Ironic, I suppose, that my first paid-for published story was entitled The Game, and I found much of my writing inspired and informed by, of all things, video games. Well, it is ironic as far as Alanis Morissette will stretch the term, since her song seems to often miss the criteria of what is actually ironic. Which is ironic, come to think of it...
Anyway, The Game was about an all-too-powerful computer system, back in the days when Google was just how you found your porn or the address of a site you couldn't remember off the top of your head. Now they institution has grown so large in so few years that it is almost scary what they are capable of and how much information their system continually churns through. But the story is not so much about games, and computer games have often received little literary attention unless it is tabloid shrieking about how the games children play are training them all to be killers. Naturally these stories invite comments from people who have no sense of irony at all, since they usually suggest that to sort those hooligans out requires a stint in the army.
You could be forgiven for thinking that computer games are little more than colourful, noisy death machines, little evolved from the mass murdering mayhem of Space Invaders to today's twitchy shooters like Call of Duty or Counterstrike. The video game companies that mass produce this schlock seem to be widely forgiven too, since the First Person Shooter genre sells shedloads with little effort or innovation put into the product. As long as it looks good and those gifted with decent reflexes and decent bandwidth get to feel the satisfaction of dropping their polygonal prostate in the face of fallen foes, most gamers seem happy.
Not all games are like this, however. I may come across as a bit of a snob here, like the music journalist who holds his nose while writing about Taylor Swift's chart success, since I am not exactly fond of the mass-market success of selling to the lowest common denominator. Though I do like Taylor Swift. What's wrong with jangly country pop? My point, though, is that while shooting things dominates the landscape like the skyscrapers in a big city, there is a much more interesting underbelly to computer games, beneath the crust.
That's a metaphor there, and those familiar with gaming culture will get just how cool it is as soon as I mention my favourite game of all time: Final Fantasy VII.
FFVII, the JRPG that launched a thousand JRPGs, is an absolutely atrocious game. It's barely even a game, and by today's standards I feel it would come across more as homework than anything fun. But back in 1997, when I got my mitts on those three discs, I found myself transported to another world and I was hooked by one simple thing - the story. This story transpires through voiceless text boxes and the shrugs and gestures of blocky characters, set against pre-rendered backdrops while tinny synth music twitters in the background. Gameplay consists of scrolling through the text, hitting a button to move on, and occasionally selecting commands from a menu to kill things. If Word and Excel had a baby and it went through a rebellious streak, this would be the result.
And it was awesome. Awesome is not a description I use lightly. I truly was in awe of this story - it's scope, and how the characters made me feel a part of a great plot to save the world from an evil corporation hell bent on stripping its natural resources for profit, whatever the cost. We started as a band of eco-warriors, bombing power plants, which probably would not be a good start to a protagonist's story these days. Interesting how history can warp the lens of context.
I won't bore you with the details - if you've played it you'll know it well, and if you haven't, you won't really understand what I'm talking about as I throw a litany of names, places and plot elements at you. Something epic fantasy writers might want to keep in mind, actually - we can only hold so many funny, unpronouncable names in our head before we run out of RAM and start getting confused. And bored. But that's a pet hate of mine - I love fantasy settings, I just so rarely find a good fantasy story that is not off-puttingly bogged down in weird names and fancy historical flourishes that I cannot care about. Which is partly why I believe Final Fantasy VII was so successful - we are introduced to a core of simple but rounded characters, who have a clear agenda against an identifiable enemy. Not every story has to be black and white, but this one only begins so; things soon blur as an old ally turns out to be insane and thirsting for a somewhat justifiable revenge, the protagonist suffers an identity crisis and turns out to not be who he said he was, and beats himself up over failing to prevent the death of a leading character. Aside from the dead character (always helps make a sacrifice more noble and impactful if the deceased is unimpeachable), everybody involved is a little soiled in some respects. And the globe spanning, world saving epic plot that is the hallmark of JRPGs spins out of the interaction of these core characters and their core antagonists, without feeling like I am going through a textbook as I explore the world organically.
I suppose I'm just rambling about text dumps that I often see in fantasy novels, where an author expects us to retain a slew of information about a fictional civilisation long before we have concrete, immediate reasons to care about the characters in the hear and now. It's frustrating, again because it clutters up a lot of fiction I'd be interested in. Or maybe I'm just annoyed because I can never seem to inject that much extraneous detail into a novel.
Another game that I truly enjoy has no story at all. I think that might be ironic again. The game I believe I mentioned before - Creatures. It (and its sequels) is more a computerised biology experiment than a true game. There is no goal, no reward, no levels to gain or fight through. There are simply the Creatures, artificial life-forms with digital DNA who act like biological organisms and interact with each other and their environment as such. It is a fascinating time sink, where you can hatch these things and watch them grow, learn, breed, age and die. Successful procreation leads to the passing on of genetic traits, and the impact of environmental changes and random mutations can be seen through the generations. The little things are cute, too:
Anyway, these Creatures have captured my imagination, and for years I have been interested in letting htem loose and watching how they get on. I will likely talk more about them in the future, but until next time, here is your moment of zen:
The age-old advice to writers is to write what they know, and by extension what they are interested in. That way their knowledge and passion can shine through from the page and illuminate their vision much more readily for their readers. This has worked for many writers, from Jane Austen's disdain of high society to J. K. Rowling's obvious mastery of witchcraft. Resurrecting boarding-school fiction certainly seems like some Dark Arts to me.
Being a writer that writes far too little, I have spent much of my time and energy dabbling in various other things to keep me occupied. A wide variety of eclectic subjects has piqued my interest over the years, ranging from politics to professional wrestling. Not surprisingly much of this ends up revolving around writing - I'm hardly likely to get in the ring and tackle a rassler' with my cane. Maybe if I had a tennis raquet... but the point is, writing seems to be a way in which I am most comfortable expressing myself. Some people like to dance, some to skate, some to kick a ball around a field. To me, writing is how I deal with life, blow off steam, and writing is the avenue through which I meet the big wide world.
Of course I don't just write about things - I have to first do things to write about. Or read about them. Or watch them. Then I write, and write, and write. Not that there's much here to show off at the moment, for much of my writing has been back and forth banter on forums or my thoughts condensed into private emails. Reviews seem to be the in thing for the moment - everybody has an opinion, and now that everybody has a blog, they feel the need to share that opinion, often in a quirky style with a gleefully silly little rating system at the end. Like six sleeping kittens out of ten.
And that's a good thing. It has become a bit der riguer to complain about people complaining, and this being the Internet, what was the next logical step? But the fact is, the average person has a lot to say and a lot to learn from the average person next to them. We spout our opinions, we critique TV shows, films, wrestling matches, books, computer games; whatever it is that we last consumed. Through this process, we become more aware of what we are watching and what makes it tick. This can be frustrating for writers and producers who cannot seem to satisfy a fickle audience, but the process also forces these creators to up their game and make better media.
There's a lot of media I'm interested in. Not just wrestling, which I know is a silly soap opera, but it is a very physical representation of how to string stories together. I have actually learned a lot from wrestling, but that's a story for another time. Right now, I just wanted to outline some of the things I am interested in, so they don't bewilder you when I drop a post on them now and then. While this while primarily be a writing blog, I've always got something to write about wrestling, movies, computer games, technology, politics, and philosophy. If you're the sort of person who just snorted and thought 'great, another idiot wants to tell the world what he thinks', you're probably in the wrong place. It is a blog, after all, and what else do writers do but tell the world what they think, through words?
Anyway, next time we'll have a post on what I think about a couple of my favourite computer games, one of which is more of a science experiment than a mere game. And even if no one reads it, at least it'll be a decent writing exercise to collect my thoughts and set them out structurally on a page.
My first published and paid short story now appears for free at Smashwords. I rambled a bit about it in my last post and planned to have a link available immediately after, but of course the Internet had other ideas. Here it is now, hope you enjoy it. Feedback welcome, as always:
The Game was the first short fiction that I wrote and successfully sold. It appeared in the speculative fiction e-zine Quantum Muse and I recieved a grand total of $11 ($10 for publication plus a $1 tip from the Paypal donate button on the story's page). Whoever gave me that tip, thank you.
It's not a very long story, about 4000 words, which is seriously pared down from the initial novel I had envisioned this story running into. But my first novel was already bogged down and I wanted to get my name out there, get some credits under my belt, and see what I could do if I put my mind to it. I stripped the story of all but its most basic chassis and found that it kept on rolling along, at a brisker clip without all the weight. It is not a particularly creative story - the premise is a staple of speculative fiction: what if a computer system grows too powerful and wreaks havoc on the world? In this instance, the computer system was a seemingly benign operating system that a hapless geek found himself on the beta program for - in a Faustian deal that granted him the perfect job and perfect life in exchange for simply giving his blessing to the program. As with most things that come so easy, he found this life less than fulfilling, and in the end was horrified to find the system he had been happy to endorse was now responsible for missile attacks across the planet, plunging the world into chaos.
And that's where I left things. Once the world was burned, there was little to explore, at least as far as a short story was concerned. For the novel, a lot of soul searching, regret and redemption would be the order of the day, but who has time for that in a few thousand words? Better to let the character rise and fall, burning brightly but briefly.
So that was The Game - a story that shrank to be (somewhat) successful. If I learned anything from this, it was that you should never be afraid to take advantage of a good idea, even if you do so in a rush. Sure, I could have used the premise to write another novel that I teased out of the word processor over a period of ten years, but what would that really accomplish? I was afraid at first to let that idea go for cheap, but the fact is it went for something, and that's a good start. Well, it's a start of some sort, at least. And plenty more ideas popped into my head later, so much so that even if I were to become a prolific full-time writer for the rest of my life, I have my doubts I could get every kernal of a novel off my ever expanding to-do list.
I'll be putting up a free link to The Game shortly.
One giant leap for a writer with a cane. And let's not pretend this is the first time I have taken the plunge; I've written blogs before. Several times. I just never kept up with them, because posting about a pointless day at 11 at night seemed less important than sleep or beer, and then doing it the next morning seemed less important than catching up on blogs. Pretty soon it had been three weeks without an update and if anyone was even bothering to read it, they would have given up by now, right? So though I have made sporadic forays into fleshing out my story in the big wide blogosphere, it has never stuck. Will it do so this time?
Who knows? I plan for it to work out this time, but I plan for that every time. Still, perhaps this time there is a little more urgency. When I first began writing with a serious mind to being published and getting rich and famous and all that, I was still in high school, Apple computers were still uncool, and the World Trade Center was still standing. I still remember the night inspiration struck, my muse slapping me in the back of the head at around midnight with a wonderful idea for a novel - no, a series of novels - set in a fantasy world where magical fallout drove everyone underground and corporate controlled governments used the confined space and limited resources to keep the dependent population on a tight leash.
The centre-piece for the story (did I just give away that I write in British English?) was to be the setting of the only city where people could see the sun. Naturally it would be the home of the political ruling class, and would be all glass and steel, with a huge canopy stretched over it to keep out the irradiating fallout. That canopy was to be held up by three ancient towers from a long-gone civilisation, the implication being that they were the Empire State Building and World Trade Center towers. This was in August, 2001, and I wrote feverish notes in a little journal I kept under my pillow. Another habit I never actually kept up, but since inspiration strikes me most often in the shower, I'm not sure how I will be able to write notes without just destroying the paper.
I had always enjoyed writing. Creating stories is a joy that is difficult to describe. My favourite author describes it as the most fun you can have with your clothes on, though I have had the odd late-night session at the keyboard without bothering to get dressed. To those with a mind to do it, there is much satisfaction and sometimes bliss to be found in constructing characters and setting out scenes and slapping it all together. It is problem solving, self indulgence and ego-stroking all at once. These characters and their world are entirely in your hands. It is like being a god.
I began creating stories before I could even write. When I first started school, a traumatic experience that is always useful in shaping a writer's soul, we were given single words printed on card and a folder with slots cut in, the idea being we should slot the words together to form a sentence. To set the tone for my over-achieving, goody-two-shoes academic life, I was soon up at the teacher requesting more printed words, because I was trying to write a book and had run out. I probably sounded like Oliver Twist. Who dares ask for more, when all the rest were content with their sparing gruel?
Since then I took whatever opportunities came my way to write and create stories. Mostly these opportunities arose in school, in English lessons when we were set creative writing tasks that amounted to "make something up to prove you understand what the word creative means". I also joined a creative writing youth group for a time, held bi-weekly in the local library. I cannot recall how long I went for; much longer than I ever stuck to keeping a blog, that's for sure. It was invaluable as a space to foster more writing, giving me a specific outlet with specific prompts, and most important of all - an audience. Before my audience had been whichever teacher happened to assign the class a writing exercise, and while they were always pleased with my work, they were pleased if a student could remotely approach correct spelling. I lapped their praise up at the time, but how could I ever truly be sure if what I was writing was worth reading to someone who was not being paid to do it?
For similar reasons to my blogs never taking off, I eventually fell away from this writing group, which I somewhat regret. It had already dwindled to a fairly small core, but at least it was a dedicated one, with an enthusiastic teacher who made no effort to temper our dreams. I started high school (even more traumatic) and had Things To Do. I also had a new outlet for my writing: the Internet. Not blogs, at this time the Internet was still learning to walk and talk, but that wonderful concept known as Fan Fiction. That's another story for another time, but eventually I came to the realisation that I wanted to make my way in the world as a writer, and so began writing background notes for my story in August 2001. In fact there was a specific moment where I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I plan to describe it some day.
Naturally, the story had to change. And after a quick first draft, and as I read more and more fiction and developed and matured my voice, it had to change a heck of a lot more. Now we have sailed past the 10th anniversary and I still find myself tweaking the story from time to time. Perhaps torturing it.
Fortunately there have been other projects in the meantime - I have not spent ten years entirely agonising over this or that aspect of one story. Short stories popped out here and there, along with essays (I even won cash awards from the University of Glasgow for two of my Philosophy essays) and another couple of novels were brought to the boil then thrown on the back burner. I have to admit, while I dreamt once upon a time of my first novel making it big, becoming a film, and sparking a series that could sustain me and a large fandom for decades, that possibility is seeming less plausible as time goes on. Who doesn't dream of that, however daft their first book is? But from that book I learned a lot. What works, what doesn't, what good planning is and what good revision is. More sub plots, deeper characters, stronger twists, these were all things that I think I learned to deal with as I developed the first book from its skeleton form (I thought 30-40,000 words would do, so young I was!), putting meat on its bones. It helped make the rest of my stories go much more smoothly, as I developed good habits and broke some bad ones. Like my love for commas, which I developed in the midst of high school, leading to lots of run on sentences, all because we used to read those 19th Century books, you know the ones, by the likes of Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen, who wrote lots of very, very long sentences, and are entirely unsuitable for a modern market, but who we were told in the strongest terms were very good writers and to be admired, and emulated, because I suppose schools were still struggling to get out of the 19th Century even in 1999, but at least their geography textbooks only had East and West Germany in them and not, for instance, Prussia.
So, enough rambling about myself. Next we'll be looking at a short story I actually had published, and got paid for. Though I suppose that will be a bit more rambling about myself as I talk about my process, my thoughts behind the story and how people reacted when I was rather daring and read it aloud. Until then, if you're reading this - thanks, and get back to writing!