and it sure seems like the body has a whole heck of a lot of “panic buttons” that get pushed randomly like a toddler in a space capsule

KK: Living things are kind of weird

I mean, my BS degree was in physics. So I started off in science doing the whole, “Ok, assume that everything is a point in space, and now do some math.”

MZ: Remind me not to play you at pool for money.

KK: The more I learn about what happens in cells, even bacteria and archaea, the more I’m surprised anything is even alive.

I’m terrible at pool. But I confuse people by playing ambidextrously … uh…

oh! living things and panic buttons, yes.

So, part of the reason that living cells are so complicated is that things go wrong. I mean, constantly.

Or things just break down. Most proteins and cells & etc have some sort of “planned obsolescence.”

Plus, living things are always in flux from generation to generation — from mutations, gene shuffling, sexual reproduction, you name it.

MZ: Yeah that’s the “hey if we can turn this off, we can all not age” thing about cells.

KK: The problem with that is that’s basically how you get cancer.

MZ: Right. Or prions

KK: Prions creep me out. They’re basically just misfolded proteins, and then other proteins get misfolded the same way, and parts break off and “infect” the other proteins.

MZ: It’s like Ice-nine from Vonnegut

KK: I haven’t read that >_>

MZ: but inside everyone’s bodies

it’s a molecule that turns everything it touches into itself, basically ((EDITORIAL NOTE: I misremembered the exact use of ice-nine, it solidifies all water including inside living things, I still maintain it is prion-esque))

KK: Oh… well, this isn’t *quite* like that, because the amino acid sequence won’t change. But they kind of bend in the wrong way and get stuck. Protein folding is one of the interesting structural questions in biology. It’s extremely hard to predict how proteins will fold just based on their sequences.

But yeah. Things go wrong in living things, so there are tons of “back up plans”.

MZ: Aaron participates in FoldingAtHome which borrows computing power from idle computers to predict protein folding patterns

KK: Is that a game thing, or just a “we need computing power” thing?

MZ: like, uh what’s those guys looking for Alien Life

KK: SETI?

MZ: Yeah, it’s a program like that, you run on your computer when you’re not using it.

KK: Oh, that’s pretty cool.

MZ: and you get points for so many cycles or whatever to plump out your nerd cred

KK: There are actually a lot of “help science at home” things that I’ve been noticing.

Like, there’s Galaxy Zoo, where they train you to look at pictures of galaxies and then help classify them into types of galaxies.

http://www.galaxyzoo.org/#/classify

MZ: Ooo neat! Speaking of galaxies… we should probably talk about GlitterShip

So you’re Kickstarting a really awesome podcast. Can you talk a little about what it is and why you’re doing this? I know you’ve been talking about doing this for awhile so I’m excited about it.

KK: GlitterShip came out of my desire to make an ongoing LGBTQ-focused SF/F magazine. I had initially shelved these plans last year when Vitality (an LGBTQ zine) was initially running their own Kickstarter. I think they’re planning on being ongoing and are going to run another fundraiser for their second issue some time soon. I’ve also wanted to do a podcast for a while but could never think of a good topic. I figure that after watching the nonsense I tweet constantly, there’s unlikely to be anyone interested in listening to me ramble for an hour a week or month or whatever. But then I decided, hey, why not combine the two.

Although I think it will be great for people who write LGBTQ SF/F to have another place to send their reprints, I’m not really doing it for writers so much as I am for readers. Sometimes when I’m at conventions, I’ll have people ask me for recommendations of places to go for LGBTQ fiction, and I find that it’s hard to know where to point them.

I usually end up saying, “Well, look in the backlist at Clarkesworld or Lightspeed or Apex and you’ll find some.”

MZ: I just started looking into reprint markets myself, and there just aren’t as many as I thought there were.

KK: It depends on the story and what you’re looking for. But, yeah, reprints are usually a bonus, and a lot of them tend to be in one-off anthologies, which are only sometimes open for submissions.

MZ: I’m particularly excited when I find LGBTQ fantasy.

KK: But yeah, I mostly just wanted to make something where those readers could go and access great SF/F stories with queer content without having to scatter around chasing down disparate recommendations.

MZ: That not everything has to be the same old tropes and characters. That fantasy is a big and all-encompassing stage… Maybe that’s just me, but I mean fantasy has DRAGONS and it’s nice to see people realizing that it doesn’t have to just be about cis straight white people. *writes down idea for story about QUILTBAG dragons*

KK: Well, it’s still possible to use all of the old tropes and just genderflip a character or whatever, but yeah. Some stories have “incidental” diversity, some are entirely about the ways in which the characters are “other” and many are somewhere in between.

Both are fine by me. I get annoyed when I see people try to boil it down to “oh, the ways in which characters are ‘other’ should just be a non-issue constantly” or when they say “the story MUST always be ABOUT the marked state of the characters, because I think it’s better to have a mix. That’s one of the benefits of having an entire zine devoted to LGBTQ stories

I can have one where it’s just a fantasy story, but maybe the dude protagonist has a boyfriend or husband instead. And then another week, a story that’s essentially about what it’s like to be queer in the world of today (or the past, or maybe the future). None of the GlitterShip stories will ever have to stand alone as The gay story in the issue or The lesbian story in the issue.

MZ: :D

KK: It’s getting to be less of an issue since as far as I know all of the major magazines in SF/F are open to and publish some LGBTQ fiction from time to time.

But I do think that stories can end up with the “token” problem just like characters can.

MZ: Still, there’s a lot of importance in going to somewhere you know is going to have it every time.

KK: Whenever a character is the only queer character or a story is one of a few queer stories, they end up having to shoulder more weight, so to speak. They become more of a stand-in for the whole group.

Yeah, I also think it will be nice for readers who are specifically looking for this stuff that they know they’ll get it from GlitterShip. Even if that’s just the few people who have asked me about it when I’m on panels at cons.

MZ: I know several years ago I came to the realization I most often wrote what I had read the most of, which was cis straight white male POV.

Which, is kind of super weird to realize since I am not that myself.

KK: That’s an issue for a lot of writers.

MZ: but it took a conscious effort for me to decide that my characters and my worlds needed to be AT LEAST as diverse as my own life and the people in it.

KK: I think it happens for the same reason that early fiction tends to lean fairly heavily on tropes.

When people are just working out how to write their own stories, they unconsciously pick one or two things that they’re going to focus on, and just take the rest for granted.

And unfortunately, due to the way that straight, white, cis male stories are the “default” a lot of writers will write about those characters without realizing that they’re doing that.

MZ: It’s part of the reason I decided to study Anthropology, I wanted to stop taking systems of culture for granted and pick apart a lot of my own assumptions about myself. I wanted to find out where all the buttons were :D

Also, I used a lot of British spellings in my writing originally

KK: I used primarily British spellings when I was 16. One of my early pretentious things. So embarrassing.

MZ: at least I don’t randomly affect a British accent anymore…

gah, teenage years are so embarrassing, and not even for the normal reasons…

Ack we got off track again. Where can people submit stories and how can they support GlitterShip?

KK: People can submit stories to GlitterShip by sending them to the email address in our submission guidelines:http://www.glittership.com/submission-guidelines/

Right now, I’m only open to reprints between 100 and 6000 words long. By “reprint” I just mean that it’s been previously published … anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a “pro paying” market or anything.

To support GlitterShip, check out the Kickstarter campaign at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/keffy/glittership-an-lgbtq-science-fiction-and-fantasy-p which will end sometime during the day on April 8th. The backer rewards include a collected ebook of all the stories that come out in the first year, and some of the higher tiers will involve me knitting scarves and such for people.

Right now we’re at about $3,300, which means that we’re beyond fully funded and are less than $300 from the next stretch goal, which is 4 episodes a month instead of 2.

If the Kickstarter manages to hit $6000 by the end of the campaign, GlitterShip will also open to original, unpublished fiction. :)

MZ: EXCITING!

I want you to make it, not just make it, but blast right on past that goal. I can’t wait to have you talking in my car to me as I drive to work.

KK: Thank you. :)

 


Conversations Between Writers (and other Creative People)

storium_stephen_hood

Today I’m talking with Stephen Hood Co-founder of Storium. For those unfamiliar, Storium is a sort of role playing storytelling platform, part game, part fiction writing. If that sounds at all interesting to you I strongly recommend you check it out at https://storium.com/ and you can follow Stephen on Twitter.

Minerva Zimmerman: So you just got back from GDC what, a few days ago?

Stephen Hood: Yes, it wrapped-up on Friday. (Although for me, “back” just means a train ride to San Jose.)

MZ: I just returned from Rainforest Writers Retreat last night where I finished edits on a project. So while I’m not GDC tired, I’m still trying to remember what way “up” is :) Was this your first GDC?

SH:  It was! I’ve loved games all my life and have considered going for years, but it never seemed to make sense because I wasn’t working in the industry. Now I am, or at least that’s the rumor…

MZ: I love Storium. I’m a little at a loss to describe it to people sometimes though. How did you describe it for the GDC crowd?

SH: It’s definitely a bit hard to classify, which has always been both our secret weapon and our curse. Generally, I tell people that “Storium turns creative writing into a multiplayer online game.” That’s usually enough to either catch their interest and set the gears turning, or send them into full-on glazed-over mode. And, you know, it’s really best for everyone that we get to that fork in the conversational road as quickly as possible, heh.

MZ: That’s true, either that interests you or it doesn’t. I admit I’m getting impatient for Storium to open up to general players because I have people I want to indoctrinate in a few on-going stories.

SH: I’m more than a little impatient for that, too! We’re working the code hamsters as quickly as OSHA will allow…

BTW, as an existing player you can invite anyone you like. You just start a game and invite them using their email address.

MZ: Ooo hmmm. I might have to do that. I have several stories that have stalled out that could probably be jumpstarted with new blood.

SH: Players can also now hand-off their characters to someone else, which is a great way to keep things moving if someone has lost interest or doesn’t have time to play…

MZ: It’s interesting because it’s a game, but it’s also a storytelling platform but with nearly instantaneous repercussions and feedback. So as someone who writes otherwise, it’s interesting to see when I do and don’t want to work on Storium scenes, because it is Fun Writing and not Work Writing.

SH: I’m glad you think of it as “fun writing!” That’s the goal, for sure. We’re using the context of gaming to lower people’s inhibitions, raise their confidence, and get them to write. Not to write something perfect, but just to write. Everything that happens in Storium is about helping people express themselves through play, and to keep doing it.

MZ: I used to have other writers that we’d do email Round Robin stories, where someone would start a story and then email it on to the next person who would continue it and pass it back. It was always an exercise in how much of a problem you could give the other person without actually killing the story. Sometimes Storium feels like that. Sometimes you are just feeding off the collaborative process and you’ll lose a whole day writing scenes.

SH: Ha, storytelling deathmatch! I get what you mean. The big question, though, is what is the goal: is it to pit your wits against another writer, or is it to actually tell the story? I think there’s a point where those become incompatible. In Storium we’re really trying to focus on the collaboration, on the story itself, and so we purposely don’t have a lot of competitive components to the game. Some folks don’t like that. They want mechanics that encourage competition. They even call it “PvP,” which I find fascinating and/or a little disturbing. “Your subplot has died. Resurrect, or return to the story graveyard?”

MZ: I think there’s a place for both, but yes, combative writing does become incompatible with telling a shared story. but not all disagreements about the story between writers are combative either. I know my best collaborations have been the ones where we rubbed up against each other and felt very passionately about our ideas. The ones where a collaborator and I always agreed were weaker, and often boring not only from the creation side of things but for the reader. I remember a collaborator and I signed things for each other after finishing a project and when we traded back we laughed. We’d written the exact same inscription, “Thank you for not agreeing with me.”

SH: Absolutely. Friction is important in so many things. Even outside of writing. Much of Storium evolved out of a good deal of friction within our team around design philosophy, goals, and so forth. It would have turned out much weaker without that conflict. I think it’s just a question of what you incentivize for players/writers. If the game itself is structured around competition, I fear that you end up incentivizing players to undercut each other. But the alternative shouldn’t be a conflict-free environment, for sure.

MZ: Do you think having a lack of defined incentive for players inside the greater Storium system outside each individual story is a feature or something that you struggle with? Or do you even agree that’s the case?

SH: Not sure I follow you?

MZ: So in a dungeon crawl, you’re collecting gold and loot. In Storium you’re telling a story through an individual character’s actions. However, outside of each individual story is there incentive for players within Storium?

SH: Ah, ok, I see. Yeah, I guess we don’t really think of it that way. I mean, you could certainly feel like you’re grinding XP in the form of words written, games completed, characters played, etc. That’s very real progress and personal incentive, in a certain sense. We don’t really play that up yet in the UI, but we’re thinking about it. And as you play you are certainly building some manner of reputation within the community — another thing that will be more important in the future. But frankly we spend more time right now thinking about how to help players have that first, successful, satisfying storytelling experience more than we worry about the longer-term grind. At least so far…

MZ: :) I’m curious how you ended up creating Storium. I’m very glad you did, because I’m geographically distant from everyone I want to share such stories with and this allows me to do this. I’m just curious how your own path ended up here

SH: That right there was one of the original inspirations. I missed playing tabletop games with my old high school friends, who had scattered to the corners of the Earth, had families, lived in different timezones, etc. I missed the creative outlet and wanted to recapture it somehow. So I built a simple prototype and unleashed it on my friends. I knew there was no way we would be able to play at the same time, so it needed to be text-based and asynchronous. It needed to not depend on a certain order of taking turns, since that would enable any single player to hold up the whole thing. And I wanted it to have just enough of that tabletop feel to trigger the muscle memory without bogging us down in complex rules that would slow down play.

That prototype was fun but had a number of problems. I kept coming back to it, though. Kept working on it, evolving it. Over time I began to realize that what was really interesting here was the writing — the sheer creative freedom that it was making possible. And that the “rules,” such as they were, were really about making that writing possible, and fun. I started building a team of allies, people who would help me broaden my perspective by adding expertise to the mix in areas like game design, writing, engineering. Will Hindmarch was an early ally and advisor, and he had a huge impact on our thinking and on the design of Storium. Getting Will involved was a major turning point. Will totally got that Storium was sitting at the intersection of fiction and gaming, and what that could mean. I think he sits at that intersection, himself.

MZ: Storium really is quite flexible I think you could potentially do an actual collaboration through it if you set up the story right er, I mean a collaboration aimed for publication obviously every Storium is a collaboration and I like that you can invite people to follow a given Storium like a fictional serial

SH: Heh, I have a feeling that the first Storium novella or novel is not far away. It’s not clear yet how you would take a Storium story and publish it. What does that even look like? Is it a cross between a screenplay and a blog post? Or it could just be that the game serves as source material, and the author or authors adapt it to a more traditional form. Sort of like how Peter Adkison’s “The Devil Walks In Salem” is a film adapted from a Fiasco play session.

However it turns out, it’s going to be interesting…

MZ: I’m going to guess a mixture pulled together with pictures, you’d need to pull something from outside to draw things together and a visual element seems like a reasonable bet

SH: A key question for me is: do the cards have relevance to the finished story, or just as components of play? Like, once you extract the narrative from the context of Storium, do you need to know what cards inspired each scene and move, or does the written fiction capture it all. I’m honestly not sure what the answer is, and that’s exciting.

MZ: Or maybe it’s going to be a card game with stories. It’s hard to know.

So I am insanely curious

SH: Uh oh

MZ: This was your first GDC, what did you think? What surprised you about interacting with gaming developers and other professionals? How did people react to Storium?

SH: It was a fascinating experience. I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I had a fantastic time meeting other professionals. I gave one of the opening talks, as part of the Narrative Summit, and I was sort of stunned by the response. I’ve given a number of talks over the years but I’ve never had so many people show up for Q&A, or even track me down even days later. I wouldn’t claim it was because I was unusually awesome or anything; I think it was more a function of the people in attendance, and their interest level. These are people who love games, who love making games, who love thinking about games. They are hungry for ideas. Sadly, you don’t feel that as much in many other industry conferences. So that part was great.

On the other hand, as I looked at the sessions and the expo floor, I didn’t really see a place where Storium obviously fit in. Let’s just say our polygon count is too low. What we’re doing is sort of alien to most of the people and companies in attendance. That doesn’t phase me at all; rather, it’s motivating and exciting. But it did make the week slightly surreal. Happily, whenever I had the chance to explain Storium to people, the responses were almost universally positive. People got that it was different from everything around them, which was fun.

MZ: I think that’s a feature and a strength of Storium, but yeah, it must have been a little surreal sometimes. like “I’m just a little toy tugboat I shouldn’t be on the big ocean!”

SH: After the third or fourth pitch for 3D rendering farms or visual asset management systems, I started proactively telling people, “sorry, my game is about words.” Heh.

MZ: HA! That’s better than I did in ’98 I just started telling people we were using a version of Direct X that didn’t exist yet, because I was kind of a jerk

SH: DirectZ!

MZ: I think DirectX 4 had just been announced and I was saying we were using a beta of 5

SH: You are history’s greatest monster.

MZ: I was only saying this when I wanted to shut someone down who was bugging me… but yeah, kind of a jerk. I had the added bonus of being a young woman, so it worked better for me than it would have for other people. It just short circuited about 4 lines of thought in whoever was trying to impress me with their “technical specs” But personally, I don’t think high tech is necessarily the future of games. I mean it will always be a place where high tech gets some testing… but as for the core of gaming I think will be more about experience

SH: A lot of my GDC talk was about questioning our reliance on simulation in our video games. It’s what we put most of the computing power into. And yet the more we do that, the less flexibility we have as storytellers. I don’t see that going away, but I do hope we see more games in the future that rely on it less.

MZ: There’s already been some pushback on very high-tech games that are basically on a rail and more of a movie experience than a player experience.

They’re still neat. But are they really “games”?

SH: Hey, I still love Rebel Assault.

I think there’s a place for just about everything in this world. But we need more variety than we’re getting these days from the major studios, IMO.

MZ: Yes, exactly. Maybe a better way for labeling products so people can find the things that they love, but not less of anything. I feel conflicted about saying “labeling” though I hate labels, and don’t really like using them… but I think a lot of anger and disappointment is caused by people going into something thinking it is one thing and finding it is something they know they already dislike.

SH: I hear you. It’s an old problem, and not just in games. I used to work on del.icio.us, so I’m partial to community tagging as a possible solution. But even that has downsides.

MZ: But then there’s the argument about shouldn’t you be challenging people? Shouldn’t you make them take a bite of pancakes even if they say they hate them? I’m not sure there’s a solution… but I think the discussion is important. Is there anything on your mind either out of GDC or anything else you want to talk about?

SH: I was pretty pleased to see that the GG crowd seemed to find little purchase at GDC. Quite the contrary, in fact. I got the sense that most people who are actually in the industry find the whole thing abhorrent.

MZ: Yeah, I have to say that’s been largely true for as long as I’ve known any designers and others working professionally in the industry. It isn’t the makers of games who are purposefully creating that kind of culture.

SH: I’m not sure they’re entirely excused from it. The games we choose to make have an impact on the audience. But yeah, I don’t think it’s game makers who are at the heart of this particular movement. (Although I’m sure there are individuals who are, sadly.)

MZ: Yeah, I don’t excuse them entirely. I think some things that weren’t thought about absolutely helped create it, I just don’t think anyone went “HEY YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE GREAT?!”

SH: Heh, indeed.

MZ: it’s more the, “Well, we didn’t mean for that to happen and it really isn’t our FAULT” stuff that has to change. We should probably wrap this up. Any last thoughts?

SH: I don’t think so? This was a lot of fun. Thanks for the great questions and conversation. It’s nice to make your acquaintance. thanks for interviewing me!

MZ: I like to say Conversation, because I don’t claim Journalistic integrity :)

SH: heh fair enough

MZ: I’m biased but I want to share cool conversations with creative people

SH: that’s a worthy goal, thanks for including me in that definition

MZ: Hey, I’ve used Storium and I know how much creativity it takes to make something that works that well

SH: thanks for saying so, and thanks for playing!


Home from Traveling

I just got back from an extended weekend visiting family. Conversations Between Writers will be back next week. In the mean time if you were looking for your writing motivation…

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Talk With Me

Do you want to have a Conversation with me? I’m currently looking to schedule Conversations for the next couple months. I’m looking to talk to wordsmiths of all kinds. If you work with words and/or writers in some capacity, I want to talk to you. To date, twenty-seven different people have had Conversations here and I’m in the midst of scheduling several others. Conversations take around an hour and are conducted via the Instant Messenger platform of your choice (provided I either already have it or can get it to work. There are no particular questions and I am about the furthest thing from a journalist there is. My goal is to show the connections and transmission of ideas as they actually happen between people. I know I once thought there was some kind of clique inner-circle sort of thing going on with writing and really it’s more that if you don’t quit, you make connections with people over shared interests and eventually those connections turn into opportunities… or baked goods. Conversations Between Writers is not meant to be primarily a promotion venue. It can happen as Conversations are about all kinds of things, and sometimes we writers are more likely to come out of our shells a bit more when we’re in a promotion sort of mind. My personal goal is to help myself feel less alone (and hopefully others) by making these Conversations public. So please, if you want to talk about interesting things that may or may not have to do directly with writing in some way, please sign up or nominate someone you think might need a little nudge. You can always hit me up on Twitter, email me, or use the form here: http://minervazimmerman.com/cbw/


Schneider Glam

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I bought this pen because it was weird. The pattern is straight up gaudy and basically has puffy paint for the silver bits. It wasn’t particularly expensive and it claimed to come with a companion eraser pen and corrector. Barkaboo? So, I bought it cause that sounded weird. Then… I never took it out of the package because well, it looks like Lisa Frank threw up on it.

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I thought maybe there would be more information inside the packaging, but this is just a card. No help there.

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So this is what it comes with. The fountain pen, the corrector pen, and a box of cartridges. Normally I set aside any included blue or black ink and put something more colorful in to test pens, but I figured this has a particular ink formulation.

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This pen has really weird angled tips on the top and bottom of the pen. The nib is normal, but it feels almost like they should have some particular function… as far as I can tell they don’t.

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The pen is pretty light and the ergonomic grip is actually really comfortable. If it wasn’t covered in gaudy hearts I’d probably want to use this a lot more. I’m pretty sure my 14 year old self would be mildly ashamed to be seen using this pen.

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I like the grip on this pen. It’s comfortable. Maybe if I take nail polish remover to it I can make it presentable looking…

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So here’s the test. I couldn’t find my regular notebook so I wrote on the back of a postcard which I’ll probably send randomly to someone I know. The ink behaves fine, but it is lighter maybe more translucent than standard ink to my untrained eye.

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So I just took the eraser pen and went diagonally through the text from top right to bottom left… and holy goats, it works! FUNKY.

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So the thing about the eraser is it makes it impossible for the fountain pen to rewrite what was there… so the opposite end of the eraser is a pen which will write over the erased area. As you can see, the inks do not really match.

 

The Good

  • Light
  • really comfortable grip
  • should in theory use standard cartridges and converter
  • writes nice

The Bad

  • Lisa Frank Eat Your Heart Out Looks.
  • Eraser only works with included cartridges
  • included cartridges write lighter/more transparently
  • correction pen ink doesn’t match fountain pen ink
  • weird angled ends on outside of pen

Overall grade: B-

The purple sparkly hearts of doom are just very very much not my thing. The correctable ink is kind of neat but I’m not sure how much I need that feature for my uses.


Conversations Between Writers

Tracy Barnett

Tracy Barnett

Tracy is the author of the novel Iron Edda: Sveidsdottir, writer/designer of the RPGs such as School Daze, and Iron Edda: War of Metal and Bone. He is one of the minds behind Exploding Rogue Studios. You can follow him on Twitter as @TheOtherTracy.

MZ: Hey, how’s it going? Are you in the frozen wastelands or somewhere warmer?

Tracy Barnett: It just got pretty frozen here in Ohio. We had a little, uh, warm snap, I guess? But we’re back to mid-20s with windchill. Unfun.

MZ: Hopefully a bit less snow than New England though

TB:  Yeah, we’ve gotten nowhere near that level of snowfall.

MZ: I can’t even comprehend that much snow. I’ve always lived on the West Coast, and you don’t have to shovel rain.

TB:  I was born here in Ohio, and I have to have some snow in the winter, or things just don’t feel right to me. I need the seasonal change. It signals transition, and that’s important to me.

MZ: Yeah we’ve sort of… skipped? winter this year. It’s weird. There are geese flying north, frogs singing at night, and flowers blooming. In February!

TB:  I’ve had winters like that. We’re all still expecting a big freeze and accompanying snow. Dunno if it’ll hit, though.

MZ: Yeah I keep expecting something to hit here and kill off everything that has woken up early.

You’re a bit of a Jack of all Writing, you’ve got a huge amount of projects going. What is most on your mind right now?

TB:  Heh, I guess that depends on the day. I’m getting close to wrapping up the writing for Karthun (current RPG project). I’ve also got a novel in the works, and I’m at the revision stage, to get to the second draft. And there’s a weird thing where even though I want to finish those things, I also want the energy and juice of working on a new idea. Plus, I do regular writing for my Patreon… so yeah. Depends on the day.

MZ: That new idea energy is almost like a drug for me.

TB:  It so is. I get it when I go to conventions, but I get to use to to help me get current projects done. But the thrill of getting a new idea and seeing it through the first draft.. it’s amazing.

Revisions are my anti-drug.

MZ: I love science panels for getting new ideas. I read as much science news as I can get my hands on. Yeah, I’m staring down a several month spell of revisions. I’m looking forward to being done with them, but not doing them :)

TB:  Yeah. I’ve come to accept that revisions are a necessary part of writing. No draft is going to spring fully formed from my forehead. I’m hoping to start to learn to enjoy that part of the process, too.

MZ: Me too. I keep hoping anyway. I have a question I’ve meant to ask you

TB:  Sure!

MZ: what’s the story behind Exploding Rogue as a name? It is very evocative in the best way, but I was wondering if there’s a specific incident behind it?

TB:  We wanted to try and come up with a name we could brand and get behind. The name popped into my head one day and I floated it past Brian. He dug it, and drew some concepts for logos. The more we saw it, the more we liked it. Plus, it’s hell of fun to tweet as the Exploding Rogue. He’s the worst rogue ever.

MZ: I mean, who hasn’t had a party where there was a rogue explosion at some point?

TB:  Truth! I wish there was a more compelling story behind it, but we really just needed to find something we could both get behind.

MZ: …it is usually best to stand behind the rogue

TB:  Yeah, the rogue’s either gonna disable the trap or get turned to paste. But then you need to get another rogue.

MZ: also they have a difficulty modifier on backstabbing people behind them

TB:  Unless the rogue is really just projecting an illusion of themselves…Yeah, that’s getting too complicated.

MZ: unless they’ve taken the lesser known talent, “frontstabbing”

Now, personally I find RPG writing and fiction writing to be very different. How does it shake out for you?

TB:  They’re extremely different, but I think that writing RPGs in a conversational tone makes them more similar. RPGs give the framework for stories that groups will tell. You want to give information and hooks for a group to use.

MZ: I think for me, it’s that for fiction I’m very much a pantser up to a point, and you just can’t do that for RPG stuff. You have to plan it out more ahead of time.

TB:  For fiction, you’re in charge of the whole story, tip to tail. For me, it’s almost like I set up the RPG hooks, then write the adventure group that is the cast of characters. For RPGs, I have to think about what I’d like to see in a product I’d pick up from a store, how I’d want to use it. Then I have to deliver that to the highest level I can. And yeah, for fiction, I’m a pantser. No way I could outline a novel ahead of writing it. Not yet, anyway.

MZ: Yeah, thinking of it like a product is just difficult for my brain. It helps more if I’m thinking of someone else’s RPG world. I tend to outline at the 50% or 2/3rd mark by outlining what I’ve already done and seeing what the shape is it helps overcome the muddle in the middle, but outlining to start with tends to screw me up and kills that new project energy

TB:  Yep. I’m only on my second-ever novel, so it’s still new to me. I can tell you that my WIP has a much more fully formed shape in my mind. I have a sense of where I want it to go, and the revisions will help get me there. Like a mental outline.

MZ: I’m writing my.. 6th? Depending on how you count stuff. And this is the first one that isn’t overly long.

TB:  What’s the wordcount on not overly long?

MZ: First draft is looking like 60k

TB:  My first draft of my WIP hit 65k. Hoping for 75k by the end.

MZ: maybe 70k, depending. but my first couple novels were 120-160k :P

TB:  Yeeahhh! That’s way long for me.

MZ: …which is also why they aren’t published. I couldn’t write clean enough.

TB:  I’m pretty sure that my first novel, Sveidsdottir, should have been longer. But it was near-torturous to write.

MZ: though it turns out you can take a 140k manuscript that was written in 3 acts and cut and expand to make it 3 novels. So, I’m learning. Why torturous?

TB:  1: First novel, and no idea what I was doing. 2: Unintentionally really wrote what I knew. Meaning, the protagonist has a lot of my worst qualities, her wife has a lot of qualities of my ex-wife, and I predicted my divorce through the plot arc of the novel.

MZ: Yowch. Brains man… they sneak up on you in fiction.

TB:  Right? Except my divorce didn’t prompt me to… eh, I’ll save the spoilers.

MZ: Heheheh. Your last few years have been super full of life, both good and bad.

TB:  No kidding. That’s one thing I wouldn’t want to change. There have been parts that have sucked all the butts, but “full of life” is a really good description.

MZ: Yeah, I don’t want to change my past. It made me who I am, and what I’m capable of today.

TB:  That’s seen by some as a trite statement, and it can be difficult to see that when in the middle of it, but it’s true.

MZ: It does seem like a trite statement when you’re currently bemoaning something, but once you can see how it shakes out and all the threads of your life it changed… I guess I see some of the other things I could have done that are much more damaging

TB:  The last part of that statement makes me smile. “I definitely could have fucked up worse,” when said in a positive manner, is a powerful statement.

MZ: Well, for example, my very first relationship was everything that storybooks say you should want. And… also controlling, emotionally needy, and a host of other things. If I hadn’t been in that relationship as early in my life as I was, I would have let myself get into similar situations when I wasn’t as equipped to leave them.

TB:  Yeah, definitely. It just took me… I dunno, six, seven relationships to get to that point? Still. Learning is learning. And that’s worthwhile.

MZ: I try to tell young friends and relatives that part of dating is finding out what you can’t deal with, and making the choice not to deal with it.

TB:  Yeah. 34 year-old me sees that. 17 year-old me wanted to find THE ONE so badly it hurt. And it did.

MZ: Yep. I thought I’d be one and done. But once my one was very much not The One, it took a lot of pressure off.

TB:  Oddly, there are parallels to writing there. Or maybe not oddly.

MZ: There are. You put a lot of pressure on yourself the way you did it, (editorial note: Kickstarting a first novel) but I think you probably condensed a lot of learning into it.

TB:  Now that I’ve gotten my first novel finished and published, I know a lot more about what I want out of my writing.

MZ: I kind of wish I’d given myself a bit more pressure at first. My first novel took 10 years (probably part of why it was so overly long) and then I realized I wasn’t good enough to do it right.

TB:  And yeah, the hubris of “I can totally do this” carried me for a while. And I made it through.

Still, that’s definitely a learning experience you had.

MZ: You’d also produced many finished RPG products before taking on a novel too, so you knew you could push through and finish. I splashed around in the “I never finish anything” for way too long

TB:  That’s a true thing. Finishing is one of the most important first lessons to learn.

MZ: I wish I’d written as many endings as I’ve written beginnings :) I’d probably be better at plotting

What do you wish you were better at?

TB:  Plotting and outlining. For all that I said I like the idea of pantsing, I feel like I could write stories that are better if I could plan better. It’s hard to get a sense of where you are and how well you’re doing if you can’t keep a sense of the story.

MZ: I will admit that someone pointing out that the scene selection screen of a DVD is basically a plot outline helped my brain.

TB:  That’s definitely a good point.

MZ: so now when I outline I try to kind of make that screen for my own use

TB:  I’ll have to give that a shot.

MZ: not imagining it as a movie so much as just looking at it as a collection of scenes with one still image

TB:  Yeah. “This shot encapsulates the scene” is good thinking, I, uh, think.

MZ: I’m a very visual thinker, so it helps more than a spreadsheet, though the spreadsheet is good for editing

TB:  Yeah, I used a spreadsheet to outline Sveidsdottir. Not sure I knew how to apply it properly, though. So many things to learn.

MZ: it depends what you’re doing. When I switch POV it’s nice to know who the POV of each scene is, if it is a talking scene, action scene, word count…. but it doesn’t help for outlining per say Is there anything in particular burning up your brain or that you want to make sure we talk about?

TB:  The thing I want the most right now is to be a full-time writer. I know it’s going to take a while, and take a lot of different sources of income, but damn do I want it.

MZ: Do you have lots of thinky thoughts about diversifying income streams and markets and all that too?

TB:  SO MANY THINKY THOUGHTS I make RPGs via Kickstarter, do a leetle bit of freelance RPG and fiction work, I have a Patreon for fiction and such, and I want to sell a novel to a traditional publisher. And I have a day job. I want that last part to not be the case. I don’t make enough annually that a novel advance is a small thing, so that’s what I’m hoping swings things closer to Fulltimewriterville.

MZ: I like my day job, but I absolutely need a financially stable partner to make both my writing and day job possible.

TB:  It’s not a silver bullet, but it’ll get me closer.

MZ: Yeah. I’m conflicted about full-time writing. Mostly because I’m one of those people that does better with a schedule and can’t be assed to enforce it on myself.

TB:  I’m conflicted about the viability, financially, but I’m so sure of it personally.

MZ: It financially seems so feast and famine.

TB:  That’s why I’d need to keep things diversified. And, if I got an advance, I’d have to set myself a monthly income. And keep a schedule for writing. Because yeah, day jobs provide structure. There’s actually a place near where I live that’s a shared workspace.

MZ: and advances have gotten so much smaller, which is good for earning out… but still.

TB:  If I were able to write full time, I’d want to head there to work, if possible.

Yeah.

MZ: I live in a relatively cheap rural area, but still $5-7k isn’t going to get you much.

TB:  Right now, that 7k is 1/3 of my yearly salary. Like I said, it’d be a start.

MZ: My thought is to have enough products out there that make a small amount on a consistent basis… the little lumps will make more of a difference.

TB:  Yep. My lovely little lumps.

MZ: My lumps bring all the milkshakes to my tummy /looks vaguely ashamed/ that was terrible

TB:  Terribly funny! Is there anything you wanted to make sure you asked me?

MZ: Not ask so much as make sure I mentioned. I wanted to tell you that I really admire you, not only for what you’ve done for yourself, but in how you’re always out there supporting others and cheering people on. It makes a big difference to a lot of people, and you should know that.

TB:  That’s really flattering. Thank you! Damn, now I’m blushing.

MZ: :D Mission accomplished


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