Today we released the 'game novel' I wrote and designed with Daily Magic, and the game is now featured on the App Store! Here we are in the top running under 'New Games We Love' ~
I'm thrilled to announce the launch of my latest game, Sender Unknown: The Woods, a collaboration with Daily Magic Productions. Here's the download link! The game is exclusive to the App Store until Oct. 4.
Through a text message, fate connects you with a total stranger. Now you are Morgan’s only hope to survive. Will you serve as a lifeline, or return to your own life and let a stranger’s fate go unknown?
Four friends are lost deep in the Ozarks, stalked by a madman. With your help, they’ll solve intricate puzzles, make difficult choices, repair their relationships, and save each other’s lives.
Through text messages and images, you can guide them away from harrowing danger and solve a mystery. Your choices will determine who loves, who lives, and who dies.
How much will you put on the line for a Sender Unknown?
Daily Magic Productions teamed up with award-winning author and game designer Lisa Brunette to bring you this interactive tale where the choices you make can change everything. Multiple paths through the game give you wildly different results—from romance to exciting twists and reveals to who survives the nightmare.
The game begins when you log onto an anonymous chat app for the first time, and a “sender unknown” reaches out to you—with a life-and-death appeal for help! Alone and lost in the woods, your new chat buddy, Morgan, must escape a broken-down RV surrounded by ravenous wolves. And that’s just problem number one.
Morgan’s friends and insulin supply are missing, and it seems the madman who took them wants to play games through the radio. He has a thing for riddles and traps—human traps, that is.
The ability to receive images means you can see the traps for yourself—and help Morgan survive a chilling nightmare!
At every game ending, you have the option to reset to your last defining choice, to the start of the last chapter, or back to the very beginning.
Stats add up as you play, and they can determine whether a choice you make succeeds, or fails.
Can you beat a madman at his own game—without sacrificing anyone? Will you help Morgan uncover the mystery that still haunts these dark woods?
- Choose from 3 options at every decision!
- Shape the story and build stats in 5 categories. Success or failure depends on your stats!
- Open beautifully rendered images of crucial scenes and visual puzzles!
- Engage with the story as it unfolds through real-time notifications!
- Internet connection not required, and there are no in-app purchases.
Points of Interest
Total Immersion — A new twist on the “choose your own adventure” genre allows players to become the hero in real time, and react in their own way, on their own terms. Your choices will determine how characters view you—and how the story unfolds.
Brilliant Story — Lisa Brunette, author of the award-winning Dreamslippers Series and other works, provides her unique narrative vision and writing to craft a pulse-pounding mystery. With Sender Unknown: The Woods, Lisa’s one-of-a-kind talent gives players a down-to-earth and immersive adventure like no other.
Praise for Daily Magic
“The best kind of ghost story, filled with love, money, betrayal, and murder.” - Review of Dark Dimensions: City of Fog, Gamezebo
“The visuals in Dark Dimensions: Homecoming are simply outstanding…” - All About CasualGame
“Captivating story that really draws you in.” - Review of Sable Maze: Norwich Caves, Gamezebo
Praise for Lisa Brunette
“Brunette’s portrayals… are nothing short of genius.” - Review of the Dreamslippers Series, On My Kindle
“An enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre.” - Review of debut novel Cat in the Flock, Kirkus Reviews
“A mystery with teeth and wounds and loss.” - Review of Framed and Burning, Readers Lane
Platform: iOS and Android smartphones/tablets
Genre: mystery / horror / puzzle
Developer: Daily Magic Productions
Release Date: 2017
About Daily Magic Productions
Daily Magic Productions is a dedicated, experienced, and effective international developer with more than 18 high-quality puzzle adventure titles released on PC and mobile platforms. With their no-nonsense approach to development, Daily Magic’s focus is now on delivering the best mobile free-to-play and VR experiences on the world market.
Since 2011 Daily Magic has been a powerhouse of Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games for Big Fish, releasing several titles a year since their founding. From those experiences and rapid growth Daily Magic has built a strong and highly creative team of artists and developers ready to take on unfamiliar worlds, and build one-of-a-kind experiences.
About Lisa Brunette
Lisa Brunette is an award-winning writer and game designer. All three books in her bestselling Dreamslippers Series have won indieBRAG medallions, and the second book was also named a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award and nominated for a RONE Award. Brunette’s game-writing credits include hundreds of titles, played by worldwide audiences in the millions, for Big Fish and other publishers. New games Sender Unknown: The Woods and Matchington Mansion both release in 2017. She also has a long list of bylines as a journalist, short-story writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Woman, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere.
A ten-year game industry veteran, Lisa Brunette has been credited on AAA console titles and bestselling mobile and downloadable games. She has worked for Nintendo, Take-2 Interactive’s Cat Daddy Games, and Big Fish, where she led a team of narrative designers. Now independent, her clients include WG Cells, Daily Magic, Magic Tavern, Pixelberry Studios, and G5 Entertainment. She is currently visiting assistant professor of game design at Webster University.
If you're following me as a fan of the Dreamslippers Series, you've probably noticed I've been slipping more and more of my game writing and designing work into this here blog content. I love writing stories across the two mediums of books and games, and I think writing in both spaces makes me stronger in each.
I promise you that if you enjoyed the Dreamslippers, you'll love my writing in games, too. Case in point, Sender Unknown: The Woods, an interactive novel in the mystery/thriller genre, which releases this summer.
Now, onto the next game-related bit of news: I'm excited to announce I'll be speaking at Casual Connect Seattle at the end of this month as part of the 21st Century Leadership & Power in Diversity Symposium, which kicks off the conference on July 31. The symposium was organized by Women in Games and Contagious Creativity in conjunction with the Casual Games Association's United in Diversity Initiative. It's a full day to explore topics in diversity, leadership, and professional growth in the video game and digital media industries.
My talk focuses on "Indie Pioneers! The Path Less Traveled." I will discuss the ins and outs of transitioning from leadership at a major game publisher to fending for myself as an indie writer and game designer. Lindsay Peck from Imagos Softworks and Robin Hunicke of Funomena will join me on the panel. (Lindsay might be a ghost, though):
Casual Connect is the major industry conference for casual games, offering "inspiration from the most respected thought leaders in the games industry." I'm one of 250 speakers over 9 tracks representing the leaders in the next generation of games. Studios represented include makers of your favorite casual games: Candy Crush, Cooking Dash, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, Wheel of Fortune, Bejeweled, any of the HOPA titles you've played from Big Fish, and more. That means people will be there from Playtika, Glu, King, Scopely, FlowPlay, GSN Games, Viveport, Resolution Games, ConveneVR, SkyDance Interactive, Against Gravity, and of course, my one-person studio, Sky Harbor. Here's my speaker bio, by the way.
If you're attending the con, please stop by the panel, or feel free to reach out to me by email using this handy link. I'd love to meet up with you. Otherwise, wish me luck!
I begin most days by drawing a tarot card. It's part of my spiritual practice to think about the current challenge or lesson and draw a card that, when it's all working well, gives me insight. One day last week, I drew The Devil.
This can be an alarming card to have pop up in a reading, thanks to the bad rap the hooved one gets in Christian-influenced culture. I'm many decades away from the colorful images of El Diablo that illustrated my Catholic children's bible, and it still gives me pause. These days, I see the world less in terms of good vs. evil and as more of a continuum. But The Devil in a one-card reading is cause to sit up and pay attention nonetheless.
The deck I currently use is the Ghetto Tarot, created by talented photographer Alice Smeets, who based it on the 1909 work of another artist, Pamela Colman-Smith. There's a lot to love about Ghetto Tarot. First, it's a photographic representation of each card in the traditional deck, of which most people are familiar, and set entirely in the Haitian ghetto. The images are stunning and powerful, showing how the themes in the traditional deck resonate well in a culture outside that tradition. Second, this deck uniquely embraces the darker side of the tarot. Smeets offers her argument:
We tend to concentrate on the light aspects of the seemingly more positive cards and are afraid of the apparently negative cards such as Death, the Devil, and the Tower ... That's because we are conditioned by our society, our parents, and our teachers to categorize the negative as bad, instead of helpful. Many of us fear pain instead of welcoming it. But every negative situation is an opportunity to grow and learn, while every positive situation has the potential to spin out of control.
The deck plays on "shadow" as well as "light," with each card in the deck possessing both sides. The Devil's shadow side can be "acting against your convictions." The "light" is "finding and accepting your dark side."
Drawing The Devil would have been reason enough for me to mull over the idea of finding and accepting my dark side, but sometimes the Divine hits you over the head with things that seem to have extra importance.
The same day I drew The Devil, I went to the library to pick up a book I'd requested through interlibrary loan. I had learned of the book from a review and either hadn't seen or didn't remember the cover, which is this:
Yeah, I know. Pretty interesting coincidence. The book is a provocative read, all right, challenging everything I've believed about my parents' generation. Maybe that was the lesson of the day: To go there, to push my thinking into a dark place again. The book sort of chose me, along with a few others on class in society--after this in my stack are White Trash and Poor But Proud. It's all research for an in-progress novel based on a real-life murder.
My previous work is a lot of light: the Dreamslippers Series. Back in 2012 when I began to write those stories, I started to take my first book in a darker direction, and the result is that I relapsed into PTSD nightmares, which I'd been free of for some time. So I backed away from that and wrote a cozy-ish series about a 70-something yogi named Amazing Grace instead.
But of course, some of the darkness seeped in. It's called conflict, and you can't have a story without it, especially if your sleuths are solving murders. Besides murder, I also tackled anti-gay violence, racism, murderous jealousy, BDSM, child pornography, and incest. So, yeah. Even when I've got my head turned toward the light, the darkness fringes. At the corners, at least.
I'd been content to relegate it to the edges. But this Devil showing up in my life with such force made me wonder. A recent bout of writer's block specific to the aforementioned novel-in-progress came to mind. Maybe the block had to do with suppressing the dark side? Not wanting to go where I sense this story will make me go? And if I had any doubt, scanning through my email the same day of the two devil-related incidents above dispelled it, as one subject line in particular jumped out at me:
Writer, give in to your dark side
The email came from one of my favorite follows, Colleen M. Story's Writing and Wellness Blog. And lo and behold, the entire newsletter was devoted to this "dark side" issue, and specifically for writers. The articles? Here you go:
The email was illustrated with another devil:
At this point, I'm like, OK, OK! Dark side! Got it! Thanks, Spirit! Paying attention now, I promise!
Didn't I already know this?
Over the winter, my stepson turned us onto a movie he loved called Inside Out. It's a Pixar animated film, brilliantly done, and the gist of it is that [spoiler alert] the character you think is the hero, the one who's relentlessly positive, actually turns out to be the villain. At least of a kind. The movie does a remarkable job of illustrating how terrifically bad it is to suppress feelings because they're "negative." The filmmakers consulted psychologists in making the film. I highly recommend it for anyone who's convinced--or is tired of those who are convinced--that positivity is the only way to go, all the time. You're welcome.
There's a real benefit to healthy expressions of negativity. If someone's wronged or harmed you, swallowing your anger or outrage could actually make you feel complicit in their act, an enabler to your own victimization. Denial, sugar-coating the truth, false positivity--none of these things serve us well.
But there's a balance to it.
One of many dead manuscripts I have in a drawer is something I finished back in 2007 called Meat: A Memoir. I gave it to the agent I had at the time, and, based on the title, she had high hopes. (She described me at a party once as "very talented and very intense.") She loved the short story collection she was then shopping around to publishers. But Meat? "I couldn't get through it," she told me.
It was all darkness, with very little light.
So that's my challenge, as both a writer and a human being. To integrate my shadow and light sides, to allow them to coexist without judgment, suppression, or imbalance.
But how do you do that? Here are five ways I strike the balance:
- Be honest about your feelings. This starts with your own awareness: If something's bothering you, check in to see what exactly it is. Take a moment to get present; close your eyes; see what bubbles up. Writing can be a very powerful discovery tool as well. Sometimes I'll free-write about my project if I've got writer's block. This story is difficult right now because...
- Don't guilt or shame yourself into forced happiness. It's OK to feel angry, disappointed, sad, depressed... feel all the feelings. A spiritual leader I know once advised that sometimes, lying on the couch and sucking your thumb is exactly the right response to the situation. This goes for fictional characters, too. My best writing comes when I "torture" my characters and let them respond in very human ways.
- Don't guilt or shame yourself into silence. Talking about the darkness can help bring it into the light. I once had a writing teacher say that Shakespeare's work continues to resonate to this day because most of the characters are speaking at moments of high crisis. This is where the best fiction lies.
- Don't let anyone else guilt or shame you into silence. Whenever I get to the point where I feel someone is just not capable of hearing me, I stop the conversation and find other ways to express myself. Truths can be uncomfortable, and when they threaten status quo, there can be a tendency to silence the truth-bearer. But silencing someone is a power play that comes from insecurity. This goes for writing groups, too. If someone's critiquing your work in a way that feels silencing, it might be time to reevaluate whether the critique is constructive or even helpful.
- Don't wallow. If you find you've been wading in the darkness for some time, and you're far past the point of gaining insight from it, then it's time to get up off the couch and rejoin the world. But even then, don't do the things people want you to do but rather what brings you happiness. That goes for the writing, too. Like my dead manuscript example above, an all-dark world doesn't actually make for good storytelling. Without the victory, conflict can feel relentless and suffocating.
What it comes down to is your shadow side and your dark side actually need each other.
Thanks to Alice Smeets for her lovely Ghetto Tarot and Colleen M. Story for her insightful essays. I hope you'll check out their work.
Those of you who know me as author of the Dreamslippers Series might've missed that I also write games. With nearly a decade of game work under my belt, I'm something of a know-it-all when it comes to games, at least the story portion of them, and at least games with fairly accessible controls, such as your Wii or iPad. I guess you could say these are "casual" games--although what that means keeps changing. Let's just say I have never written for the type of game that is like what most people think of (usually disparagingly) when they think of video games: anything with a lot of blood and gore in which shooting/killing is the "play." Not that there's anything wrong with those, as some represent the finest storytelling in the medium. But the games I've worked on have been much more mainstream, the gameplay focused on solving mysteries and puzzles, using deduction and intrigue, and standard interactions such as "match three in a row."
For five years, I served as a sort of story consultant for Big Fish, where my team of narrative designers and I critiqued and edited games designed by studios all over the world. We dedicated ourselves to helping our partner developers make the stories in each game as compelling as they could possibly be. One of those partners was Russian studio Daily Magic Productions, which is how I first met Marianna Vallejo, pictured above.
As narrative designer on most of Daily Magic's games for Big Fish, I helped design and edit the Dark Dimensions, Sable Maze, Ominous Objects, and other series, so Marianna and I have in effect been working on games together since 2011. Flash forward to last fall, when we met to talk about working together as independents on something different than the hidden-object puzzle adventure games we made for years.
Different, yes, but also building on what we know how to do well: tell stories in games, integrating the narrative with the puzzle play for the enhancement of both, and ultimately, the player's highest enjoyment.
Marianna and I were on the same page about what interests us in games and where we think they can go. We decided to make one together, and it releases this summer. I can't wait to tell you more about it! For now, here's the trailer:
An Interview with Lifeline Writer Dave Justus
Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of Fables; Public Relations; Fables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars.
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline?
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices.
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game.
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games.
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
So here I am, for the first time my body used in an ad.
The dance studio I belong to draws on its members for depictions to help celebrate—and yes, advertise—its offerings. The owner only uses images of members who have given permission to do so.
Over the past six months, I have given and then rescinded and then given my permission again, struggling with the power of seeing photos of myself in motion. Not controlled. Not posed. Not sucking my belly in but breathing fully.
I’ve seen many images like this in my Facebook feed--showing other women. I even have a calendar on my kitchen wall, each month a photo not of Photoshopped models but of the women I see every week on the dance floor, in all their sweaty, smiling glory.
Without exception, I’ve viewed these photos as beautiful and inspiring. But when my own image, the one above, graced the top of an email banner one day, and a slew of other photos followed close behind on Facebook, I felt mortified with embarrassment.
And this surprised me.
It still does.
You see, I’m someone who’s done all the work. I long ago tossed aside Hollywood beauty standards, have never wanted to be New York thin, and have always praised myself on my body-positive attitude. More than a decade ago, I brought the multimedia production bodyBODY to the college where I taught so that students could participate in a show that celebrated the diversity and health of real women’s bodies.
Apparently seeing what women really look like is great as long as I’m not one of the women in the photos.
I can keep doing the work. That’s why I’m sharing this post.
But you have to do it, too.
When I lose weight, even if it’s from illness, I am praised, mostly by other women. But if I gain even within a healthy range, no matter what amazing feat I’m achieving on my yoga mat, there’s no praise.
I’ve been asked if I’m pregnant when I was merely bloated. By the way, “Are you pregnant?” is a question that should never be asked.
When dating in my late thirties, one man told me flat-out that he preferred “skinny Asians.” Another said a weight-loss and exercise plan would be “such a great trend” for me.
The very photographer who took the picture above told me the only way to photograph “curvy” women like me in a flattering way is from above. I was criticizing her, and she was being defensive, but this still came out.
Once, my own mother went through every one of our family photo albums, cutting herself out of all of the pictures.
Why wouldn’t I react to seeing myself in photos?
How did you react?
Did you think I was being brave?
Consider that for a moment.
To paraphrase comedian Amy Schumer, no woman wants to be told “you’re brave” in response to sharing a picture of herself.
Because here I am, dancing my dance, working every breath on loving myself. And I could use a little help.
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)...
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
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.
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 GamesThe 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.
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.)
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.
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.
Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.
Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?
Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated.
Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots?
Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate.
Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?
Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books.
Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…
Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.
Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?
Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing.
Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?
Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.
Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.
UPDATE: This sale has been extended through the weekend!
On November 11, we release the third book in the Dreamslippers Series, Bound to the Truth. In celebration of the completed trilogy, EVERY BOOK IN THE SERIES is now available for only 99 cents on ebook. Buy and read the first two books now, and pre-order the third to lock in the 99-cent deal. It will be magically delivered to your device on the day of publication. Pricing lasts only until that date - Nov 11.
What readers are saying about the series…
"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... A mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."
More 5 out of 5-star reviews…
"Lisa Brunette’s FRAMED AND BURNING is a brilliant, suspenseful whodunit in its own merit, full of twists and turns, pursued by a unique pair of private investigators—Cat and her grandmother Grace, in a character-as-well-as-plot-driven ride pulsating with the crisis not only in the murder investigation, but also in their own lives.”
Qiu Xiaolong, Author of Shanghai Redemption, a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2015
"Gripping, sexy and profound, CAT IN THE FLOCK is an excellent first novel. Lisa Brunette is an author to enjoy now and watch for the future.”
Jon Talton, author of the David Mapstone Mysteries, the Cincinnati Casebooks and the thriller Deadline Man
Overview of BOUND TO THE TRUTH…
What if you could ‘slip’ into the dreams of a killer?
This family of PIs can. They use their psychic dream ability to solve crimes, and that isn’t easy.
Especially when your client thinks she knows who the killer is, but you don’t believe her.
Did Nina Howell really fall under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host--as her wife claims?'
More praise for the series…
"A little Sue Grafton and a dose of Janet Evanovich… is just the right recipe for a promising new series.”
Rev. Eric O'del
"Already hooked, this reader intends further sojourns in Cat's dreamslipping world. Highly recommended."
Frances Carden, Readers Lane
For readers who enjoy strong female leads, quirky, well-developed characters, and a dash of dating drama with their mystery. Fans of J.A. Jance, Mary Daheim, and Jayne Ann Krentz will love Cat and “Amazing” Grace!
An award-winning novelist…
WINNER of the indieBRAG medallion
Finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award
Nominated for a RONE Award
Finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award
BUT I'M A LUDDITE...
Ebooks not your thing? Never fear. The first two books are available in print through Amazon and Barnes & Noble and audiobook through iTunes and Amazon. The third novel is also available in print NOW, with an audiobook version coming soon. Complete buy links here.
In case you missed it, the third book in the Dreamslippers Series has a sexy theme. Cat and Granny Grace must find out who killed up-and-coming architect Nina Howell. Her wife is convinced a libertarian talk show host is the murderer. Following the clues takes the dreamslippers into what in another novel might be labeled Seattle's "perverted dungeon" or "dark underbelly."
But not in Bound to the Truth. After a decade in Seattle and a lifetime studying human behavior, my position is that there isn't anything inherently dark or perverted about sex. And by sex, I mean the activity engaged in between two consenting adults that may or may not have anything to do with procreation but could include any number of "kinky" behaviors. Spoiler alert: Through the course of the novel, Cat explores a shop selling bondage gear, she and her grandmother go undercover in a sex club, and several characters confer on lingerie and sex toys.
Readers of the series will know this is not shocking new territory for me. As I've said on social media, book one was about religion and sex, book two art and sex, and book three politics and sex. Septuagenarian heroine Amazing Grace is sexually active and forthright about her trysts; twentysomething Cat is exploring her sexuality as a new adult. These women own their desires and act on them, apologizing to exactly no one.
HUGE CAVEAT: The sex scenes happen mostly off-screen. This is NOT erotica. This is NOT porn. Sorry to disappoint you. Now, continuing on with the discussion...
Readers of the blog know I've been highly critical of Fifty Shades of Grey, which utterly fails because rather than challenging its audience in any way, it allows readers/viewers to preserve their judgmental prejudices against the kink world and the presumed "broken" people who inhabit it. They can naughtily dip a toe into the world but then ultimately reject it, just as the vanilla protagonist does. With Bound to the Truth, I wanted to treat kinky people with the respect they deserve, rendering a realism that I hope not only transcends cliché and judgment but results in fully developed characters and concerns.
While Fifty Shades served as a sort of negative inspiration, and my writing on this book started as a reaction against it, here's a peep show of my research sources for this book, all positive inspirations.
News flash to any Emerald City resident who hasn't discovered this yet, but when Cat observes in Bound to the Truth that "Seattleites as a population must quietly be getting their freak on in the bedroom 24/7," that comes from first-hand experience. Enter the city's decidedly online dating scene for two seconds, yes, even as a middle-aged divorcée as I was, and you're immediately barraged with a cornucopia of kinky come-ons. After thirteen years straight of committed monogamy, it was eye-opening, to say the least. If you have single friends who are also dating, you compare notes and see the same.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Savage Love syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who not only writes intelligently, compassionately, and wittily on the subject of sex but also launched a brilliantly curated alternative porn film fest. I've attended a couple of Hump Fests, which seemed to both sell out, and I highly recommend them.
When I wrote as a freelancer for several Seattle publications, I had the opportunity to interview University of Washington sex expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz. A well-respected academic with a long list of accomplishments, the occasion for my interview with her was the publication of her tell-all memoir, which chronicled her experiences entering the dating pool post-50. As you can see from my choice of subject matter and character, Dr. Pepper had an influence. The piece was one of my most popular, too. Originally published in Seattle Woman magazine, it was linked to by Crosscut, where it was in the top ten for traffic that year.
While I never joined a sex club, I did talk with people who have, and I also toured The Armory in San Francisco. You might recognize the signature building in the image at the top of this post. The Armory is a sort of castle of kink. Tours are open to the public, and knowledgeable guides wearing nothing sexier than street clothes will lead you through many a porn set. The building itself is worth the price of admission even if you profess a distaste for porn; the Moorish castle was completed in 1914, with much of the stone staircases, wainscoting, and impressive corridors intact, not to mention access to an underground cave, Mission Creek running below the structure.
I also toured the Erotic Museum of Barcelona, but who wouldn't do that on her honeymoon?
The drag and burlesque communities deserve credit for shaping my thinking on sex. In Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, you can catch first-rate live shows in which respectful, supportive audiences embrace a diverse spectrum of lovely people on stage in various states of dress, dancing in a variety of suggestive ways. Most notably for me is Seattle's Nerdlesque. In fact, I'm still pondering my affection for and confusion over "burlesque Carl Sagan." Affection because he was one of my childhood nerd crushes. Confusion because I'm not attracted to women, but this gal was a dead ringer for my beloved astronomer, so...
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Laura Antoniou's mystery set in the middle of a kink convention, The Killer Wore Leather. And Seattle's sex-positive culture in general for its art shows, film screenings, articles, workshops, and overall work toward making sex something that can be talked about without stigma, shame, and danger. If we could free ourselves from those chains, then the ones some people put on just for fun become simply that.
I hope you enjoy Bound to the Truth. You can pre-order it, and Amazon will magically deliver it to your Kindle on the day of release. Or Barnes & Noble will mystically transport it to your Nook. Or, or, or...
Now tell me what you think of all this in the comments! What turns you on? I mean in terms of literature, people.
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.
Photo credit: Lisa Brunette.
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
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.
Follow on Twitter.
Psy High by Rebecca Slitt, for Choice of Games
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.
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
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.
Mysterium by Asmodee
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.
Sometimes I like a good film noir classic, as in the 1944 movie "Laura," named one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute. This one was just right for a Saturday night movie binge because it features a young Vincent Price as a pretty boy gigolo, if you can imagine that, and a victim who's made a life for herself as a successful advertising exec, a rare career woman for her time.
What I didn't expect in this strange but clever whodunit is that one of the main characters and ongoing suspects is an eccentric writer, a dandy who pens columns while sitting at his bathtub desk. From his posh penthouse apartment in New York, he brags about making fifty cents a word on his writing.
Hold up, I thought. Fifty cents a word? In 1944?
Those of you who've never tried to make a living with your words probably don't know this, but fifty cents a word is considered a good rate today. Yeah, in 2016. I'm part of several online freelancer forums, and there I regularly see rates of $150-300 for a 700-word article, which works out to about 20-40 cents per word. The top echelon magazines reportedly pay their freelancers $1-$2 dollars per word, and there are a rare handful of freelance writers making bank, but the vast majority of words that get written in America today sell for far less. Disturbingly, there are plenty of publishers who expect writers to work for "exposure," or for mere cents per word.
Here's what writers today should be making per word, if we take 50 cents in 1944 and adjust it for inflation: $6.82.
That would be almost $5K for a 700-word piece, which is a far cry from reality. And you wonder why so much of what's out there is written in listicle format and laden with gifs! Even if the 50-cents-per word bit were a dramatic embellishment, and let's say the actual writer pay at the time was half that, at 25 cents per word, or a quarter, at 12 cents per word, which is about what I make today on stories for my local paper, we're still looking at serious stagnation, or even devolution. Depending on whom you ask, the publishing industry is either experiencing a glorious renaissance or is in its death throes. If it's the former, writers on the whole aren't experiencing the golden part of this age, and if it's the latter, then I suppose things will only get worse from here on out.
In my overly long, SEO-designed headline above, I promised I'd mention how this relates to the overall brokenness of the economy. This writer wage stagnation/devolution is another example of how we've been shafted in the last generation as productivity has actually gone up but salaries haven't kept pace, pay for CEOs and others at the top soared while most other pay stagnated, and benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care became a thing of the past. I'm no economist, though, so let me refer you to these nine sobering wage stagnation charts put out by the Economic Policy Institute.
Sure, EPI is considered by some to skew liberal and/or is tainted by its labor backing. But you know what? It's hard to argue with the data. For example, since 1979, middle-class wages rose only 6% and low-wage workers' salaries actually fell by 5% while those with the highest salaries saw a 41% increase. Here's another: In the 1960s, CEOs typically earned 20 times what a typical worker earned, but today they rake in 296 times what a typical worker makes.
So writers in this analysis are low-wage workers whose salaries have fallen over time. Our economy is one big film noir movie, but the villain is greed and the policies that support and enable greed. Spoiler alert: The mystery of who killed Laura, the advertising exec, is far more fitting and poignant than anyone in 1944 could have imagined. Yep. You guessed it. The writer did it.*
* Or at least, he thought he did (plot twist!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Also, this is definitely a Lego toilet.
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.
Lately I've heard from people who assume I'm earning piles of money from my books. They tell me I make the whole publishing thing look easy, and that it makes them want to jump in.
This is a really good example of why I try never to make assumptions.
It's funny, because I've been pretty up-front about the whole thing from the beginning, as you can read in this post on my decision to self-publish as well as this post about what it took to hit the bestseller spot in two categories on Amazon. If you don't want to read those two posts, here they are in a nutshell: 1) My decision to self-publish was borne from a cold-eyed practicality that showed me getting an agent and a solid traditional publishing contract would be as likely as winning the lottery and 2) Hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon came after 25 years of toil, and I still had to make the book free.
But I guess my previous posts weren't enough. People see "bestseller" and the fact that I'm up for a couple of major awards, and they automatically assume I'm making piles of money. And maybe it's my own fault for trumpeting the bestseller achievement, which is a big win, don't get me wrong. But because publishing today is totally broken, it doesn't mean I'm making piles of money, or even enough to call this my new day job, neither of which I have actually claimed, but people seem to assume. There's a lot of hope and fantasy-making when it comes to the life of a writer. We still want to believe we can all be J.K. Rowling, and that getting there is easy.
Here it is for the record: My husband/business partner and I are still in the red on these books.
And here's why:
- Discoverability. By at least one estimate, there's a new book posted to Amazon every five minutes. Simply getting eyes on your product remains the biggest obstacle in all of entertainment. At the video-game company were I used to work, it was of chief consideration. We did the best when we had our own portal to funnel new games to players who'd played our previous games, but the Apple store made this more of a challenge. So if I could design a Lisa Brunette portal within Amazon that sent my book promos to readers who'd purchased my books before, or similar books, I'd be in business. But that's not possible.
- Have you bought my books? If you did, thank you. I hope you enjoyed them. But was it the print or audiobook version (which earn me just a few cents to a few dollars in royalties), the ebook version (which earns me even fewer cents to a couple of dollars in royalties), or the free version (which earns me next to nothing in royalties)?
- Sales of Cat in the Flock to-date are clocking in at just under 5,000 copies, most of those free, and sales of Framed and Burning are lower because it's been $3.99 since launch with no promos and no KDP enrollment (what this is). As for my other books, there's a reason I continually refer to poetry as a "labor of love." Ditto short stories.
- Most of the people who downloaded the free copy during the promotion that catapulted Cat in the Flock to bestseller status haven't yet read the book, which affects my royalties via Amazon's "normalized pages read" count, and they did not buy the second book in the series. This is a well-known result for bestsellers on Amazon these days, so writers and marketers generally hope the lift will boost sales a few times as others see the book in the ranking, which did happen for a time...or I don't know what else, and neither do they.
- I am no pro at promotion. It's funny because I keep getting notes of admiration/offers to hire me from other authors who think I do it well, and I tell them I'm just bumbling around here, but since authors on the whole tend to be really terrible at this, I guess I look good by comparison. I am still learning how to do the book sales and promo thing, so stay tuned. Hopefully I'll get even better!
- Most of the friends and family to whom I've given free copies of my books haven't read them. I try not to get too tripped up about this, as it seems to be a writer phenomenon: Those closest to us tend to be the least likely to read and discuss the book (with the exclusion of my husband/business partner, who's my biggest fan; he also has a stake in the game). But it's probably because reading the words of someone you know very well can be jarring. As my sister (who is actually very supportive) said, "I hear your voice in my head as I'm reading, and it's weird." This recently happened to me with an old friend who wrote a thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect after she blurbed my thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect. I freaked out reading the first chapter and haven't been able to pick it up since. It wasn't just the voice; it was the inevitable comparison in subject matter. People you know look for themselves in your books; they can't help it.
- I've been very fortunate to have amazing supporters and fans who share my content, but I haven't had the time to grow my list the way I should. It's a business that is definitely more-than-full-time, like a start-up or your new local restaurant, but I have not yet had the luxury to focus on it 24/7 because I have to attend to my other sources of income. We spent this entire last weekend working on republishing both Dreamslippers books, for example, so we feel like we now need a weekend to recover from our working weekend.
We're not yet in the black, but we partners of Sky Harbor LLC invested more into the business than most indie authors, so we have more to make back. We saw this as a long-term strategy, and it's way too early to call since I've only published two books so far. The models I have for how this works didn't begin to make a living until they were into books three or four, and this goes for both the indies and the traditionally published authors. One traditional author tells me the only way he lives off his writing is through his foreign sales. His foreign publishers are also the ones who pay for his few book tours, as his U.S. publisher won't pay for any.
My approach is to be much more diversified, too. I'm currently working as a game writer, speaker, and journalist in addition to the fiction I write. I believe this is a healthier mix for these volatile economic times. But that means I'm trying to keep up with four different industry spaces, growing my contacts and experience in all of them at once. Some days, it feels like managing four different start-ups.
Overall, I'm flattered that people think I'm making a living at this, and I am thrilled with the success I've had with my fiction. With just two books under my belt, I've won one book award and am a finalist for two others. My first book hit the no. 1 spot not in some quirky niche but in two major categories on Amazon: paranormal mystery and private investigators, which, if you think about a book being published every five minutes, is a huge achievement. It's trending at 4.5 stars on 52 reviews, and the second book is close behind. I've been approached by a Hollywood director about TV rights (but don't get too excited--Hollywood is notoriously fickle). Enough readers and influencers have given their independent, non-paid praise of the books such that I know if I can surmount the hefty obstacles, I will begin to see some financial success. I've proved I am a serious career author with the speaking, marketing, and most of all, writing chops to go the distance. It's only a matter of time before the right people--and/or an army of readers--take notice.
And if they never do, I will at least know that I gave it my all, heart and soul. Plus, look at the enviable experience I'll have to offer in my next day job...
by Alexis Donkin
LB: Writing for the blog today is Alexis Donkin, blogger, speaker, and author of what she describes as "a library of books," from fantasy and sci-fi to memoir and journal guides. I asked her to discuss how she meshes a spiritual path with her development as a fiction writer, or how the two intersect. Here's Alexis.
I think I wrote 10 different posts about this topic only to abandon them. How can I talk about spirituality and my writing? How can I not? How can I talk about my spiritual practice and not freak people out?
I grew up with two ordained ministers as parents, so religion has always been a topic discussed at dinner. Faith was linked to every aspect of our lives. Pastors are like politicians in that everyone has expectations for them, and their families. There were parts of our lives that never saw the light of day...well...until I wrote about them in my memoir.
Because of my upbringing, I've had an unusual relationship with spirituality. I started out being very Christian. My faith led me to study other traditions as a path to addressing the world's needs (the product of this education is my world religion curriculum and associated interfaith devotional). In that study, I questioned my allegiance. I never identified with those publicly identifying as Christians. Somehow they managed to insert Jesus into every other sentence. They talked about prayer as if it was this transformative experience, and for me, being progressive, I couldn't decide if they were genuine – or lying. It didn't connect with my own experience.
So as I researched other traditions, I questioned my own. In the end, I discovered all faiths have parts I like and parts I hate. It just so happens, I like Christianity best. It speaks my cultural language. I like the story of Jesus.
This seems like a round-about way to talk about spirituality in writing, but it's important to know my perspective to understand why I write what I do – what drives everything in my life.
I am, by all accounts, a very spiritual person. I meditate daily. I go to church every week and even lead the worship band. I pray before meals. I express gratitude for the beauty of every moment – whatever that beauty is. When I submit a piece, I pray the outcome achieves the highest good of all. I meditate before I write my blog posts – checking in with my gut to confirm the topic is right.
I do that even for social media posts.
As I write this out, I wonder if this is an unusual thing. I expect it is rare for people to do these things, but for me, I have to interact in the world this way. Everything I do is centered around my personal purpose – to spread compassion and empathy through my writing and speaking.
I tried to write commercially. I tried to write solely to entertain. Instead, I wrote about gender dynamics, equality, and climate change. I tried to write freelance articles about tourist things and the like – I can't do it. My head starts to ache and I grow restless. I have the urge to throw my computer.
My call is too strong to ignore. When I try to avoid it, something always brings me back. So I embraced it. Once I did, things started falling into place for me. I embraced the fact that I am a deeply spiritual human, and became open about it. I found myself supported in this, even from unexpected sources (like staunch Humanists).
My spirituality is generally implicit in my blog posts. It's implicit in my fiction pieces. While I can't separate my faith and practices from my work, I'm not interested in converting people to my particular way of being. That doesn't serve anyone. I just want people to love themselves and love others. I think that makes the world a better place, and ultimately, that's the highest good.
Alexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She is a classically trained artist, with a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MA in Global and International Studies. Between writing, speaking, and chasing her kid, she paints, sings, and dances. Sometimes Alexis does it all at once.