Thursday, 20 March 2014

To End All Wars: Half Way!

I promised I wouldn't post every time I hit a landmark on new novel-in-progress To End All Wars, (at any rate I promised myself), but I didn't feel like I could let passing the half way point go without a brief mention.

Right now, I've written thirteen chapters of what, if all goes to plan, will be a novel of twenty three chapters, placing me comfortably on target to finish the first draft by the end of May.  The wider significance of all this is that, for the first time since my somewhat-disastrous experiment four years ago, I'm trying to write a novel full time, and to say there's a lot resting on it would be kind of an understatement.  One of my conditions to myself for being allowed to have a go at this full time writing lark was that I can produce at least - at least! - two novels a year, and that May deadline is an important landmark in proving I can pull that off.

What's perhaps even more important, though, is that not only am I on target with To End All Wars, I'm on target with everything else too.  In the last two and a half months, I've written two short stories and the first issue of a new comic book series, plowed through hundreds of pages of research, and mostly planned out the second novel I'll be starting this year, the book formerly known as War For Funland, which I hope to start come April ... meaning that for the first time in my life I'll be attempting to write two novels back to back.  Not to mention more short fiction and the various other smaller projects I'm working around those two monoliths.  Which, when you've been struggling to write a novel a year, sounds a bit crazy written down.  But hey, these are crazy times!

And once again I've attempted to talk about To End All Wars and rambled on about every other damn thing instead.  This shouldn't be taken as any indication of how excited I am by it or how well it's going - it's going very well and I'm exceedingly excited about it - but more a sign of how giddy I am to finally be able to throw myself at every damn project I feel like.  But yeah, TEAW is shaping up nicely, and in fact every bit as well as I could have hoped it would.  One of these days I'll have to write a post that does more than just mention it in passing...

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

War For Funland No More (But in a Good Way)

Back in the harsh winter-stroke-spring of 2010, I did a strange and possibly a stupid thing: I packed in a well paid IT contract to take a break for four months, live off my savings and write a new novel.  That novel was War For Funland, which you may remember from...

No, wait.  You haven't read it, or, unless you religiously follow this blog and have an astounding memory, even heard of it.  Because I never finished a second draft, let alone got it published.

So what went wrong?

Well, it didn't, exactly; except that it sort of did.  It's not untrue to say that the reason that second draft never happened was that not long after I finished I got a deal for my first novel Giant Thief, plus sequels, and suddenly there was no time in the world for poor, languishing War For Funland.  But it's just as true - and maybe a little truer - that the reason I never went back to it was that writing it in the first place had been such a demoralizing experience.  It was an experiment, and not one that had particularly worked; not so much the book itself, that is, but the whole endeavor.  I realised quickly that I might have inadvertently ended my IT career, and thus would quickly run out of money and find myself stacking shelves or gun-running or something, and also that I couldn't properly write a book in four months or whatever stupid amount of time I'd allotted myself.   It didn't help that I hadn't done enough planning, and was trying to knock out two thousand words a day with no time for digging myself out of plot holes, of which I soon discovered there were a multitude.

I battled on, but by the time I got to the end, for all that I'd finished a novel and in about a sixth of the time my first had taken, there was a sense of failure hanging over the project.  Enough that the thought of going back to wrangle War For Funland into some kind of meaningful, potentially publishable shape didn't exactly fill me with glee.

But it turned out that the one thing worse that trying to re-edit your not-quite-successful second novel is giving up on it and all those agonizing months of work.  And I'd always figured that if I didn't return to it before, I'd do it now, after I'd gone full time as a writer, when I had no possible excuse not to.  Even then, though, I wasn't enthusiastic.  War For Funland was my big failure, after all, the book full of plot holes and copious flaws, written at a hopelessly breakneck pace ... even reading through it to work out what I could salvage wasn't a fun prospect.

Well, it turned that it wasn't that bad.  I mean, it really wasn't.  It was, in fact, in places, pretty good.  There were chunks, some of them surprisingly large, that I was very happy with.  There were times when I found myself getting so caught up that I forgot I'd written it in the first place.  And what cheered me the most was that I could see my writing getting better, chapter by chapter; I'd spent so long thinking of the whole endeavor as a mistake that I'd never realised just how much I'd improved for doing it.

At any rate, I've come to the conclusion that War For Funland is absolutely salvageable, and I've no doubt now that there are the makings of a good book in there.  Except that a second draft isn't going to get me to that point.  What I'm looking at now is more a from scratch rewrite - which I'll be starting come next month.  My thinking at the minute is that I'll be scrapping two thirds to three quarters of the existing stuff.  Drastic, sure, but necessary if it's ever going to be the book I hope it can be.

Oh, and it's not called War For Funland anymore.  But I'm perhaps a bit too free and easy in announcing my titles, so let's just say it is for the moment.

(It isn't.)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

After Death Stoker-Nominated

Another year, another Best Anthology Bram Stoker award nomination for top editor Eric J. Guignard, who I imagine as sitting right now in a huge armchair, possibly smoking a pipe, sighing with ennui at the fact that his second ever anthology has been nominated for a top industry award just like his first, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, was...

No, I'm joking, obviously, I don't at all think that's what Eric's doing; truth is, I'm sure he's thrilled to bits.  And rightly so.  It's a remarkable thing he's achieved, and both anthologies - I say this as objectively as I can as someone with stories in each - were pretty terrific.  But particularly, I think, After Death: it really was a bloody good collection, made that bit more bloody good by Audra Phillips's lovely illustration work, and it absolutely deserves to cart off an award.

You know what?  I'm confident it will, too.  And my predictions are almost never wrong, except for how when every time it snows I predict that Ragnarok has finally come and, look sharp!, the Ice Giants will be marching over the horizon at any moment.  That one, it's fair to say, has been consistently off.  (Although I remain confident that one of these days I'll get it right.)

Oh, while I'm at it, a quick nod for an anthology that isn't, so far as I know, up for any awards: 01 Publishing's Whispers From the Abyss anthology.  I really enjoyed it, there are some fine stories in there, and if this is the sort of thing 01 are going to put out then I wouldn't be surprised if they too find themselves up for one of them shiny Stoker thingamajigs in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Game Ramble: Limbo

It seems to me that one of the things that hampers the ability of video games to tell good stories is their length: a modern game is likely to offer somewhere between eight and eighty hours of gameplay, and it's difficult to drag out a single compelling story arc to that kind of length, at least within such a predominantly visual medium.

One solution, the one generally favoured by Rockstar for example, is to pad out your plot with subplots and shorter arcs, and this can work to a degree, though I can't think of a single game where I've found it absolutely satisfactory*.  The other, more common answer - perhaps the classic one - is to devolve the story into a series of quests, doling out plot advances as rewards.  But while this fits more comfortably with the strictures of a game, it takes an awful lot of set dressing to make it feel like a genuine narrative.  (I'd argue that the most recent Tomb Raider pulled it off, though barely.)

I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of games that put any serious effort into storytelling favour one or the other of those approaches.  But not Limbo, of no.

And before I try and justify or explain that claim, it's worth pointing out that, as a game that can potentially be completed in under an hour, Limbo is of a length that actually could sustain a conventional narrative structure.  Yet in fact the plot it has is so slender that, were this a film, it would struggle to fill ten minutes: a boy wakes in a strange world, comes across other boys who react to him with fear and hostility, eventually encounters a girl who may or may not be his sister, and continues onward, apparently looking for her.**

Not much plot at all, then, by the standards of any other medium ... and yet I'd argue that Limbo, in its own way, is a masterpiece of storytelling, and one of the most involving games I played last year.  And the reason for that, I think, is that what it does with amazing subtlety is to tell many little - well, I guess we can't call them stories, as such, so let's go instead for the purposefully vague and made-up "narrative incidents" - that add up to something with the feel of a much bigger story.  Which I suppose is a long way around saying it's all about the atmosphere, something Limbo is positively dripping with, and yet this is a game that does such a great impression of combining its every element - music, sound effects, design, gameplay - into something with the convincing feel of a story that it feels petty indeed to call it anything else.

An example: Having survived a thoroughly nightmarish encounter with a giant spider, you - as Limbo's lost-child protagonist - stumble upon what at first glance appears to be another giant spider.  But there's something not quite right about it, and as you draw near, it becomes apparent what: this isn't a real monster arachnid but a dummy made from metal and rope.  And as you slip past its groping leg, the truth becomes clear: a boy of about your age is working a lever to control the contraption, and as he sees you he runs away in panic.

Within the world of Limbo, that small first encounter tells so much: that you're not alone in this world, that others have had to contend with the same horrors that you have and learned to compete with them, that, yes, the traps you've come across were set by someone and that that someone is afraid of you, afraid enough to try and hurt you...

My point here - and I think I do have a point in mind for these Game Ramble articles, though I'm not quite there with working out what it is yet - is that video games are a new narrative medium, with new narrative rules that are still being figured out, and that perhaps Limbo points at a third way that can, in the right hands, be as or more successful than the two storytelling modes I started this article talking about.  Because one of the things I love about video games is that they are absolutely not beholden to reality, or really to anything that's gone before; yet, even to this day they spend so much time imitating films, and to a lesser extent books, and to an even lesser extent paintings and sculpture and every damn art form that's come before.  And really, why do that?

But Limbo is an example, and an intriguing one, of a narrative that could only possibly work in the medium it was created in.  It's unapologetically a game; it tells its story through the player's interaction, and has almost no narrative outside that interaction. What it has, instead, is something that currently only gaming can offer: the ability to provide an alien space with its own logic and history - a space that's basically one big story - and let the player inhabit it, exploring, teasing out its secrets and, if you're up for it, ultimately trying to figure out its meaning.

* Red Dead Redemption probably coming the closest, but even that spun its wheels for a long time on some decidedly odd tangents.

** Not that even this much is stated, but - at the risk of *SPOILERS* - we can assume that's what's been happening from the ending.