2014-04-18

Book of Lenses for Books (#15)

Continuing my series of posts where I try to apply the perspectives of the really excellent The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses to the process of writing fiction. Part 1 is here.

Lens #15 - The Toy

I can't meaningfully rewrite the questions the lens of the toy asks about games, replacing 'game' with 'book' and 'play' with 'read'. Mostly because I don't want to substitute out the word 'play' in this case.

The basic idea of this lens is that games include toy-like elements that are fun to play with, which enhance how much fun the games are to play, and make them more immediately accessible. In terms of game experience, you want the player to be rewarded immediately with fun as soon as they begin interacting with the game. There is a place for games that dole out reward on a longer time frame and only after learning how to manipulate them (e.g. Microprose's superb Master of Orion II), but they have less immediate and narrower appeal.

So, to books. What are the 'toys' in a book, and how does the reader play with them?

Firstly, words. Words are toys as well as tools. A well-turned phrase you can quietly enjoy, a joke that is worth repeating to the person next to you, lines that you love reading aloud to your children, these are toys. They are good in themselves, they contribute to the overall fun of reading the book, they make it more accessible.  The opening lines of many great books are famous, and not by accident; they are in themselves great lines, chosen to immediately grab the reader and lead them in to the book.

Secondly, ideas. The ideas in your book should be fun to play with. If the reader has the experience of asking themselves and their friends "what if..." then they are engaging with the world you created, they are playing, and having fun.

Thirdly, characters. Consider how much fan-fiction gets written, and then consider how much of that is centred on the characters of a work, as opposed to the abstract premise or situations. Writing fan-fiction is a very direct way of playing with the characters, akin to the physical play of enacting new stories using action figures. Another way is comparing and contrasting the attributes of fictional characters with real-life people, for example online quizzes to decide which Avenger you are, or which house of Hogwarts you would be sorted into.

Play with words, play with ideas, play with characters. And give your reader something fun to play with too. I have certainly tried, and very likely not entirely succeeded, because this isn't easy to do as to say. But it is fun trying.

Next time, lens #16 - The Player (OK, the Reader; I'll be back on my usual word-substitution thing by then)


2014-04-16

Book of Lenses for Books (#14)

Continuing my series of posts where I try to apply the perspectives of the really excellent The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses to the process of writing fiction. Part 1 is here.

Lens #14 - Risk Mitigation
  • What could keep this game book from being great?
  • How can we stop that from happening?
This is definitely more applicable to game development in a team, with deadlines, budgets, technological constraints and so on, than it is to solo writing projects.
So what are the risks of a writing project?

There's a risk of getting bogged down, indefinitely procrastinating, running out of ideas, hitting a dead end, or otherwise not having a complete story. This can be mitigated by sketching out the story in advance, not spending effort and tiring yourself out writing prose until you know it's going somewhere. I didn't really do that in my story, because that's not how NaNoWriMo works, but I did have a clear idea of how some of the story arcs were going to go.

There's a risk of getting carried away and spinning out a very loose tale full of plot holes or confusing unexplained sequences that you don't see because you are too close to it. One way to mitigate that risk is have someone else read it. This is very like using code reviews when writing software. I'm currently in the process of picking through the latest draft of The Silk Mind actively looking for plot holes and inconsistencies. This is hard; there's no compiler for prose, to spit out helpful warnings like "line 3072: out-of-character decision by Jenna".

I'm struggling a bit with this lens, honestly. So many of the risks are internal to the process of writing rather than imposed by external constraints. So the risks are all risks of doing it wrong, and the mitigating strategy is "don't do it wrong". Helpful.

Next time, Lens #15 - The Toy

2014-04-11

What to do if you get Android error 919

Your options if you get unknown error 919 when trying to install an Android app:
  1. Clear all the shite off your phone: the storage is probably full. Unless you are a clairvoyant reading this post from ten years ago, the only way your phone can be full is if it has gibibytes of stuff on it that you don't need. If you are reading this from ten years ago, you also don't know what a gibibyte is or that episode III of the Star Wars prequels will not repair the harm done by the first two; not by a long way.
  2. Make sure you have a good WiFi connection. This seems to imply not living in most of Russia and not using BT broadband in the centre of Glasgow. May not be much you can do about that.
  3. Leave a one star review of the app on Google Play as though it was somehow the developer's fault. Only do this if you are a whiny prick. It won't help.

2014-04-07

Book of Lenses for Books (#13)

Continuing my series of posts where I try to apply the perspectives of the really excellent The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses to the process of writing fiction. Part 1 is here.

Lens #13 - The Eight Filters

According to the Book of Lenses, the eight filters are eight tests your design has to get through. If it fails at any step, you need to change something, and as every software engineer knows, once you change something, you have to run all your tests again from the beginning.

Do these filters apply to fiction as well as to game design? Let's see:

  1. Artistic impulse: does it feel right to you, the author?
  2. Demographics: you have an intended audience (even if you haven't consciously selected one). Will they like it?
  3. Experience design: this is an iteration over various of the other lenses, to see if the experience created is good enough, has a strong theme and so on. There's a lot of overlap between the lenses through which you can look at your design. If you can apply them to fiction writing at all, you can have a little peek through them to see if your story gets past filter #3.
  4. Innovation: are you bringing anything new at all? People haven't been making computer games for as long as they've been writing books. It's got to be harder for a novel to be, well, novel. But there's not much new under the sun, and people enjoy a lot of experiences that should by rights be getting pretty stale by now. I think if even sometimes you can take the reader somewhere unexpected, that will probably do. Or your target demographic can be children. They know nothing and have no taste.
  5. Business and marketing: I cannot stress enough the probable importance of this thing I know nothing about and feel reluctant to explore. Computer games require more expensive equipment to produce than books, and usually have more collaborators. If you want to sell books, you have to worry about this. If you only want to write books, maybe not so much.
  6. Engineering: Is it technically possible to write this book? If it's a novel, then yes. Just bloody write it. This filter is perhaps more applicable to a book that may have really unusual requirements for formatting or illustration (e.g. holograms printed on one of the pages, or a scratch-and-sniff book of dangerous chemicals).
  7. Social and Community: Games can have social interaction (or a horrible ersatz facsimile of social interaction such as canned chat or integration with facebook.) But the "key question" offered by the Book of Lenses for filter #7 is: Does this book meet our social and community goals? And it's possible for a community to have goals that can be furthered by a work of fiction, be it fan-fiction or a story with the ulterior motive of spreading the community's favoured viewpoints. A fine example of both things is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
  8. Playtesting: Do the readers of your first drafts like the story? Do they get the story? Do they like the characters, locations, prose style? Actually I don't know... I think criticising someone's prose style feels very rude, like commenting on body odour or overweight, so you might have trouble getting an honest answer there.
Next time, #14 -  Risk Mitigation

2014-04-05

Book of Lenses for Books (#12)

Continuing my series of posts where I try to apply the perspectives of the really excellent The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses to the process of writing fiction. Part 1 is here.

Lens #12 - The Problem Statement
  • What problem, or problems, am I really trying to solve?
  • Have I been making assumptions about this game book that really have nothing to do with its true purpose?
  • Is a game book really the best solution? Why?
  • How will I be able to tell if the problem is solved?
Game design is obviously a big part of making a game, and problem solving is a big part of design. Is writing also a problem-solving activity? Is there a thing such as story design, where you state a problem your story is trying to solve, and then can evaluate the design according to how well it solves it?
Since I only began writing The Silk Mind as participation in NaNoWriMo, I initially had one problem to solve: write 50,000 words in a month. I did that, so: job done. That's about the least interesting writing problem imaginable. It would have been slightly more interesting if my problem was "type 50,000 words using only my toes", but until NaNoToeWriMo is a thing, I need to look deeper for a problem relating to the story construction rather than the process of stringing words together.
I did begin with the assumption that I was merely trying to brain-dump a load of story ideas that I would never otherwise use. But of course, I got attached to the stuff I was writing and the problem statement evolved from "write 50,000 words" through "tell all those leftover bits of story" to something like "write an actual novel that someone not biased in my favour might read with enjoyment".
I will be able to tell if that problem is solved by publishing it. Once sale, one good or even lukewarm review, and I win.
Possibly, I will have a more structured problem statement if I get around to writing a second book, especially if I set it in the same world or even aim for it to be a sequel. Then, the problem might include sub-problems such as:
  • Re-establish connections with things and people from the first book, without over-using the duct-tape of exposition.
  • Find something more to say, or something different to say, that makes it worth having another book.
  • Sequels are so often terribly disappointing. Consider all the things that might cause that, and don't do them.
  • Don't end up with a trilogy. It's become a cliché of format for the already cliché-sodden genre that is fantasy fiction. If I find that I have enough material for three books, I should trim it mercilessly or else bury the third instalment until I have enough for four.

2014-03-28

Book of Lenses for Books (#11)

Continuing my series of posts where I try to apply the perspectives of the really excellent The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses to the process of writing fiction. Part 1 is here.

Lens #11 - Infinite Inspiration
  • What is an experience I have had in my life that I would want to share with others?
  • In what small way can I capture the essence of that experience and put it into my game book?
This is as directly and obviously applicable to writing as it is to game design, so it's not as much an unusual way of thinking about the process as a way to find ideas.

The key idea is not to keep your attention focused on the thing you are trying to do, but just look around you and let the life's diversity inspire you.

For me, I find just going for a long walk is the best way to have ideas, and to gently let them develop step by step. By the end of an hour's walking, usually something has come to the front of my mind that I can use.

But I also read a lot of non-fiction, and watch a fair amount of comedy. Watching, reading or listening to comedy is actually pretty good for problem solving, because it's a concentrated course in changing your viewpoint, followed by the reward of laughter.

Is it any good for generating ideas for non-comedic fiction? I don't know, but possibly. Terry Pratchett is quite relentlessly funny, but some of his humour has very sharp edges. If you strip away the setup and surprise from a joke, you are left with a bare absurdity, and an absurdity is a problem that you can make as dark as you like.

Next time, lens #12 - the Problem Statement