Saturday, 28 September 2013

Selling Outside my Comfort Zone

What are we supposed to call non-genre fiction these days?  I refuse to go with 'literary', because that implies that books like 1984 and The Man in the High Castle aren't literary, and that's plain stupid.  Ditto for mainstream; would anyone seriously claim that Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones aren't mainstream?  So what does that leave?  I can't think of anything better, so let's just stay where we started and go with non-genre, even though it's barely less rubbish.

So, I mostly write genre fiction, obviously, but every so often I write non-genre fiction, and I don't know exactly why any of that is.  Partly personal preference, of course, partly because I know certain markets a lot better than others, and partly playing to where I've always figured my strengths lie, and ... wait, no, that was my supposed to be my point.  Maybe I should be writing more non-genre fiction, because I actually seem to do quite well with it.

First there was Strive to be Happy in Flash Fiction Online, one of my first pro sales, my first award nomination, and possibly the most well received thing I've written.  Then, a long time later, FFO also took my slightly autobiographical extended-metaphor-with-swans (how does that not make you want to read it?) For Life.  And now I've sold my third stab at non-genre fiction to new publisher Bleeding Heart, for their magazine Transfusion, for the highest rate I've ever earned from a short story, cent per word.

This one's particularly amazing because I was convinced that this little slice of lives, titled A Shadow Play, was going to be a tough sell.  I've been talking about it being non-genre, but it is sort of fantastical: two life stories, one real and one imagined - though perhaps it's not quite that simple - told in a little over 800 words.  It's kind of abstract, downbeat, weird and overambitious and not much like anything else I've done.  All of which, of course, are reasons I'm proud of it, but it's a foolish writer who expects editors to share their predilections!

Fortunately in this instance Bleeding Heart did, and not only that but they work fast: A Shadow Play is due out in the second issue of Transfusion next month.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

All That News I Don't Have

I said when I put up my last post that I didn't have any writing news, and then realised straight away that I actually have loads of writing news.  It's just that none of it is really the kind of stuff that I'd normally blog about.  Still, saying I have no news implies I haven't been up to much, and that's the exact opposite of the truth.  So I thought I might as well set the record straight, even if I was the one who unstraightened it in the first place.

First up, there's the novella that I've been working on since around the start of June, and hope to finish soon.  I've never had much desire to write a novella before, but I had an idea that was too small for a novel and way too big for a short story, and I needed a project to sink my teeth into for a few months, to keep myself busy until ... well, until the massive thing that's happening next month, that I should probably keep quiet about until then, in case I jinx it or something.  Anyway, the novella's currently called Patchwerk, and its best described as ... um ... kind of a Moorcockian multidimensional science-fiction / fantasy thing.  Well, maybe that's not how it's best described, but put it this way, the fact that it has about twenty-five people in it but they're all the same five characters should give you a fair idea of what it's like (and what a gigantic headache it's been to write in places!)

So there's that. And there's the second, as-yet-untitled volume of Endangered Weapon B, which I finished a few days ago and now just need to format ready for winging over to Bob.  It's fun stuff, if I do say so; we find out just why the Professor's been so interested in resurrecting the dead, just about everyone from volume 1 returns, mostly in the most absurd ways possible, and - at the risk of giving away crucial plot points - there's a bloody great, ridiculous fight at the end. Oh, and I get to parody a load more stuff, from John Carter to Bride of Frankenstein to Endangered Weapon itself.  (Thinking about it. mainly that last one.)

Then there's the planning.  Oh so much planning!  I just recently wrapped up a synopsis of what I fervently hope will be my next novel, and that's with my agent John Berlyne right now, waiting on his feedback.  There's my ongoing figuring-out of how to nail down War For Funland, the book I wrote a first draft of between Giant Thief and Crown Thief and would really like to write a second draft of one of these days.  There's the third novel that's at the mostly-in-my-head stage.  There's the new comic series that Bob Molesworth and I are hoping to put together, which I'm sketching out bit by bit, with a view to getting a synopsis together in the next month or two.  There are short story ideas piling up, there's the film script I've been plotting for a couple of years now...

That might sound like a lot, and it probably is, but from my point of view this is no bad thing. For all the love I have for Damasco and his world, one of the hardest aspects of writing Crown Thief and Prince Thief was how much they dominated my writing time, to the exclusion of all else.  I'm always happier with a few different projects on the go, and I'm happiest when those projects are as different from each other as realistically possible.  So, right now, when I have a dozen things in the pipeline and none of them are the least bit similar to each other ... well, that's an okay place to be in.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Game Ramble: Journey

I've been getting interested recently in what seem to be known as Art Games, a loose genre of video
games that are trying to break out from some of the form's traditional limitations and achieve the kind of thing that you'd expect of an art form more than a work designed solely to entertain.  It's a fine line of course, and you'd have to be blind to miss the artistry that goes into almost any game these days, but I still find the whole thing intriguing.  The facet that's really caught my attention, though, is what this might mean for video game narrative, an area in which the burgeoning medium has undeniably often tended to let itself down.

The story of Journey, stripped to its bare bones, is actually no great shakes.  It is in fact, as the title hints, the traditional hero's journey; that is, it draws on the concept of an archetypal hero and narrative structure that mythologist Joseph Campbell famously identified as underlying much of world mythology.  The game's director, Jenova Chen, states this explicitly in the "making of" documentary included on the collector's edition, and there's even a diagram mapping Campbell's hypothetical stages to the game's levels.

So as core narratives go, Journey's isn't particularly interesting of in and of itself, especially considering that a great many video game plots conform to Campbell's model.  What is interesting is that Journey chooses to flesh out this skeleton by abandoning so many of the traditional tools of storytelling.  Nothing is spoken in any recognisable language.  The player character's design allows for only the simplest expressions.  There are other humanoid characters, but they never speak.  There are non-humanoid creatures, but they communicate, as the player character does, through tonal, whale-like noises.  You encounter glyph-like, symbolic drawings and it's possible to piece together continuity and history from these, but there's no actual text anywhere in the game besides the title and credits.

In the place of spoken or written language, then, Journey exploits some familiar alternatives - visual design, music, design cues - and uses them exceptionally well.  But it also does some things that are more subtle and hard to define.  It achieves much by offering small hints and leaving the rest to the player's imagination, a technique more common to books than gaming or its closest cousin cinema.  And it achieves even more by tapping into subconscious desires and fears: the heart-stopping feeling of flying, a section lit and decorated as though it were underwater and frequent moments of sliding almost helplessly down banks of sand are uncanny and powerfully dreamlike.

In fact, those words pretty much sum up what Journey's about.  It's impossible to describe quite how it all comes together in practice, except to say that the experience is much like trying to make sense of an extraordinarily vivid dream.  Most of your brain just sort of goes along with it intuitively, experiencing things in simple, emotional terms, while a small part throws up wild theories to try and make wider sense of what's going on.  And all of this relies on being experienced, on the act and the very notion of play.  Because so many of its narrative beats are emotional and because that emotion relies on player interaction, Journey creates a narrative that you can only intuit full meaning from by physically and intellectually engaging with it.

That, in my experience, is something new to storytelling, at least on this scale and with this level of success.  And it's not often that any medium offers a genuinely novel experience, or discovers new ways of telling stories, so I should surely finish by recommending that if you have a PS3 and haven't yet played Journey, you really should.  That said, it isn't perfect and, to my mind, it doesn't entirely succeed; there's a tension between the need to tell a story and the need to be a game that leaves some of the most interesting, and also some of the most basic, aspects of the narrative left flailing.  The very end, for me, was particularly disappointing from a story point of view.  But since I can't go into that without spoilers, I'll settle for saying instead that the fact that I'm still annoyed by it days afterwards is almost a recommendation in itself; I struggle to think of any other game that's frustrated me so much on narrative merit alone.  And the fact that I know I'll play through again, even knowing what's waiting, is testament to what a powerful, fascinating experience Journey delivers.