Interactive Fiction: Read it, write it, share it!

Anyone who attended the excellent “Writing for Games” talk last Saturday as part of the Dublin Writers Festival will remember the writers (Rob Morgan, Antony Johnston and Joe Griffin) onstage talking about the rise in literary games. While “literary video games” may seem like an oxymoron to the uninitiated, personal experience attests that they really are out there, and one tiny branch of this mighty tree holds the games classified as “interactive fiction.” On this delightfully sunny day in Ireland, I’d like to open a window into the world of interactive fiction for you:

So, what is interactive fiction?
In the struggle for a definition, an easy gateway is to think of interactive fiction today as the evolution of choose-your-own-adventure books that many children of the 1980s will remember. That is, interactive fiction tells a story that changes depending on the choices you make during your reading of it. This makes interactive fiction a fertile ground for many types of experimental writing and intensely personal explorations in which themes of sex and identity feature strongly.

Over the past few years, the global game development community has latched onto the potential of interactive fiction, especially as a “gateway drug” into game design. We can find visual novels, hypertext fiction and more complex forms that use player text input to determine the next steps of the game … and all of these can be classified as interactive fiction. To ease our way in, we’ll focus on hypertext fiction for today. As I’ll show you later, the most popular tools for creating hypertext fiction are free and so simple that a novice user can create and publish their first game within a day.

I’d like to read some interactive fiction, where should I start?
My interests skew experimental, so I’m going to point you towards three of my favourites in that arena (all are free and playable/readable in your browser without the need to download anything):
Howling Dogs” by Porpentine
Sacrilege” by Cara Ellison
Even Cowgirls Bleed” by Christine Love
Of course, there is so much out there across all genres, that the pieces that speak to me may not resonate with you at all, in which case you can take a look at Emily Short’s comprehensive list that will help you to find a piece that speaks to what you personally are interested in.

OK, I like this! How can I get started and make some interactive fiction myself?
The most popular entry-level tool is called Twine. It’s free, open-source, works on both PC and Mac and is relatively simple to use. By simple, I mean that if you are familiar with using Microsoft Word and have any experience at all with HTML/code, the learning curve is not steep. You create branching stories in a diagrammatic way, and when you are ready to publish, you can upload your game or story as a simple HTML file either to your own website, or for free on Philome.la.

Once you have a basic grasp of Twine and are bitten by the interactive fiction bug, there are many other established formats for creating more complex interactive fiction, including Ren’py, Inform and ChoiceScript. There’s also a wonderful new way of creating graphical interactive fiction called Fungus, created by Irish designer Chris Gregan who has put the time into creating some seriously helpful learning resources to help newcomers.

If you need a bit of help getting started, I’ll be teaching an interactive fiction workshop at the Circa Words experimental writing festival taking place on June 15th, so get in touch with the Irish Writers Centre if you would like to attend. After that, my friends and I held a day-long Twine-based game jam last year in Dublin and it was so much fun we are likely to run another one over the summer, so if you try Twine out and enjoy it, let me know and I’ll add you to the contact list for the event.

Can I adapt something I wrote already to interactive fiction?
Absolutely! By doing this, you can learn a new way of presenting your work in addition to increasing the chance of your work being read by others. Creating interactive fiction is free, easy and brings immersive, experimental writing to many people who would never buy a poetry chapbook, even if the contents are exactly the same. To show this, check out the contrasting experiences of Dan Waber (who wrote “A Kiss“), between the response he got to the same work via literary journals versus the viral promotion of it through the interactive fiction community.

I hope I’ve convinced you that giving interactive fiction a try is well worth the effort. If you do go ahead to make something in Twine, please do send it to me, I’d love to be immersed in your story!

 

 

Artist Date

G_W_Russell_BathersI first came upon George William Russell on a sunny June day last year. I was reading The Artist’s Way, which recommends that participants take themselves out on an “artist date” each week, something that will help them to further their own work. Something beautiful, something alone.

On that day, I was struggling, finding it hard to drag my creative energies and desires into the material world. I had recently left an all-consuming and high-responsibility job within the tech industry in order to spend a few months on pursuing “my dreams”. Such as they were, these dreams involved putting pen to page with laser focus and finishing the novel I’d started the year before.

I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t really. I just launched in on day one and Continue reading

The World of Self-Publishing: First-Hand Insights

books upstairs windowWhy self-publish?

A number of years ago I wrote a book of fifty essays about various different aspects of life in Dublin. I sent it to a relatively small number of publishers and was somewhat surprised by the feedback…

While a lot of positive insightful comments came back, nobody wanted to run with the book. A writer I knew suggested self-publishing as an alternative.

In those days I believed, as I still do, that the publishing industry works quite well (if you can get into it). You submit a manuscript, it is accepted and then goes on its own mysterious way out into the world. I like this idea because, unlike self-publishing, it doesn’t Continue reading

How to Write the Great Dublin Novel

To hear a Londoner tell it, there’s no greater challenge facing an author than trying to capture the spirit of their great city. You’ll never match Dickens they’ll tell you.

Parisians will make a similar claim for their metropolis. Ooh, Zola. Ooh, Hugo.

Codswallop.

You want a real challenge, consider the poor sod from Dublin who has to toil under the shadow of the mighty Joyce. Or Doyle.

But stop shivering, don’t despair. You, too, can write the great Dublin novel if you just follow these tips.

Continue reading

Take Your First Writing Step

Review stock photoI love festivals, those concentrated bursts of shared energy that set thoughts alight and creative engines humming. If you’re anything like me, events such as the Dublin Writers Festival leave you with twofold desire. Firstly, you’re craving more of the literary drug. Secondly, you’re hankering to cobble together some words of your own.

It’s easy to let that dizzy fervour fizzle out on the workaday Monday following such an event, your seed ideas (so carefully sheltered from the rain on the long commute) falling prey at the office door to that familiar refrain of “Sure, what am I doing? Nobody wants to read what I wrote.” Then, with a sigh and a shaken-out umbrella, it’s gone.

Don’t let that happen this time! Everyone has something unique to say. Today, I’d like to tell you about a few Irish literary journals and writing courses that could give you the impetus to nurture your seed idea into a finished piece that showcases your voice to an eager audience. So, after this year’s festival, you have no excuse not to sharpen up that those gathered words lurking in the back of your mind, waiting to be written. No excuse. NO EXCUSE.

Writing Courses

There are loads of writing courses out there. Check out Writing.ie for a complete list of all courses happening in Ireland over the next while. Here, I’ll just highlight two course providers that worked really well for me personally.

Irish Writers Centre
The Irish Writers Centre offer many courses, from one-off workshops to weekly classes for beginners, there’s truly something here for everyone. I’ve attended Dave Lordan’s course in experimental fiction for the last two seasons and cannot recommend it highly enough. From the quality of the instruction, the calibre of the participants and the intoxicating material, I’ve been inspired and entertained in equal measure.

Big Smoke Writing Factory
I loved the courses I took at Big Smoke Writing Factory. Claire Hennessy’s patient and supportive mentoring style is invaluable for nervous beginners and seasoned writers alike. With courses in screenwriting, playwriting, speculative fiction and more, the tough choice is which one to take.

Irish Literary Journals

In the interest of wordcount, I can only go into some detail on my absolute favourite few of the current journals, but there are so many great ones out there; from Wordlegs to Gorse to Number Eleven to The South Circular and on and on!

The Stinging Fly
A thrice-yearly print publication since 1997, The Stinging Fly seeks out the best new Irish and international writing. The launch for the latest issue was held in the Irish Writer’s Center last week, where attendees got hot under the collar for Dimitra Xidous’ poem “Ovum” before the incredible two-for-one tale from June Caldwell. I recommend everyone purchase it for the joy of the reading, and if you want to submit, they are open to postal submissions.

Colony
Colony is a new contender on the block. In just its second month of operation, there is great talent on show. It’s an experimental, online-only journal based in Ireland that incorporates translation, music and spoken word. Submissions are open now for their “Trans” issue. The latest issue features a clever and thought-provoking piece by Roisin O’Donnell called “Twenty-Four Hours In Tahoma”.

The Moth
A quarterly arts and literature magazine, The Moth features poetry, short fiction and art by established and up-and-coming writers from Ireland and abroad. Beautiful copies are available in print for only €5. The piece “Paperchase” by Thomas Maloney from Autumn 2013 still haunts me.

The Bohemyth
Run by Michael Naghten Shanks, The Bohemyth is an online-only literary journal based in Ireland that features short fiction, poetry and essays on a monthly basis. They are open to submissions right now. I was really impressed with their last women-only issue for March, especially the stellar pieces from EM Reapy and Lucy K Shaw.

(Charlene Putney)

The Submission Process – How To Contact An Agent

DATEWITHANAGENT (1)It is difficult enough being a writer without having to be a business person as well.

It’s a painful balancing act. The skills required to come up with nuanced characters and intricate plots are quite different to those needed to sell yourself as an investment. To date I have never met a writer who didn’t desperately want to be able to hire someone else to file their taxes and apply for grants and all the other awful real-world stuff that we just don’t want to do.

This is of course why an agent is so useful. They perform the balancing act so we don’t have to. Contacting one, however, can be a daunting process – cover letters and synopses, pitfalls of formatting and etiquette.

I had more trouble writing a 300 word synopsis for my YA novel than I did writing the thing. Trying to decide between Yours Sincerely and Yours Faithfully in the cover letter gave me a stress twitch.

However, there are some simple guidelines that worked for me in my path to get an agent. These can be applied to your own journey as well.

PREPARATION

Writing a novel is one thing. Sending it out into the world another. It’s impossible to judge trends or guess what’ll be the next big thing – remember, the world hopped from teenage vampire fiction to BDSM erotica in the space of about a week – but there are a few simple tasks to complete that are universal, whether you writing crime, fantasy or literary fiction.

Spellcheck & Standard Manuscript Format

These might sound obvious but I’m saying them anyway. First, proof-read your book. Get other people to proof-read it too. Hire a professional proof-reader if you’re willing to drop the money on it, but I’ve never used one so I don’t think they’re essential. Make sure the manuscript is as close to perfect as you can make it.

I don’t know if an agent would decide to put aside your manuscript because of a spelling mistake or whether they’d be too engrossed in the prose to care, but there’s no reason to take the chance.

While you’re doing that, put your manuscript into Standard Manuscript Format as outlined here. It’ll be a lot of work but at the same time will allow you to do one last thorough examination of the novel. I was amazed – even when I and my agent were examining the draft – how easily a spelling mistake or missing word slipped through.

Cover Letter & Synopsis

Before getting an agent I found myself wondering whether an agent actually reads them. If I were an agent I’d just read the first page of the book. That’d tell me if I wanted to read the second, the third, or the fourth.

When I had the chance to ask a couple of agents what their preference was I got very different answers. Some read the book first, some read the letter and some read the synopsis. Bottom line – you can’t afford to ignore them. The agent wouldn’t be asking for them without a reason.

Cover Letter

I had a basic template letter that looked like the following –

Dear (Agent Name)

–          P1 – Elevator Pitch. This was my three/four line description of the novel’s plot. It’s a blackly humorous YA novel so I took a (very slightly) informal tone. I made the first line something snappy and sharp that would immediately grab their attention.

–          P2 – Overview of the Novel. I told them the genre of the novel, that it was the start of a series and the main questions the novel would ask and then attempt to answer.

–          P3 – Comparisons. This was a calculated risk on my part as exactly half the research I did said not to do this and half of it did. I compared the novel to other writers with qualifiers – it has elements of this style while differing in this way and so on. As mine was a genre novel, I felt this was important.

–          P4 – Bio. A Six lines about myself – my career as a performer, my degree and my publications.

This all ended up being about an A4 page single-spaced. I edited it quite a bit as you don’t want to overload them with information, keeping sentences short and tight.

Synopsis

Some agencies will specify a certain length of synopsis – 300 words, or a page, or 3 pages. For simplicity’s sake I prepared one 300 word one and one 1000 word one as templates ready to go.

Remember a synopsis is a blow-by-blow account of the story. You don’t leave out the ending or keep things mysterious but nor do you include every single moment.

Set the scene, introduce the characters, walk through the main conflicts and how they’re resolved.

Give each character a one-line outline when you introduce them. ‘Charlotte is beautiful, driven and fully convinced that she knows what’s best for everyone in a hundred mile radius.’

Ask questions that are answered later. ‘What could Charlotte’s mother have meant when she said that the angels are in the phone box?’

Keep the synopsis in the present tense. Don’t worry about making it beautiful – focus on clear and active storytelling, they’ll see your style from page 1.

It’s a difficult process – there will be stand-out lines you want to put in, you’ll feel you’re not doing the book justice – but it’s more important to keep within their guidelines. Look for synopses of books familiar to you and see what they’ve kept in/left out.

CONTACTING AGENTS

Organisation is everything. Now that you’ve prepared your manuscript, your cover letter, and your synopses you can choose your agent.

And it is a choice you’re making – remember, agents want good writers as much as you want an agent, that’s how they make their money. They’re not faceless avatars of murderous rejection, just professionals with a lot of manuscripts to look at and a limited amount of time in which to do it.

The resource I used was a website called literaryrejections.com. Don’t freak out at the title – they’re actually a brilliant and friendly site for writers, providing a list of maybe a hundred UK, US, German, Australian and Canadian agencies. You’ll find contact details, their requirements and whether they take postal or e-mail submissions.

THESE DETAILS ARE ESSENTIAL.

Ahem.

I follow a lot of agents on Twitter. You would be astonished – as they are – how many people blithely ignore what an agent wants to see. Give them what they asked for – no more, no less.

Read through the list of agencies. Follow the links to their sites and do your research. Most agency websites will have a list of agent profiles from which you can see who deals with that. Usually you’ll see their client list as well.

Take the time to choose an agent based on what they have said about themselves. This could be the difference between someone actually reading your submission or not. If you send a crime novel submission to an agent who only deals with YA they might do your work for them and forward it to the relevant colleague… but there’s no reason to take that chance.

Be methodical. Take your time. Agencies have their format – right down to the type of word.doc and document title they want. Follow this. Check and double-check everything.

Keep copies of all your submissions and if you’re a pedant like me make an Excel doc. keeping track of the date that you submitted.

Some agencies will not accept simultaneous submissions. Some agencies will encourage you to follow up on them if they don’t contact you. Others will not. Pay attention to this. Chances are any question you might have has been answered somewhere on their site.

If you’re interested in a particular agency or agent I’d recommend following them on Twitter – you’ll gain useful insight. Juliet Mushens @mushenska and Julia Churchill @JuliaChurchill even run regular Q & A sessions from their Twitter accounts. There is nothing like being able to directly ask an agent a question.

Never use social media to submit or follow up on submissions, however – it’s a huge breach of etiquette and will do you no favours.

THEN WHAT?

Then – I’m sorry to say – you wait.

I contacted eighteen agents on my first day and then took a break to see what responses came in. That’s a few too many for a first round, looking back. I’d recommend five or six. Be honest with the agent if they ask you are other people looking at it. It might make them put their skates on while reading it.

Over the next twelve weeks I received six prompt rejections, radio silence from a handful more and two agencies asking to read the entire manuscript. I signed with the (absolutely wonderful) team at Darley Anderson six weeks or so after my submission and then e-mailed the remaining agencies withdrawing my manuscript.

The precautions above won’t guarantee you an agent by themselves. Agents judge the work above all else. But from what I can see good submission etiquette is like good grammar – you never notice it if it’s been done right. You don’t want the agent focusing on a lack of cover letter or eighty thousand words in single-space Comic Sans. You want them lost in your book.

Dave Rudden is represented by The Darley Anderson Literary Agency. The World English rights to his trilogy have just been acquired by Puffin, the German rights by Fischer and the French translation by Pocket Jeunesse. Follow him on Twitter at @dreadfulnotion

Date with an Agent: Do’s & Don’ts to get Ahead

DATEWITHANAGENT (1)This year the Dublin Writers’ Festival is offering a chance for you to pitch your novel to a number of agents through Date with an Agent. The event also includes a panel discussion which will cover the status of publishing and what is currently selling.

Only 75 people will be selected to participate so stop dilly-dallying and enter immediately.

A couple of years ago I had a similar opportunity (as a result of winning the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair) and it was a real education. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may find helpful:

DO:

Be prepared.
And also, don’t forget, be prepared. But the most important thing is… BE PREPARED.

This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t deliver your absolute best.

You’ll have ten minutes with each agent (in a speed-dating sort of format) so put together a succinct presentation and own it.

Write out your summary and polish it till it shines. You should include the basics: Title, length, genre, point of view and a brief introduction to your protagonist, what he or she wants, and what obstacles stand in the way. Try to answer the six questions, who, what, where, when, how and why:
Who is your hero? What does he want? Why does he want it? Where and when does the story take place? How will he triumph? Yes, it is possible to answer all those questions in just a couple of sentences.

Once you’ve written something that ticks all your boxes, memorize it. Practice saying it to other people. Get feedback.

It sounds obvious, but make sure you can answer any questions that the agent may ask you:

• What’s the status of the novel – i.e., who is your target readership? For instance, are you presenting a crime story that would appeal to people who like hard-edged work like Michael Connelly, or ‘cosy’ mysteries a la Agatha Christie?
• Is it complete or are you still writing?
• Over what period does the story take place – a couple of hours or several generations?

I’d be inclined not to pitch a novel that isn’t complete, but if you decide to go ahead, make sure you know two important things:

How long is the story likely to run? And how will it end?

One question that tripped me up during my Novel Fair (and it was asked a lot) was: what’s your next book going to be about? In hindsight, it’s a fairly obvious question. Agents want to back a career and they want to know you aren’t a one-trick pony. Even if you’ve only a vague idea, at least have something in mind, preferably in the same genre. Remember, you’re not committing to writing this book, but you are at least demonstrating an ability to look ahead.

Do your research.

Know as much about the agents you’re meeting as possible before the event. Look them up on the internet. Read their blogs, tweets, books and know who else they represent.

It isn’t a ‘date’ but

Although this isn’t a date as you know it, some of the same rules apply. Arrive on time. Be clean and well groomed. Use deodorant. Keep perfume to a minimum. Have a good supply of breath mints in your pocket.

Be polite and interested in what the other person has to say. While you don’t have much time, a little social exchange before you get started isn’t a bad idea. Stand up, shake hands, introduce yourself, be cheerful.

Where this isn’t like a date, though, is it’s OK to talk about yourself or, more accurately, your work. (Oh, and you probably won’t get a snog at the end of it.)

DON’T:

Arrive drunk or high. You wouldn’t, would you?

Humm and haw. Try to eliminate the ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kinda’s from your vocabulary as much as you can. Naturally you’ll be nervous, but you should still try to be as confident and as professional as possible. At a minimum, you should sound knowledgeable about your own work. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me, when you’re on the spot it’s amazingly easy to forget the basics. Like your protagonist’s name. Have the basics on an index card to refresh your memory if you are worried you’ll go blank.

Argue or be rude. You only have ten minutes with each individual and you want to be remembered as intelligent, talented and pleasant. Winning flies with honey, and all that.

Forget to ask questions. Again, you have limited time so be sensible. Asking what sort of an advance you’re likely to get is waaay too premature. You could ask what sort of work they’re looking for, though and how long it’ll take them to get back to you.

Fail to keep notes. At the Novel Fair, I kept my notebook at my desk and frantically jotted down comments made by each agent I met. It was helpful, but unnecessarily stressful. If I were to do it again, I’d have a sheet of paper with the agents’ names listed and a series of columns that I could either check or put in a 1 to 5 response. The items would include:
• Likes my title
• Likes my story idea
• Likes my plot
• Wants to see the full manuscript (yes or no)

You may think of other items to include. Once the event is over, it’s likely that much of what was said will blur. If you have some sort of notes you’ll have a more realistic idea of what to expect.

Once you have time to read over your notes or your sheet, try to see if there’s a thread. All the agents I met with said they loved my title. That’s a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale. If they weren’t sure about the plot or the saleability of the novel, that might only score a 1 or a 2. Come up with a system that works for you.

Be intimidated. After all, agents get colds, spill coffee and worry about their children just like you do. From personal experience I can tell you the Dublin-based agents are all pleasant, intelligent professionals. They’re hoping you’ll be their next star just as much as you are, so try not to get too stressed about meeting them.

And I’ll leave you with one last DO: HAVE FUN!

(G.J. Schear)