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Rave Reviews, an Interview, and More in the Boxed Set Blog Tour!

Boxed set tour banner

The Dreamslippers Series Boxed Set + Bonus Story released in February. With this release, I decided to focus on an online, or "virtual" tour, since the boxed set is only available on ebook. I'm also happily slammed with game-writing projects this year and already had a commitment to speak at the Associated Writing Programs conference in D.C. around the date of the launch.

This time we included a giveaway, and 83 people signed up to win copies of all three novels in paperback, ebook, and audiobook, as well as the boxed set. Congrats to the winners!

The tour had three components: reviews, an interview, and spotlights.

Reviews

While not all book bloggers assign star ratings to the books they review, several on this tour did, with three coming in with 5-star reviews. The first one, for Framed and Burning, book two in the series, came from Anteria Writes:

Each character sees their dreamslipping ability as something different. Mitch could care less, Cat sees it as a curse that gets people killed, and Grace sees and uses it as a gift. Cat is the great-niece of Mitch, granddaughter to Grace. She is, of course, the youngest and least experienced using the dreamslipping and has had the worst experience with her gift, blaming it for the death of her childhood sweetheart. Mitch and Grace are siblings. They’ve each made their way in life, using their talents, natural and supernatural. And those talents have brought good and bad things to each of them.

Along with success we find jealousy, loathing, contempt….Mitch has the idea that there is plenty of room in the world for all art. But humans are inherently competitive and greedy. So they try to take down Mitch in his prime, but he wins out, becoming a coveted artist. Thus, begins the journey to find an accidental killer.

The story is woven perfectly to tell each person’s story in that person’s personality. We have the seriousness in Cat’s narratives, the eccentricity and grounding in Grace’s, and the disjointed, emotional feel of Mitch.

The nominations and awards this book has received were well-deserved.

The second 5-star review came from The Book Adventures of Emily, which has hosted the series in the past:

Cat in the Flock is super awesome! There is so much mystery and suspense! I've posted spotlights of this series, and it always piqued my interest. The dreamslippers are so amazing; I can't describe how much they fascinate me. Cat McCormick is such a great main character. She isn't cliche or confusing; she gets straight to the point, and I love following her on this road of mystery. The overall writing style of Cat in the Flock is super straight forward and enjoyable! I can really see the care and effort Ms. Brunette put into this book, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Another reviewer, Book Fidelity, praised the book for the portrayal of recent college grad Cat McCormick as well:

Through some fantastic storytelling, we are plunged into this world of dreams and curiosity. Cat is wonderful and real in that she makes mistakes, but keeps moving forward. Also, the idea of detective work including psychic abilities is just plain awesome. I definitely recommend this book (and series) for fans of Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Brigs, and Karen Marie Moning. 

The blogger at Rosepoint Publishing gave the book 4 out of 5 stars and acknowledged, "Guessing whodunit isn’t so difficult. It’s how the protagonist gets us there, the maturity of her dreamslipping powers, and the peripheral characters that adds to an overall enjoyable read."

The most exciting 5-star review came from J Bronder Reviews, who has now posted on all three books in the series. The blogger writes, "This is a great series and one that I strongly recommend. I loved all three books and can’t wait to see what happens next."

Interview

I was happy to meet a new book blogger on this tour in Reeca's Pieces. The name of her blog made me smile, and I shared this anecdote with her: Back in grad school when I was studying for my MFA in fiction, I used to write short "flash" fiction pieces that would appear in between the longer stories in my short story collection. My classmates called these "Lisa's Pieces."

Reeca asked great questions about the inspiration for the series, which is not one thing but many. Here's the first: 

I read a lot of supernatural and psychic mysteries and interviewed four of Seattle’s top writers in the genre for Seattle Woman magazine. I was also a huge fan of the TV series Medium; I loved how psychic visions came to the protagonist in her dreams. I’ve always been an active dreamer and for many years suffered from PTSD-related nightmares, so dreams have held great significance for me.

Read the rest of the interview on Reeca's blog.

Spotlights

Three bloggers posted spotlights for the tour, including the link to the giveaway. A shout-out to The Paperback Princess; Books, Dreams, Life; and again, J Bronder Reviews.

A huge thank you to Sage's Blog Tours for hosting and to the book bloggers who give generously of their time, effort, and opinion to tell their readers about the books they love.

Buy links and details for the Boxed Set + Bonus Story are here. If you've read every book in the series, please take the time to review the boxed set online. I could really use the reviews to get the boxed set in front of more readers. Thank you!

Also, for those of you who are fans of the series, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. If I continue to write the series, what would you like to see? Tell me if there's a particular character you're most interested in, any questions you have, and so on. If you've read the bonus story in the boxed set, I'd be interested in knowing if you'd like to read a whole novel devoted to Amazing Grace's early years.


'Girl' Books, Revisited

Girlswithguns

A lot has been written about the current 'girl' book phenomenon (see here, here, and here for starters), but I thought it would be fun to imagine what those titles might be in a better world. Here we go...(slight NSFW warning)...

Girl, Uninterrupted

The Girl With the Fuck You Tattoo

Girl on the Luxury Train

Girl Flicking a Razor

Girls, But We Really Mean Women

The Woman Who Flew Into Space

A Woman's Story, Told by Herself

for women of color who committed murder when the rainbow was more than enuf

The Girl Who Spoke Her Mind

The Loudest Girl in the Room

The Girl Who Was Nobody's Slave

Such a Smart Girl

Shopowner

Girl with a Pearl Earring She Bought for Herself

The Woman's Guide to Being Your Own Damn Guide

The Girl Who Wore Whatever She Wanted That Day 

The Neither Good Nor Bad Girl

...and of course...

Here and Now Girl 

 ... Now add your own to the list in the comments below. Need help? Goodreads has a list of every 'girl'-titled book published.


The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

  Game roundup dec 16

Here are three games on my to-play list this winter, and I hope to bring you some of these developers as guests on the blog in the future, too. This month I'm looking at interactive fictional mysteries with a common theme, that of isolation and connection.

Firewatch by Campo Santo

Firewatch is a mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, where your only emotional lifeline is the person on the other end of a handheld radio.

The year is 1989. 

You are a man named Henry who has retreated from your messy life to work as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. Perched atop a mountain, it's your job to find smoke and keep the wilderness safe. 

An especially hot, dry summer has everyone on edge. Your supervisor, a woman named Delilah, is available to you 

at all times over a small, handheld radio—and is your only contact with the world you've left behind. 

But when something strange draws you out of your lookout tower and into the world below, you'll explore a wild and unknown environment, facing questions and making interpersonal choices that can build or destroy the only meaningful relationship you have.

Lifeline: Silent Night by 3-Minute Games

The hearts and imaginations of countless players worldwide were captured when the original Lifeline took the App Store by storm and became the #1 Top Paid Game, and now Taylor needs your help again in Lifeline: Silent Night! Acclaimed author Dave Justus returns with a suspenseful new story that plays out in real time, delivering notifications throughout your day. Keep up as they come in, or catch up later when you’re free. You can even respond to Taylor directly from your Apple Watch or iPhone lock screen without launching into the app. Your choices shape the story as you play. Simple actions can have a profound effect. Complete any single path in the game and then go back and see what happens when you make a different choice. Lifeline: Silent Night is a deep, immersive story of survival and perseverance, and it’s up to you to save the White Star before it’s too late for its intrepid crew. The fate of Taylor, and the world, is in your hands!

The 39 Steps by The Story Mechanics

Prepare to experience the original man-on-the-run thriller in a completely new way. In this digital adaptation by The Story Mechanics, be transported back to 1914 London, where Richard Hannay finds himself framed for a murder he didn't commit. Now he must escape the Capital and stay alive long enough to solve the riddle of The 39 Steps. There are secrets to be discovered, locations to be explored and - above all - an incredible tale to be told in this ground-breaking interactive novel.

Merry Christmas! I wish you hours of joyful play.

 


Sparklenuts, First Jobs, and NaNo

Sparklenut

 Sometimes I like to break from the long-form novel writing and try my hand at shorter pieces. It's also gratifying to see your work published in other venues, and to hopefully pick up new readers. It's been a busy fall, with the launch of Bound to the Truth coinciding with three short publications:

This Action Cannot Be Undone

 I had an idea in mind for a while to capture the drama of online connection and disconnection as told solely through Facebook notifications. I finally crafted a short piece, the work taking me longer than you'd think, given the length (poets, I know your struggle). I found a great home for "This Action Cannot Be Undone" at Argot Magazine--check out the cool layout. Since I'm involved in game design, and so many people are annoyed by game requests on FB, I made up a fictitious game called Crash Monkey Bonanza. Hence, the sparklenuts. One of my readers said "The monkeys have gone sparklenuts!" is like the best line ever. (Angel investors, if you'd like to see a proposal for this as a real game, let me know.)

 #MyFirstSevenJobs

 I felt inspired to write about my first seven jobs when the meme swept the Internets a couple of months ago, and Tues/Night was happy to oblige, including me in a roundup of posts on the subject. This one is 100 percent autobiographical, which felt strange and risky to me after writing fiction for so many years, both the novels and all that game writing, but there it is. Believe me, you can't make this @$%& up.

NaNoWriMo

 Regular readers of the blog know I'm not a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month. For me, what's needed much more is a National Novel Reading Month. You can see why in the stats I included in my article on NaNo for The Chronicle: In the nearly 20-year history of NaNo, only around 250 novels have been picked up by publishers and made it into print; whereas, last year alone, close to half a million writers participated. But! Wait! I challenged myself to find the validity and goodness in NaNo, and I'm proud of how that comes through in the piece. See for yourself.

 Please support these supporters of writing by clicking on the links and commenting on the pieces. Thanks, and have a great day!

 Image courtesy of Pixabay. No sparklenuts were harmed in the creation of this post.


Why I Write What I Write: Going Against Violence Porn and Magic Mush

  Cruel_shoes

 One of the aspects of the mystery genre I appreciate least is the trope of violence against women. It's most obvious in the standard formula opening: A woman found dead, usually in an alley, maybe even a Dumpster. Sometimes she's nude, or in some state of undress. Usually, there's evidence of sexual assault. Often, she's a prostitute.

 When I sat down to write my first novel, I chose the mystery genre with the express intent not to perpetuate this scenario. I didn't want to read about yet another woman's body in an alley, and I certainly wouldn't write about one. Now, two years after I released my first novel, the question takes on even greater meaning, as a probable real-life rapist was caught with his female victim, in an alley even, and nonetheless let off easy. 

 This isn't just politics, though. This is overall a craft concern. Writing cliches is boring work for the writer, and I would expect it to be a boring experience for readers, too. 

 I'm not saying writers shouldn't write--and readers shouldn't read--books with graphic violence in them, or that depict female victims. My books tackle sensitive, potentially trigger-inducing subjects: sexual repression, gay self-hatred, child-rape pornography, incest. But I went to great lengths not to glorify or portray these scenes and subjects gratuitously. I didn't want or need to contribute to the world's repository of violence porn.

 The line, admittedly, isn't always right there in black and white, a complexity I explore in Framed and Burning:

And there she was, in triplicate. His wan heroine, his redheaded lady-child. She wasn’t yet eighteen, as he’d tried to capture in the budding quality of her breasts under a white tank top. She had an unnatural thinness about her as well, as if slightly malnourished. The whole time he’d painted her, he felt as if he wanted to save her. That was the attempt in painting her, to save her and rid himself of her haunting eyes at the same time. But he felt strongly now that he had failed. And in his failure, he’d simply failed her.

 Mick, like the female members of his family, is a dreamslipper: He possesses the psychic ability to pick up other people's dreams. But while his sister and niece use the ability to solve crimes, Mick uses dreams as inspiration for his art. He reflects on the morality of this:

In the quiet of his studio, Mick walked over to the unfinished painting that was inspired by that dream of Cat’s. He remembered the shock on her face when she saw it. So much trouble, he thought. He reprimanded himself for what suddenly amounted to cheating, taking others’ ideas and making them his own in his art. Was it ethical? He thought about Candace telling him basically to butt out of her dreams. And he thought of the haunting look in the girl’s eyes in the triptych. And of his own limitations, just now with Rose.

Mick picked up a large brush, dipped it into a can of black paint, and crossed out the painting. Then he began to fill in with black everywhere the cross lines weren’t. Soon, he’d covered the canvas in nothing but black. The painting was gone.

 In Bound to the Truth, the third book in the trilogy, the female victim is found dead in a hotel room, bound and gagged. While beginning with, and lingering on, the image of her dead body would arguably have given me a reliable commercial hook, I resisted it. For me it was more important for readers to come to know and care about the woman who becomes the so-called "vic." So many hardboiled cop show characters shorten the word victim to further depersonalize. This is supposed to be part of their character development, something they do in order to desensitize themselves to the work that no one wants to do. But still. Every "vic" becomes an abstract, a sea of female parts in an alley. To be grabbed, laughed over, brutalized.

***

 The other perhaps curious choice I made with the quirky, cozy/suspense mashup that is the Dreamslippers Series has to do with magic.

 These stories tackle the supernatural in a very realistic, modern way. My grandmother-granddaughter PI duo don't carry guns; they solve crimes using their ability to slip into suspects' dreams, supplemented by a host of New Age practices, not to mention tried-and-true investigative work. 

 I'd read books in which amateur sleuths with psychic abilities snap their fingers to unlock doors but somehow don't sense when the killer is following them. As a reader, these contradictions seem silly and frustrating. They're magic mush. I like to think stranger things truly do exist, but if they are there, they're subtle, unreliable, and decidedly unfocused. So I imagined what it would be like to have a psychic ability that functioned according to real-world rules, acknowledged here in a scene from Bound to the Truth:

Grace flashed on the silly ninja clown, and it gave her an idea. “Is there a way you can get close enough to the Waters’s home to dreamslip with Sam?”

“I don’t know, Gran. I’ve thought about it. The security is pretty tight out there. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve had, I’m not sure Mercer Island is the kind of place where you can get away with sleeping in a car out on the street. There’s also the possibility that I might pick up his kids’ dreams instead, or his wife’s.”

“Remember what I taught you about popping out of dreams you don’t want to be in, and of connecting with your target.”

“Yes,” said Cat. “But this super hero power of ours sure has its limitations..."

 Cat does find a way to slip into this suspects' dreams, putting herself in a precarious spot in the process. Throughout the series, dreams help the duo solve three murders and bust a child-rape pornography ring. The dreams are helpful both for what they tell us about the villains--and for what they don't tell us.

 These books haven't made me the next J.K. Rowling, though I'm grateful for and proud of the accolades, the numerous 5-star reviews, and the award noms. I know from my years at the story helm of a game-publishing company that there's often a disconnect between what the audience complains about and asks for and what they actually purchase. All I can do is keep developing my craft for a blend of commercial technique and groundbreaking newnesses that pushes the envelop and attracts a larger audience. Because the biggest lesson from the game industry for me is this: If the games don't sell, we all go home. 

 Buy the books.

 Review the books.

 Follow me.

 Photo credit: Lisa Brunette.


What's the Motive? Rebecca Slitt

Psyhigh-s_color_v2

In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books--or in this case, games. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their works without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the story. Why this story? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations. 

When it comes to Interactive Fiction, where reader choice matters, motive is a little more up-for-grabs. If you were a nerdy kid like me in the 80s, you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books, with multiple endings and reader choice all the way through. This form enjoys a vibrant life online today, as in Rebecca Slitt's Psy High.

Rebecca Slitt:

What’s the motive in Psy High? It’s whatever you decide it is.

Psy High is an interactive novel: on the border between a book and a game. As in all of the titles from Choice of Games, you the reader direct the action at every turn: you decide what the main character does and why. Not only that, but you get to choose the main character’s name, gender, orientation, personality, and goals. 

The story in Psy High is a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural elements, inspired by “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You play a teenager with psychic powers – clairvoyance and telepathy – who uses their gifts to solve mysteries. When an old friend asks you to investigate why your classmates are acting strangely, you discover a plot that could put the whole school at risk. You have to maneuver around your teachers, parents, and even your friends while using your magical abilities to uncover the truth – not to mention going to class, trying out for the drama club play, and finding a date for the prom.

The culprit has their own motive, but you figure that out – along with the culprit’s identity – fairly early. The more complicated question is: what's your motive? When you discover what's really going on in your high school, what do you do about it, and why? 

Maybe you’re motivated by altruism: you want to do what will help the most people. That’s a noble goal, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to reach it. What helps one person might hurt another.

Maybe you’re motivated by affection: you see how all of these issues are affecting your friends and want to help them. Maybe you want to help your boyfriend or girlfriend, or do whatever it takes to make them happy, or just spend as much time with them as possible. The prom is coming up, after all, and what could be more important than that?

Maybe you’re motivated by power. There’s plenty of power to be had, both magical and otherwise, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Do you care about that more than you care about your classmates? More than going to college? More than anything?

Maybe you’re motivated by a desire to fit in. In high school, what’s worse than being different? You can try to reject your magical power, act like every other kid, keep your head down, study, and try to lead a perfectly ordinary life. 

Or, maybe you think that the villain isn't such a villain after all. Maybe you realize that you share their motive: you think that their plan will make the school a better place, not worse. That’s possible, too. You can team up with them and use your magic to help them.

What this all means is that you get to choose the kind of story that you’re participating in. It can be a story about love conquering all: You can find your true love and draw on the strength of that bond to triumph over whatever challenges come your way. It can be a story about discovering deeper truths about yourself and the world: learning what you truly care about, what your values are, and how far you’ll go to defend them. It can be a story about rebellion: breaking every rule, fighting the power wherever you find it, showing the world that you’re your own person. It can even be a story about failure: No matter how strong or noble your motives are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed – so if you fail, what meaning will you draw from that?

There are dozens of stories to be told inside the mystery of Psy High, each with its own motive. You get to choose which story you want to tell.

Download and review Psy High.

Follow Rebecca Slitt on Twitter.

  RLS photo

Rebecca Slitt is an academic-turned-game-designer who uses her knowledge of medieval history to make sure that dragon battles follow the principles of chivalry and time travelers go to the right places in medieval London. She is an editor and author for Choice of Games, and has contributed to the tabletop RPGs Timewatch and Noirlandia

 


The Play's the Thing: August Game Roundup

  Deduction and intrigue

Every so often, I'll bring you a roundup of games in the deduction and intrigue category. Here are four games on my to-play list this summer, and I hope to bring you some of these developers as guests on the blog in the coming months, too.

But first, a quick PSA. Reviews are a developer's life blood - and they're an easy gift to give. Just pick a star rating and write one or two sentences to provide other players a quick impression, or feel free to write more if you like. I've provided links below so you can follow these folks and review their games.

This month I've got two digital games and two tabletop. Let's start with the digitals.

Contradiction by Tim Follin

Header

Contradiction is an interactive crime drama game that uses live-action video for the entirety of the game play. It’s a brand new take on the concept of an interactive movie and brings the genre to a whole new level of playability.

Contradiction plays as smoothly as a 3D graphic game. You can wander freely around the game environment, collecting evidence and witnessing constantly changing events. 

However, the centrepiece of the game is interviewing the characters you meet, who can be questioned about all the evidence you’ve collected and things you’ve seen. The name of the game is then spotting contradictions in their answers, catching them out and moving the game along.

Review on Steam and the App Store.

Follow on Twitter

Psy High by Rebecca Slitt, for Choice of Games

Psyhigh

When the kids at your high school start developing psychic powers, you and your friends must team up to stop the principal from taking over the world! 

Psy High is an interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, where your choices control the story. It's entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. 

Play as male or female; gay, straight, or bi. Will you be a jock or a brain? Popular or ignored? Use your psychic powers to help others, or to take what you want. Win a coveted scholarship, star in the Drama Club play - or lose it all and spend your senior year in juvenile detention. How much are you willing to sacrifice to get ahead in the world? 

Can you solve the case? Can you save the school? And most importantly, can you find a date to the prom? You can play the first three chapters of the game for free.

Review on Steam and the App Store.

Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Now for the tabletop games, which are both cooperatives encouraging players to work together toward a common goal, in this first case catching Jack the Ripper. 

Letters from Whitechapel by Fantasy Flight Games

  Whitechapel

Get ready to enter the poor and dreary Whitechapel district in London 1888 – the scene of the mysterious Jack the Ripper murders – with its crowded and smelly alleys, hawkers, shouting merchants, dirty children covered in rags who run through the crowd and beg for money, and prostitutes – called "the wretched" – on every street corner.

The board game Letters from Whitechapel, which plays in 90-150 minutes, takes the players right there. One player plays Jack the Ripper, and his goal is to take five victims before being caught. The other players are police detectives who must cooperate to catch Jack the Ripper before the end of the game. The game board represents the Whitechapel area at the time of Jack the Ripper and is marked with 199 numbered circles linked together by dotted lines. During play, Jack the Ripper, the Policemen, and the Wretched are moved along the dotted lines that represent Whitechapel's streets. Jack the Ripper moves stealthily between numbered circles, while policemen move on their patrols between crossings, and the Wretched wander alone between the numbered circles.

Review on Amazon and BoardGameGeek.

Follow on Instagram and Facebook.

Mysterium by Asmodee

Mysterium

In the 1920s, Mr. MacDowell, a gifted astrologist, immediately detected a supernatural being upon entering his new house in Scotland. He gathered eminent mediums of his time for an extraordinary séance, and they have seven hours to contact the ghost and investigate any clues that it can provide to unlock an old mystery.

Unable to talk, the amnesic ghost communicates with the mediums through visions, which are represented in the game by illustrated cards. The mediums must decipher the images to help the ghost remember how he was murdered: Who did the crime? Where did it take place? Which weapon caused the death? The more the mediums cooperate and guess well, the easier it is to catch the right culprit.

Review on Amazon and BoardGameGeek.

Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

 


For the Love of the Game (Story)

HOPA2

Since transitioning out of my narrative design role at Big Fish in February, I've been looking for exciting new opportunities in the games industry. One of my discoveries is a juicy online magazine put out by the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games--yes, they call it 'Spag Mag.' Issue 64 went live yesterday, with my article "Evolving Storytelling in Hidden-Object Games" included. Working with the astute, responsive Katherine Morayati, Spag's editor, was a fantastic experience, and I'm honored to be on the roster. Writing the piece gave me the chance to reflect on five years at the narrative design helm, working with some of the most talented developers and producers in the casual industry and enjoying the rare opportunity to steer the storylines on Big Fish's flagship titles.

I continue to look for great games to play and work on in addition to writing books and articles. Unfortunately, a lot of the popular games today don't have much story, and in my opinion, that makes them boring. Pokémon Go lost me pretty quickly because it lacked a story hook. I'm just not motivated enough to simply collect and fight with creatures, and I get better quality exercise and social interaction around my dance classes.

It seems a lot of developers don't pay attention to what a powerful and yet cost-effective driver story can be in a game. Since a lot of what counts as story is delivered as text on-screen, it doesn't add hugely to the budget. There's of course a whole design method for adding visual story elements as part of the world-building and game-play integration, which I discuss in the Spag piece. One narrative designer/writer could make a measurable difference in player retention. Bewilderingly, developers tend to consider story last, if at all. But in nearly a decade in the industry, I can tell you that focusing on story from the get-go is key.

There are wonderful examples of story-in-games out there, I know it. As I've mentioned previously, one of these found me--the chance to write text for an iOS game called Smash Squad. I've got a few on my to-play list as well, such as Contradiction and any of the choose-your-own-adventure style put out by Choice of Games (I just finished Alexandria). But I'd like to throw this out to others for recommendations. I'm looking for non-combat games of any type. I prefer mystery and playing on a laptop but am open to other themes and platforms (I have an old Wii, an Xbox, and a DS). Tell me what's out there that excites you!

 Image via Big Fish, from Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst.


My Latest Game-Writing Project: Smash Squad

 

 I've been a writer and narrative designer in the digital game industry for going on nine years now. For the past five years, this has meant helping developers create strong storylines and integrate them with the "play" part of the game. But this spring I had the opportunity to shift gears and concentrate on just the writing itself, and in a very different type of game than the hidden-object puzzle adventure fare that was my focus at Big Fish. 

 The game, which just released on iOS, is called "Smash Squad," and it's an incredibly fun, addictive, fast-paced, top-down physics battler. While definitely focused on a pinball-style battle mechanic, it also has a role-playing and collectible element as well. The creative team obviously had a blast coming up with characters like Broomhilda Sweeps and Lumber Jacques. 

Smash_Characters

 My task was to write the core narrative text, given a villain named Klon, a guide character, Trixie, and a set sequence of worlds the player would move through as the game progressed. This involved guidance from and discussion with the developers at WG Cells, with initial feedback on a trial sample to get the tone and story beats in line with the overall vision for the game. It was a great opportunity for me to stretch into more of a sit-com, one-liner writing style after years of working on mostly super-serious mystery games.

     Questria_Text_edited-2

 The team generously gave me leeway in developing a story arc to fit the game's mechanics. I decided it would be fun to have Klon try to recruit the player over to the, ah, Klon side, and they gave me the green light. 

Story2_edited-1

 Writing for games means making use of the world-building in the game's environmental art, as in this sequence below, which highlights the statues in the second level, Sooper City. This way the characters, though only onscreen for a short time and in 2D, are tied to the world, and the player can fill in the rest with her imagination. Here's how it looks in the context of the map world. While this dialogue string references the statues in the world, the previous one played on the giant octopus.

   Sooper4

Sooper5

Sooper6

Let me know after playing Smash Squad what you think of the story - I'm always looking for ways to improve my craft. If you haven't played it yet, check it out! The game is available now in the App Store.  


A Hotel for Geeks, Complete with Joystick Sink!

Modular

Last week my husband and I took a short trip to Walla Walla and stayed in a hotel room that at first felt to me like stepping into an airplane in the 1960s. The furniture is built-in, curved, and modular. Case in point: The microwave is behind this abstract cupboard (above pic). Then I realized this is a safety feature: Everything is attached to everything else, so even if you wanted to steal the beside-the-bed lights, you couldn't, as they are built into the cabinets.

But THEN I realized the hotel was actually designed with nerds in mind. Behold, the sink handle is a joystick!

Joystick

Also, this is definitely a Lego toilet.

Legotoilet

 That is all. Oh, if you're planning a trip to W2, and this looks fun to you, the hotel is the Courtyard Marriott. We went because the man had a business meeting, so we got the government rate, but I suspect it's pretty pricey otherwise. On that note, is it becoming impossible to travel now? I mean, who can afford a couple hundred a night for a hotel? I don't know what I'd do without Airbnb.

 

 


What I'm Reading: The Game of Love and Death

The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a brilliant premise for a novel, a game between Love and Death, two supernatural beings who can inhabit human form. The author, who loves games and has written for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit, pulls this off with an engaging drama that is both poignant and satisfying. Though the chapters are unusually short, the reader comes to read them as "moves" in the game. The game itself is riveting, the moves of both players almost never failing to surprise. Set in 1920s Seattle, this is also an historical novel, and Brockenbrough's recreation of the time and place seem deeply authentic. Both pawns in the game are heroes well worth rooting for, but darned if you don't end up caring about their crafty, strategizing players as well. A highly recommended read.

View all my reviews


My Presentation for the IDEA Summit at University of Florida

  IDEAS_Lisa

 

I finally had a chance to review my video from the IDEA Summit last month. To tell the truth, I find watching videos of myself to be a tough task, as I endlessly critique my performance, attire, physical appearance--you name it. There's also the truth that women who talk about games for women have been horribly harassed online. So I'll admit to some fear that being more visible as a woman in the industry making games for women will garner me the kind of attention I'd rather not receive. I hope that's not the case.

For the record: I've never been harassed about my game work, either in person or online. But I've also always worked in casual games, which means I've been working on games for families, or specifically for women, throughout the course of my eight-year career in the industry. In other words, I've never asked for changes to be made--or tried to change--the games being made for hardcore gaming audiences. The work I've done to help developers tailor their games to a female audience was by company directive, and in everyone's best interest, as it made the games sell. We always knew that if the games didn't sell, we'd all have to go home. So the work we did was tied directly to the bottom line and not due to a political objective, not that there's anything wrong with political objectives.

So that has likely insulated me, and I don't have much experience with that other world, outside of sometimes playing hardcore games myself or meeting people at the Game Development Conference. 

You can watch the video of my presentation here. All in all, I think I did all right. Most importantly, I loved the synergy between the students, faculty, and all conference presenters. The exchange of ideas and rich conversations will stay with me. I'm already looking for the next opportunity to participate in something like this, which I hope comes along soon.

I was also part of a panel discussion, along with a wide variety of people with varying expertise pertinent to entrepreneurship. This got spirited when the subject of sexism in the tech industry came up.

I'd be interested in hearing about your experience with games--both as a player, if you are one, or as someone who's stood outside the industry, looking in.


It's a Great, Big Digital World

Gamedesignclass

Here I am, guest-lecturing in a Game Design class.

I spent last week in Gainesville, Florida, for the first-ever International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS). The Summit grew out of a series of conversations I had with Marko Suvajdzic, a professor with the University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute.

Marko and I have worked together for many years, but until now sort of on opposite sides of the fence. As he likes to explain, I'm the one who would mark up his game concept proposals and game design documents, asking him to make changes to the storylines. That was my job as Manager of Narrative Design for Big Fish, the publisher of the games Marko created through his studio O2D. He and I have collaborated on all of O2D's games for Big Fish, which includes the Vampire Legends series and the Mythic Wonders series

But now we've both moved on. Marko just sold O2D's Belgrade studio to Eipix Entertainment, another Big Fish developer, and I'm no longer with the Fish. However, with our shared experiences in both gaming and academia, a new kind of collaboration was inevitable. We started talking, and I served as a remote guest-lecturer in his Game Design class in December, and the IDEA summit was born. Marko brought together a serial entrepreneur from Tel Aviv, a Pakistan-born hybrid digital video artist who now lectures in Shanghai, an independent filmmaker who started in the business as a stuntman, and a social practice artist from the states. 

As I told Marko, he has great taste in friends. The week was a 24/7 incubator for ideas, debates, and lively exchanges. It was also a treat to meet other U of FL faculty, such as the lone female professor in the College of Engineering, who studies dance in an engineering context, and a professor of anesthesiology who wants to make games her patients can play as part of their palliative care, or even as the treatment itself.

The most endearing part of the weeklong experience was the students. I walked them through the game design process on the blockbuster game Christmas Stories: Nutcracker, and they had smart things to say throughout the two-hour class. The next evening, the students showcased their work at the Salon, and I was really impressed by the creativity and great ideas on exhibit. The winning entry was a re-imagining of breakdance set to elegant, graceful music, the stunning choreography turning the form on its head and blowing the viewer's expectations and stereotypes. The student judges were unanimous in their choice, they told me.

I'd never been to Gainesville before, so I was happy to get a tour from a delightful student who showed me the communal vegetable patch as well as this on-campus meditation center, which she and I dubbed 'the Gothic Pagoda':

Gothic pagoda

The Summit itself was an intense, one-day affair. I took part in a spirited discussion about women entrepreneurship on the morning panel, and then I blew everyone's mind with my presentation about interactive storytelling for women gamers. At least, that's what it felt like I did. Highlight: A female student came up to me and said she'd been considering giving up her plan to work in games due to a biased hiring experience, but my talk had changed her mind. She called me a "pioneer." I swallowed hard at that one and tried to give her the best advice I could. 

I left wondering if I should start my own game studio* even though my new pal Ofer Zinger, the keynote speaker, said about 90% of startups fail. What can I say? This entrepreneurship stuff is a heady drug.

IDEAS

* No, I'm not really going to start my own game studio, but if there are any VCs reading this, call me.


I'm Speaking at U of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute

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I was invited to participate in this summit on digital entrepreneurship, which is pretty damn cool. That week I'll be a guest lecturer in a digital design class (I've done this once before, remotely), a speaker at the summit itself, and a judge of student work at the salon. Here are the summit details:

International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS)

Presented at the University of Florida Digital Worlds Institute’s Research, Education and Visualization Environment (REVE) - March 25th, 2016, 9:30AM-5:00PM

Come join us for an amazing day of exploration & innovation with premiere guest speakers from around the world.

IDEAS is an inspirational event offering a day of learning how to succeed in the digital media business landscape. This one-day summit promotes the confluence of traditional entrepreneurship and new technologies, with an emphasis on new business forms and the opportunities created by these technologies. Guest panelists — academic and real-world practitioners — will link theory and practice, in a dialogue with participants, as they share their innovative stories, techniques, and ideas that have established them as leaders in their respective fields and industries.

Event page:  https://www.facebook.com/events/973184246099902/
Contact info:  
marko@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

The event is free but RSVP’s are required: rsvp@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

Event schedule, March 25th:

  • 9:30AM to 10:00AM – Coffee and registration
  • 10:00AM to 10:50AM – Key note (Ofer Zinger)
  • 11:00AM to 11:50AM – Panel discussion 
  • 12:00PM to 12:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (Nestor Gil)
  • 1:00PM to 2:00PM – Lunch
  • 2:00PM to 2:50PM – Guest speaker presentation (Lisa Brunette)
  • 3:00PM to 3:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (D.A. Jackson)
  • 4:00PM to 4:50PM- Guest speaker presentation (Taqi Shaheen)

Guest Speakers:

Ofer Zinger, Entrepreneurship - Hands-On

Being an entrepreneur is exciting, however, extremely risky;  more than 90% of the startups fail.  As a serial entrepreneur in the digital space, Mr. Zinger will cover the common pitfalls as well as the shortcuts to startup success that are often missing from standard textbooks, using real life hands-on examples.

Ofer Zinger has founded several companies in the digital space such as TLV Media, Dynamic Yield, Cedato, Ilivid (Acquired), Bundlore (Acquired) and others. Consultative to the Israeli Intelligence (8200), IAF, Iron dome project, and various companies in homeland security and medical devices sectors. Ofer Zinger is currently the Chairman of Feature Forward, a programmatic video advertising platform.  (https://www.linkedin.com/in/oferzinger

Lisa Brunette, Crafting Games for a Mainstream Audience
The current market is flooded with mid-core games targeted toward a male audience aged 18-35, while the audiences outside that demographic remain underserved. Learn how to craft game stories for women, older players of all gender identifications, and children in this talk from a recognized expert in premium casual storytelling.

Lisa Brunette has story design and writing credits in hundreds of bestselling video games, including the Mystery Case Files, Mystery Trackers, and Dark Tales series for Big Fish and AAA games for Nintendo and Microsoft platforms. She is featured in Boy’s Toys, a documentary about women in games. She earned an MFA in Fiction from University of Miami, and she is the past recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission, and the William Stafford Award. (www.catintheflock.com)

Nestor Armando Gil, Labor Under Alternative Economies
Social practice art takes as its starting point relationships and dialogue, two elements crucial to a successful entrepreneurial enterprise.  By producing research, commodities, and performances in a social context, Nestor Gil addresses memory as a series of negotiations that are personal, cultural, and political. 

Nestor Armando Gil was born in Florida in 1971.  He received the Masters in Fine Art degree in 2009 from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His performances and visual work have been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in Spain, and the United Kingdom.

D. A. Jackson, Making Something Out of Nothing:  Independent Filmmaking in the Digital Age
Award winning director D.A. Jackson discusses the ins and outs of film production in the 21st Century.  Topics covered will be, how to use available resources, budgeting, directing, writing scripts, producing, VFX, and distribution.

D.A. Jackson has been working in the film industry for the past 18 years.  During his career, he has worked as a director, stuntman, fight choreographer, actor, and producer.  He has directed commercials, music videos, television shows for SPIKE,  and won numerous awards  for his independent feature films and shorts . His passion for storytelling  and unique approach to filmmaking has led him to be an often requested speaker at colleges and film festivals.

Taqi Shaheen, Being Digital: The Chinese Way

Born in Pakistan, and currently lecturing in Shanghai, China, Taqi is uniquely positioned to present the complex system of entrepreneurship as it exists in Asia today. From art works, to information technology and video games, Asia has been a hotbed of production and innovation. 

Taqi Shaheen is a filmmaker, visual artist and art educator whose work crosses mediums and defies genre distinctions to fashion witty and curious observations of contemporary Asian cultures and their urban landscapes. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and uses hybrid digital video and film formats to research and construct non-fictional narratives collaborating with various visual artists, musicians and performers.) (http://www.taqishaheen.com/)

IDEAS is sponsored by UF Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Warrington College of Business Administration, supported by the UF Division of Sponsored Research, presented by the UF Digital Worlds Institute, and organized by Prof. Marko Suvajdzic.

Prof. Suvajdzic is a diverse thinker with 17+ years of achievement in academia and the creative digital research and production space. Marko’s experience includes a wide range of digital startups and educational projects. He has lectured internationally at schools and conferences in: U.S.A., U.K., India, Serbia, Norway, and China.


Upcoming Events: Red Door and More

Booksigning2015_2

I'm excited to tell you about two big events in March that will drag me out of my writing cave.

The first is a book event in Salem, OR. You might remember that Cat in the Flock is dedicated to my husband's late mother, the real-life A. Grace who in part inspired the character Amazing Grace in my Dreamslippers Series. She helped found a community in Salem called the Red Door. They support one another's causes, spiritual quests, and times of need and are a great model for how to build community separate from a church or other institution. These fine folk are hosting me for a reading and discussion, and I'm really looking forward to it.

The second is a major event in the field of digital gaming. I've accepted an invitation to be guest speaker at the University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute. This is for IDEAS, the International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit. I'll be presenting a couple of times--on the topics of game-play/story integration and crafting stories for a mainstream audience--as well as serving on a panel. It should be an interesting event with game industry people from all over the world there to talk and share with students and faculty. I've served as a guest lecturer for a game design class there once before, and I can tell you they are a sharp bunch. I'm especially looking forward to the Digital Salon of student work, which I'll have a hand in judging.

Wish me luck, and if you have an idea for an event you'd like me to participate in, please get in touch!


(How to Get a) #1 Best-Seller!

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.10.02 AM

My first novel, Cat in the Flock, hit the #1 spot in two major categories on Amazon this morning:

Kindle ebooks>Mystery, Thriller & Suspense>Mystery>Private Investigators

and

Kindle ebooks>Mystery, Thriller & Suspense>Mystery>Paranormal

I made it my personal goal a couple of weeks ago to dominate the second category, Paranormal. So today when I saw that I'd secured the #1 spot in that one as well as Private Investigators, I had to do a double-take. There are a lot of private investigator books out there, so getting the dreamslippers to rise to #1 is no small feat.

Let me take a breath here.

Not two minutes after I announced this on Facebook, I had a message from an author who wants advice on whether or not to indie-publish. "You seem to have this figured out," he said.

I'm not sure that I do. And this isn't me minimizing my achievement; it's that a lot of the time it feels like we're all out here, every one of us, including all the indies like me as well as the traditionally published authors, we're all just pulling our careers together with sweat and duct tape. Anyone who promises you the moon doesn't have the moon, because the moon is a far away, tiny thing in the sky. We're all standing down here, trying to see it in the clouds.

But I did some things right that are worth noting. For example, I:

  • Put that first book through its paces with BETA readers for feedback and several editing passes.
  • Hired good editors. (Yes, I will give you their names: Elisa Mader and Jim Thomsen.)
  • Had literally worked on HUNDREDS of game narratives in the mystery genre before I'd even sat down to write it.
  • Had watched probably thousands of mystery TV shows and movies, if not hundreds of thousands.
  • Had read deeply in the genre and even interviewed top mystery authors, including two in the paranormal category.
  • Earned an MFA in creative writing and worked hard on my craft for 25 years, including teaching other people how to write and editing other people's copy.
  • Served as a BETA reader/early draft editor for an Edgar Award-winning author years ago before "BETA reader" was even a thing.
  • Reached out to Mary Daheim and Jon Talton, two established mystery authors, for their blurbs. I already had professional relationships with both of them (I interviewed Daheim once for Seattle Woman; I brought Talton's great writing to Crosscut when I was an editor there).
  • Paid for a review from Kirkus to give some added legitimacy since there is still a stigma against indies. Fortunately, they praised the book, but there's no guarantee they'll do that, and this was not a 'starred review.' They are known to be tough on genre writers.
  • Paid for a professional cover. This was after initially launching with my own creation, which turned out to be a huge problem as the book was erroneously plopped into the 'pet noir' category by Amazon regardless of the categories I'd chosen.
  • Tried to undo the damage of being erroneously placed in the 'pet noir' category on Amazon.
  • Tortured my husband with formatting changes. (Hat-tip to my husband/personal book formatter.)
  • Created a robust online presence and schooled myself on marketing.
  • Learned to think of marketing as another form of storytelling.
  • Formed an LLC and publishing company.
  • Gave print copies away to people at my own cost.
  • Held my own hand and babysat myself through the dust bowl days. OK, my husband must have been holding a foot. Probably both feet.
  • Profusely thanked and did return favors and thanked again anyone who helped me in any way.
  • Worked for a year and a half to promote the book, slowly racking up 40 reviews on Amazon. It's currently trending at 4.5 stars.
  • Tried to do everything with grace and integrity, or at least not come off as a book-hawking douche.

Still, none of this was enough to get to the #1 spot. That didn't happen until I'd done all of the above, put the second book out as well to critical acclaim, and THEN set the first book on ebook for FREE, and exclusively through Amazon. Mind you it's not enough to slap a book together and stick it on Amazon for free. I had to do all of the above and THEN offer it for free. It's a tough, tough business! I'm playing a long game here.

So there you have it. How to get to #1 spots on Amazon, with sweat and duct tape. To the author who asked me whether he should indie-publish or try to get an agent, I'd say you have to do almost all of the above whether you publish as an indie or with someone else. (Or maybe you'll get superstar lucky and win the book lotto, but I'm not one of those people, and I don't know anyone who is.)

Publishers save you from decision-making and hiring people yourself, so if you'd rather not do those things, don't be an indie. There is also the book store thing. Despite trying valiantly, I am only in a handful of book stores because most of them won't work with indies. So if you're attached to that, don't be an indie. The vast majority of my sales are on ebook, and I get to keep a far greater percentage of my royalties than any traditionally published author does. Say what you want about the return of print, but ebooks are totally here to stay.

Hey, I'm not there yet. Not by any stretch. I'm just getting started.

But for now, let me enjoy this victory. My friend and fellow author Chris Patchell congratulated me on Facebook, to which I replied, "It's a tough biz!" She wrote back: "Indeed it is, and we need to celebrate every victory. This is a great one for you."

It really is.


Review a Book, Get One Free

Print-Cover-Framed-and-Burning-Small

I've got a special offer for anyone who'd like to review the just-released sequel in the Dreamslippers Series, Framed and BurningRead it, give it an honest review online, and I'll send you a free ebook copy of any of my books, your choice.

Here's what to do:

  1. First, get a copy of Framed and Burning. You'll find buy links and endorsements here. You can read the first three chapters here for free.
  2. Post an online review on Amazon, Apple's iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, or Goodreads. This can be as simple as a rating and a sentence of your opinion. Feel free to post the same review on all the sites (with the caveat that Smashwords requires a purchase in order to review). Reader reviews can really sell the book.
  3. Once the review is live, grab the permalink for the review and send it to me at this email address.
  4. In your email, tell me which of my ebooks--full list here--you'd like for free and which format (ePub, mobi, etc.), or if you don't know, just tell me which device you'll use to read it.  
  5. Enjoy your free book, and review it, too, when you're done. Reviews make a writer's world go 'round.

 And while I have your attention, I'll let you in on a little secret. For all the gamers out there, I've included an "Easter egg" in each of the Dreamslippers books in the form of a video-game reference. So now you know.

 


Welcome to the Flock.

Lisa Brunette_Author

This is the web site for Lisa Brunette, award-winning author of the Dreamslippers mystery series and other works. 

Stay up-to-date: Sign up for Lisa's newsletter for the latest news, plus fun giveaways.

Looking to get in touch? Email her here

What People Are Saying

"Clearly author Lisa Brunette has a genuine flair for deftly crafting a superbly entertaining mystery/suspense thriller." - Midwest Book Review

"The launch of an intriguing female detective series." - Kirkus Reviews

“Lisa Brunette’s Framed and Burning is a brilliant, suspenseful whodunit…” - Qui Xiaolong, Author of Shanghai Redemption, named one of the Wall Street Journal’s Best Books of 2015


Why Is It So Hard to Finish?

  Writing wall
Revision notes for Framed and Burning. This was after I received BETA reader feedback and needed to revise the draft.

At last month's meeting of the Lewis County Writers Guild, we chose our programs for the year, starting with a list of brainstormed interests and then voting on our top picks. The most popular topics were 1) finishing drafts and 2) making a living as a writer.

These would seem to be in obvious conflict with each other, for if you can't finish the draft, you're a long way from making a living as a writer. But the group is the affable sort, its members up front about their own strengths and weaknesses. Thus "finishing drafts" garnered more votes than the latter.

I have to admit, this surprised me. I had not had occasion to think about it before, but I guess I'm what you'd call a "finisher."

It took me two years, but I finished my first novel around a demanding day job that required me to put in sometimes as many as 70 hours per week. I did it by using every three-day weekend and all of my vacation days to write and revise. This was a sacrifice, and I had the support of my husband and stepson, or I could not have done it. I also saw my friends a lot less and gave up fun Seattle activities, such as happy hour and live theater shows. 

For my second novel, I rearranged my life drastically in order to make space for both writing and the business of writing. I stepped down from management, scaled back to 32 hours per week (with a commensurate cut in pay and benefits), and moved to a small town where I could buy a house with room for a home office. Of course, things don't always go according to plan. The day job demands have sometimes meant I end up working 40 hours in four days so that when Friday comes, I'm pretty exhausted.

But the struggles and small sacrifices aside, I finished a draft of my second novel in only two months. I got up at 6 am and finished my day job duties by 3 or 4. Then I shifted over to the novel and worked till I went to bed that night, stopping only for dinner. I used Fridays to write, and I took a much-needed break from social media. I also wrote every weekend. I got to 90,000 words in record time.

But this isn't something I'd recommend. Sitting that much, as science has told us, isn't good for us

Part of the reason I pushed myself so hard is because I was passionate about the project. It had to come out. And I would say that if you aren't passionate about what you're writing, then of course you won't finish it. Why would you? We writers come to this because we have something burning inside us to share with the world. And if you aren't feeling that, then simply being able to check off the "done" box won't drive you to the page.

There have been projects I never finished, but it was right for me to abandon them: A novel I started in the summer of 2002. Another I began in the summer of 2003. When I look at both drafts now, I don't feel the passion in them. They didn't need to be finished the way other works have. Knowing when to abandon a project is key. I never think of these as losses. It was good practice, writing them.

I also have a finished manuscript I'll forever keep in a drawer: the memoir I wrote between 2006 and 2008. My agent at the time couldn't even get through it, it was so dark. But that writing wasn't wasted. It was a powerful catharsis, at the very least.

And I have one long-term project, a magnum opus of sorts, that I've finished half a dozen times in various incarnations, as a short story collection and then a 'novel in stories' and most recently as a straight-up novel. I might be periodically doing what amounts to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, or perhaps it will end up being my greatest work. I could also end up abandoning it for good. But for now, the passion is still there, just not the understanding of what to do with it. And that's okay. I've got plenty of other works to sustain me in the meantime.

So here are my first couple of tips on finishing:

  • Write where your passion is. Don't sit down to write a romance novel just because you think the genre sells. But if you read romance novels and think you can write them better, that's great! I chose to write mystery after working on the story lines for more than a hundred games in the mystery genre, reading mystery novels, and interviewing a crew of popular mystery authors for a magazine.
  • Don't be afraid to abandon a project if you can't finish it. All writing is practice, and if you've lost the passion for your novel, maybe it was just your warm-up draft. Do not read this as failure. All writing practice is useful.

The other reason I pushed myself to write 90,000 words in two months has to do with that other topic the Writers Guild chose to explore this year: making a living. My goal is to be a self-supporting independent writer by this time next year. That's a hell of a motivator, let me tell you. It makes me nervous just to write that here, because what if I fail? But I have a good plan in place for how this will happen, and writing it down is part of my goal-setting.

There's one among us in the Guild who's already making a living as an indie novelist, and you can see how he set the goal and then achieved it, his focus undeniable, his passion palpable.

At the day job, I spent five years on nothing but finishing things. Our deadline-driven, high-volume work was so focused on finishing that I had to design a digital queue to manage the projects and then hire a team to complete them all. My team routinely finished rewriting games with content equivalent to your average novel in about a week's time. When your job's on the line, you finish.

And that's the same level of urgency, I believe, that it requires to get to the finish line as a writer. Otherwise, your writing is what amounts to a hobby, something to be done at leisure, for the sole pleasure and enjoyment of the activity. And that is more than okay. It's wonderful, in fact.

Which brings me to these tips:

  • Consciously decide what your intention is. If you want to earn a living at your writing, that will lead you down a different path and set of choices than if writing for you is a hobby or sideline. For example, if you are a poet, you are not going to make a living at your writing. End of story. But like I said, that's more than okay. A great many writers would actually be happier if they relaxed and accepted their writing as a hobby. Writing and publishing my poetry collection was 100 percent a labor of love.
  • Set realistic goals either way. For my third novel, I've set a goal of getting to 20,000 words by the end of October. I'm at 2,800 words currently. That's a bit more reasonable than finishing a novel in two months around another job, and this will be better for my health and sanity, too.

If you're new to writing as an activity, which means you haven't actually done a lot of writing in your life, then you will need a great deal of training and practice, and that should be your mini-goal. While I completed a first draft of my novel in only two months, that was the tip of the iceberg you're seeing. What's underneath the water? Training through my English bachelor's degree, a certificate in writing, and a Master of Fine Arts in writing. After that comes my twenty-five-year career as a writer, editor, narrative designer, and teacher of writing.

I'm not saying you have to have all or any of that to be a writer who finishes drafts, but I suspect that a good deal of "not finishing" comes from encountering problems while writing and letting that stop you. Knowing how to tackle problems on the page takes instruction, training, and experience. And that definitely helps you finish!

Here's my last two bits of advice:

  • If you don't have the experience or training, get it. But if a degree program is not in the cards for you, there are lots of other ways to get the training you need, such as feedback groups, how-to books, conferences, workshops, and so on. There's an endless pool of resources available to you. In fact, a lot of writers end up making their living telling other writers how to do it. Beware that pyramid scheme, but do get the help you need from reliable sources.
  • Know what helps you finish other things in your life, and use them. I started off this post with a photo of the wall in my studio, which I've covered in clear whiteboard paint. I'm a list-maker and a visual brainstormer, and I know I have to see it "up on the wall" to get it finished. But for you, it could be something else.

Now let me turn this over to other writers out there: How do you finish? Please share your thoughts, tips, and techniques.


Why I Chose to Be a Book Author--And Publisher

 

 

Headstandatwork
Me, at the day job. Photo credit: Anna Rix

I've been making a living with my words for twenty-five years, with an enviable list of byline credits, awards, and professional gigs, including work as a game storyteller, aka "narrative designer." So when I decided to write a mystery novel series, it seemed I'd be a great candidate for traditional publication. I had the credits to potentially rise above the fray, so why not try?

Except that between the time I earned my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 2002 and the time I was ready to publish my first novel in 2013, the bottom dropped out of the publishing industry.

For you, maybe it's felt like small changes. You can buy ebooks now, many of them for free. You haven't subscribed to a newspaper in years, because you get tons and tons of news for free online, which you mostly read through Facebook posts or that ticker Microsoft added to your desktop.

But for those of us in the business of writing, it's meant a lot more: jobs lost, unemployment, the need to redefine a career at middle age, the frightening disappearance of the Fourth Estate, and the realization that for the rest of our lives, we'll be working for other people as a "content provider." Maybe we thought we'd be writing, but the only real money is in editing, copywriting, or other gigs that are close, but no cigar.

Scads of digital ink has been spent outlining the numerous ways in which the book publishing business is broken and the newspaper industry is dying (already dead?). Nobody knows what the future will hold, but we're all out here either pretending we do or guessing and hedging our bets.

Knowing all this, I sought out traditional publication anyway, literary fool that I am. Once I had a polished draft of my first novel in hand, I began to query agents, even though I knew that agents typically get not tens but hundreds of queries a week and that my query's chances of even being read were remote.

Let's talk about this for a minute, because it illustrates how things are totally broken. The typical agent gets between 200 to 400 queries a week. There are about a thousand literary agencies in the U.S., with let's say between one and five agents at each agency, and they are each getting 15,000 queries annually. That pencils out to about 80 million queries in the U.S. each year, as a conservative estimate.

Each one is a tear in a salty sea.

What's more, the number of queries agents receive is sky-high and growing just as reading--for everyone but young women brought up on Harry Potter--is in decline. 

I'd witnessed this with my own eyes as a college professor, a gig I held for eight years. During that time, I saw, for example, that the number one book read by entering freshman was the Bible, and many of them couldn't name a single other book they had ever read. I had to open my "what you've read" exercise up to magazines in order to get more participation in my classes, not that doing so improved the results much.

The NEA's famously depressing study Reading at Risk confirmed my anecdotal findings. Dana Gioia, then NEA Chairman, began the narrative section of the 2002 report this way: "Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue." Read on for joyful news, this does not say. The top two study findings:

  1. From 1982-2002, the percentage of adult Americans reading literature dropped dramatically.
  2. Lest you think this is just a backlash against "literature," the decline in literary reading parallels a decline in total book reading.

After this, it gets more and more depressing, to the point where the average writer reading this study should now wish she had a BA in Computer Science. Not only is reading on the decline, but that decline is "accelerating," and it's happening across all education levels. While women read more than men, they're reading less and less, too. And the rate of reading is especially bad for minorities.

Thus, if we look at the query numbers and the Reading at Risk findings together, we see that Americans want to write books more than they want to read them.

That's one of my beefs with NaNoWriMo, by the way. We as a nation don't need a National Novel Writing Month. We need a National Novel Reading Month.

So, with the graphically illustrated, personally verified, and endlessly analyzed knowledge of The Great Publishing Collapse under my belt, why'd I want to write a novel?

Good question. After all, I'd defected to the video-game industry, where things looked promising. I'd been recruited twice--once by Nintendo, and then again by Big Fish.

But first let me tell you that I'm not really a "gamer," which means I don't fit the picture you have in your head right now of some dude living in his parents' basement playing Call of Duty and yelling at the screen.

Oh, I've yelled (usually in my head) at the screen plenty of times, but it was because I couldn't find the "boot" in the hidden-object scene, or I'm frustrated because I've tracked backward five scenes over and over again, and I can't find the lantern to use on the tree hollow, where I know there's a medallion that will open the chest in the suspect's office.

I'm passionate about games, and especially for the past five years, about the primarily mystery-themed games we make at Big Fish. The audience for our hidden-object puzzle adventure games has been primarily women over 40, by the way. Which is pretty darn cool.

And game storytelling is a different animal altogether from more passive forms of entertainment. It's much harder, in a way, to craft a story when the "reader" is a "player." That difficulty has given my brain some great stuff to chew on over the years.

However, games are made by committee, which is fine and nicely collaborative when it works (and frustratingly stressful when it doesn't). But for a person with her own stories to tell, it's always only going to be an approximation of the real thing.

And the real thing is to be the inventor. The originator. The god of your own world, if you will.

Which brings me back to that novel draft I began shopping around in 2013. I'd spent the previous two years writing it, on weekends and vacations around that very intense, more-than-full-time job as a game narrative designer. I'd received feedback on it and revised it, and it was in pretty good shape.

But I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to self-publish.

On one hand, I know how to run my own business. I'd been an independent writer, even paying a hefty Seattle mortgage on pretty much my own freelance revenue for years before the gaming industry scooped me up. I've learned from the many industries I've worked in--journalism, health care, agricultural/fishing, financial services, and most importantly, gaming--how to use data to drive business decisions. And as my employer, Big Fish, is a publisher of games like Amazon is a publisher of books, I know how to do this already.

On the other hand, I've still had a bit of the literary snob in me from my education years. And pride. I know it cometh before the fall, but part of me still wanted that validation from the literary powers-that-be.

So I wasted a whole year and a half shopping my manuscript around to agents. Some of them took exactly that long to get back to me, too... with a form letter.

Which is not to say it wasn't thrilling, at times. I got some exciting responses from agents with a lot of cachet, big names on their lists. The best results came during and after I pitched to agents in person at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. Every single one of them asked to read a sample, and that's apparently not the norm.

But after getting my hopes up, I did not have any actual offers of representation. I came to realize that agents have to say no so often, so so so many times, that they might not know how to say yes. I don't think I have to tell you stories about bestselling authors (J.K. Rowling, and every other writer you've ever admired) who'd endured nothing but rejection and managed a slow, slow climb to recognition. You've heard them plenty. But just in case you haven't, here's more.

And I kept thinking about my friends who'd published. Sure, they had that validation of being published by an entity outside themselves. But you know what most of them did not have? Sales. Marketing support. An advance. In short, all of the things that publishing is supposed to provide. Plus this: Control over important decisions such as what to put on the book cover and when to release.

I kept reading about well-established authors choosing to go indie with all or at least part of their content, especially ebooks.

I kept reading that ebook sales were on par and even in some cases, eclipsing print sales for many authors.

I kept reading that some agents were only offering representation to authors after another agent had made an author an offer.

I kept hearing sour grapes from writer friends with traditional publishers who had to do all the marketing themselves.

The only writers who seemed happy with their publishers were the ones who were big enough names to be making a living at it. I reasoned that once you got to that point, publishers found you anyway (Hugh Howie, E.L. James). So if you were going to have to do everything yourself in the meantime, why not just make a go as an indie?

I decided to do just that.

The year and a half wasn't a total waste, though. That time gave me the distance to see the manuscript again with fresh eyes. While it was already of publishable quality when I shopped it around, I sought out more feedback and polished some more. At this point, I could have shopped it around again, which would have taken another year and a half with likely the same outcome, owing to the stats. I decided to launch it out into the world myself instead.

Now, almost a year after release, I have no regrets.

The book has been praised by Kirkus Reviews, which has a reputation for being hard on writers, especially genre writers. As one of my author friends said, "Kirkus is one fierce shut-your-mouth."

It's also garnered an endorsement from Midwest Book Review, a medallion award from indieB.R.A.G., and recommendations from Readers Lane and inD'tale. Established mystery authors Jon Talton and Mary Daheim  wrote blurbs for it, as did Corrina Wycoff, author of O Street, and spiritual phenom Eric O'del. It's at 28 reviews on Amazon, trending at 4.4 stars. I've been approached by a Hollywood director.

And it's selling. Not enough for me to turn to novel writing full-time, but I didn't expect that with a debut anyway. I'm still passionate about game storytelling, and I can balance the two gigs. My game work has a shelf life, though, as the genre I'm in, which has traditionally been a PC-download-focused one, is not a growth area. Unfortunately for people like me, the shiny new thing in gaming involves a lot of candy crushing but is light on story.

The future remains to be written. And, most of all, read.