Sunday, June 9, 2013

Paradigm shift - my writing

This post was born out of my thoughts from this post by Dave Morris.  Many thanks, Dave for the inspiration and also for introducing me to the word 'damascene'.

Have you ever had some crushing realisation that your knowledge and talents are not up to what you thought they were?  And that there is a whole new area that you've neglected, but you thought you could get by fine ignoring it but now it's just staring you in the face and you just can't any more?  Like it's saying 'Deal with me or get out.'?

Well, I'm having that feeling about gamebooks.  And, although crushing realisations of inadequacy don't fell too good, I've learnt to love them as it means that they are a precursor to upping my game in whatever area I have them in.

I'm going to deal with it.  I love gamebooks too much to get out, I hope you will be glad to know.

The thing that I just cannot ignore any more is that I really have to work at being a writer in order to produce better gamebooks.  The process was a long one.  It all began back with my first Windhammer entry, that disaster known as Triad of Skulls, where I made too many schoolboy errors to list here.

I hadn't realised that it was my writing letting me down, because when I wrote my second entry, City of the Dead, I approached it with the mentality that if I could just get an interesting game system that gave the player lots of choices of character creation and then make sure that the game element itself was balanced so that people wouldn't complain about it being unfair that I would be sorted.  However, due to that, I neglected the story and the atmosphere.  I had a very vivid picture of what the City of the Dead should be like in my head, but this didn't translate to the page because I didn't know how to do that and I was far too concerned with the game system to even realise that I needed to improve upon that aspect.

So I tried to improve upon my story telling.  I wrote 10 Short Fighting Fantasy books (I wrote the long one before any of this happened) in order to practise for Windhammer 2010.  I then wrote Sharkbait's Revenge which was based on a true story and relied on the tried and tested popular trope of pirates and all of their clichés.  It also had scenes influenced by films, TV and cartoons that I have watched.  I won that year.  Wooooo!

Buoyed by my success, I then submitted Rulers of the NOW where I concentrated on tons of world building based on every conspiracy theory I could lay my hands on.  However, I was still pretty weak on character. 

In 2012, I went off the boil with regards to character and entered Call of Khalris which was inspired by Lovecraft, who, despite his great talent and fantastic stories, was not a writer who focused on character.  I tried to include character through the player with the use of the diary.  However, this had mixed reactions.

I have written other books over the time.  My TnT solos had very simple plots and characters and focused more on mechanics, but I tried to connect with the reader in other ways.  Temple of the Fool God was all about the trickster archetype.  I also wrote a free USR solo called Locket Away which is basically Film Noir in a fantasy setting.  I also wrote the Ascent of Darkness which is based on Greek myth.  Whilst I was doing all of this, I was obsessively trawling through TVTropes as if my life depended on reading every page in detail.

After all of this, my head was full of tropes, story archetypes, character archetypes and references, which I saw as a set of ingredients.  If I put the correct tropes together in the right proportions and order, then I could create something good.  What I found was that I could create something functional, but that a great gamebook was more than just the some of its parts.  To use an appropriate analogy, I felt like Victor Frankenstein who had put together the body parts of his creature but had not yet instilled it with the spark of life.

Recent discussions from Fabled Lands and Mysterious Path have also dragged me out of my paradigm of the archetypal gamebook being a Fighting Fantasy book or a Lone Wolf book - the ones I had grown up with.  The world of gamebooks has much more variety than those books.  There are much more and much better approaches to a gamebook than writing a solo dungeon crawl.  I have spent far too long skipping the text and looking at the options or looking for all the game relevant bits and calculating my odds in combats.  This discussion gave me the realisation that I had been stuck in my current paradigm and that I really need to branch out to survive.

I've been working on it, however.  Whilst I have been working on Goblin's Bounty, I have had to come up with dialogue between the four goblins in the gang that wasn't only amusing, but also made them feel 3d - I wanted the reader to think that they had been lifelong friends with all the history and rapport that it brings.  Ashton Saylor, who has been providing me with excellent feedback has helped drag me out of my world where I believe that everything is reducible and gamebooks can be written by numbers (quite literally) - he has shown me that there needs to be more depth to a character than just a vehicle for delivering dialogue.  In fact, I've written backgrounds for the Goblins for that book, little of which has made it into the text, but they have certainly helped me write consistent characters that the reader is more likely to connect to. 

So I think what I was missing was text that 'connected' with the reader and engaged them, which is what I endeavour to do.  At the time of writing, I have written 100000 words of gamebook this year so far and the actual writing has been an education to me.  I feel like I have come a long way since Triad of Skulls, but I still have a long way to go.  However, I now feel like I'm on a higher level.

Until next time...happy gamebooking!


  1. Yours was the first gamebook blogs I discovered and encouraged me to start posting about Mysterious Path.

    Learning in public is scary thing to do, but it helps others. I'm grateful to you (Dave Morris, Ashton Saylor, Gamebookers, Comic artists, Game designers et al) for all the knowledge share.

    The more you practice your craft, the more you realise it's a long trek to become the artist you want to be. Neil Gaiman says he still feels like he's 'making it up as he goes along' and will get found out eventually. I doubt the feeling of inadequacy ever goes away.

    Looking back to where you started can be an inspirational reminder to spur you on to your next milestone. Art is a process not product. It's all about the journey.

    Keep going!

  2. Many thanks for your comments, Grey Wiz! I'm really glad that you did start posting about Mysterious path because your posts have been really insightful. I'm glad I wrote my experiences out in public as they have helped me crystalise my thoughts and yourself an my other blogger friends have been nothing but helpful. I bet you're right about the feeling of inadequacy not going away, but I am happy that I am better than when I started.

    Keep going too! Loved part 5 of the problem with gamebooks!

  3. You'll be cursing me forevermore, Stuart - that path to good writing is a journey that no writer has ever completed to their own satisfaction :)

    Nevertheless, it is a leap worth taking. The purpose of good writing is to go beyond the simple "description of events" (which is really, after all, the business of reportage rather than fiction) to evoke the specific emotions and ideas that you want to communicate to the reader. It's how storytelling moves from gossip around the water cooler into the realms of entertainment and (dare I say) art.

    I was reminded of this when I saw a review of one of Jack Vance's books recently. The reviewer was saying how "maybe this was the kind of SF they read in the old days. I thought all the twists were obvious and I didn't see why we were supposed to like the hero." Okay, so Vance is probably the greatest ever writer of fantasy, but I realized that everything he did was completely invisible to this reviewer because he couldn't judge the quality of writing - the way Vance can be poignant and funny at the same time, the way he evokes genuinely strange worlds, the elegant dialogue and the unsentimental love he has for humanity. But it was like showing a rainbow to somebody who's colour blind.

    What I'm saying is that it may be a thankless journey as well as a never-ending one. But the journey is the thing. I'm looking forward to seeing how this new direction shapes your future work.

    1. Many thanks, Dave. And many thanks for your guidance in these past few years. It has been invaluable. There will be a lag in my change as the things I create will get released after a delay. I think that I must like writing because after reading that it is a thankless, never ending journey, I still want to do it.