On this day.

Currently editing. A Dirge for the Amphiptere, ~68,000 words. Edit into Draft 4. Daily target: 3 days per chapter, for 27 chapters. Deadline: end February.

Now reading.
Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo. Heist caper in a lush fantasy world. The kind of book that is simultaneously intimidating (would I ever be able to write something this good?) and stimulating (of course I can, just keep writing), and a great story to analyze and study for craft. 5 stars.

Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon. It’s given me a new perspective on how to use social media for showcasing creative work. I have an idea of what to do with my blog now. 4 stars.

Now playing.
Fallen London, and looking forward to the very-soon release of Sunless Skies.
Slay the Spire, roguelike deck-builder. Great for quick, fun gaming fixes with endless variety in each run. 4 stars.
Riven: Sequel to MYST, puzzle adventure. The first PC game I ever bought and played (when I was 13 years old), and has remained evergreen and beloved. I’ve finally discovered all the “endings”, and enjoyed the exquisite sound design and superb live-acting. 5 stars.

Great world building resources. A Manual of Gesture. An Outline of English Speech-Craft. (Both courtesy of @ayjay) The History of English podcast.

Recently learnt. Cynghanedd. Old English alliterative verse. Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie by Longfellow, written in epic verse (viz. discussion with fellow writer about poetic metre and conventions).
The Winchester rifle; must study firearm tech & dev over time. The Diolkos, a rudimentay railway in Ancient Greece.

Newly discovered. The joys of using fountain pens. I’ve never understood the obsession with stationery, but having tried out a fountain pen and inks over Christmas break, I get it now. Nevermore will I use cheap ballpoint pens again.

A Barred Owl

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

—Richard Wilbur (apologies)

World-building inspiration for Savi and Nar… National Geographic Photo Contest 2018. A cenote is a sacred sinkhole in the Yucatán Peninsula. The Chixulub crater. The ‘stone forests’ of the South China Karst (link). Lake Hutt is a pink lake in Western Australia. Southern Min dialects. Written classical Chinese, and how it differs as a lingua franca viz. Latin in Europe. Grimm’s law and pronunciation shifts in the Indo-European languages. Stepwells in western India for accessing groundwater in drought.

On this day.

Books borrowed: The Brilliance of the Moon, Lian Hearn (halfway read). Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo.

TBR pile: So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger. Virgil Wander, Leif Enger.

Finished playing: Hyper Light Drifter.

Now playing: Dishonored. realMYST (Masterpiece Edition), on replay through MYST series.

Now writing: Crush the Serpent ‘neath Her Heel, NaNoWriMo 2018 novel. At ~160 pages / ~56k words / ~70% of plot. Deadline for finishing: end 2018.

Music: Soundtracks from Hyper Light Drifter and Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. PBS 106.7fm.

Now testing: Bullet Journal for diary-keeping in 2019. Bible Reading Challenge.

Next thing to test: Zettelkasten – world-building first, digital life archival if successful. Wonderdraft. Anthem during February 2019 beta.

Recently looked up: minesweeping, bomb disposal, Koppen climate classification, Chinese provinces.

To research: African agriculture, tropical savanna climate, steam power during Roman times, intersection of language, culture and geography (re-listen to History of English Ep. 15-18).

Podcast feed is filled with: The History of English, By Faith, What Have You.

To cook: Sorbet. Soba noodles, other things from Just Hungry.

Wishlist: Fountain pen. Robert Oster inks. The two Leif Enger novels I haven’t read.

Thinking about: Finishing Crush the Serpent. How to pray for M. Monsoon-level rains and the city in flood. Carols in the hospital. The absence of the bird, a sort of minuscule grief. Writing/self-publishing short course next year?
The perennial question about what to do with this blog, this apparently aimless, useless thing that has no place anymore in my mental landscape and workflow, but seems to persist and follow me around like a starved, stray dog begging for scraps of self.

🖋️ I finished writing my second novella, in time for NaNoWriMo.

I wrote my first novella, Strange Music, in July 2014, during NaNoWriMo‘s off-season event called Camp NaNoWriMo. That first draft was about 23,000 words and took 28 days to write. (The edited and completed version is now about 26,000 words.)

A couple mid-October weekends ago, I finished writing my second novella, A Dirge for the Amphiptere. The original draft was written in July 2016, also for a Camp NaNoWriMo. It took three years to finish, and its current state is approximately 60,000 words.

Why was it harder to write the second novella compared to the first novella? I once asked J. Daniel Sawyer, the host of the Everyday Novelist, my favourite writing podcast, for help. He replied in an episode: it’s stage fright. You have to let your subconscious mind drive your creativity. Which means you have to get out of your own way.

I listened politely but was a bit skeptical. So I set about proving Dan wrong. It took three years to learn that he was ultimately right.

The head game truly is everything. When I wrote Strange Music, I didn’t know anything; I had no clue how to and how not to write a novel, so I just went and did it. It was challenging, but there was a certain ignorance-is-bliss kind of flow to the writing. When I started Dirge a year after finishing Strange Music, I was no longer ignorant. I had some experience of what it takes to write a novel, and this knowledge kept me from finishing it — and all the other stories I wrote for NaNo but never finished.

Long story short, after writing and rewriting various versions of Dirge over the years (in between writing drafts of other stories), I set myself the goal to reach The End by the end of 2018. The story was getting stale and about to die on the vine if it wasn’t done. I tried throughout the year, and got 2/3rds and ~40,000 words through the plot to just before the climactic scene. But by the time I hit October, I was in despair and ready to put it to bed.

What saved my story from certain death was a group of people: my writing workshop. The workshop leader (himself a published author and freelance editor) gave me a deadline to present the finished work, and the other members (all amateur writers) were unanimously supportive. So… I put some measures in place, and went and wrote the rest of the story in the span of 10 days and 42 pages (~13k words).

I was shocked how easy it was to write the remainder of the story. Where did all the past angst and despair come from? But I’d always known the answer. I knew, deep down, that Dan’s advice was right, that I was just getting the way of my own creative mind by trying to build a scaffolding around the story. But my head refused to believe that. It took the school of hard knocks and three years of dickering around in circles to beat the conceit out of me, and reveal what I had to do to get out of my own way. In retrospect, it seems like such a novice mistake. But without the experience of desperation and having to be pulled out of my hole by my writing workshop, I wouldn’t have known what measures to put in place to help me beat the head game. So I’m consoling myself that those years weren’t wasted.

Writing is actually quite easy. It’s the head game that causes 90% of writer’s block and plot troubles, and makes or breaks a writing career. And if I don’t learn how to beat the head game, I will never progress and my stories will die. I think I’ve made progress in finding a solution.

~~~

NaNoWriMo has begun. I’m tired of unfinished manuscripts. This year my goal is to finish a full manuscript, even if I go overtime past November. And I’m determined to apply my experience into growing trees. No more of building houses!

I used these strategies to finish Dirge, which I’ll repeat for NaNo:

  • Write by hand. This will be the first year of handwriting a NaNo. I’m less tempted to edit when I have scrawly handwriting to wade through and not enough page space to insert edits. I averaged 300 words per page with Dirge, and it wasn’t too hard on the hands. So 6 pages a day should be enough to hit the daily NaNo wordcount. And if I put my mind to it, that can be knocked over in 2-3 hours.
  • Resist all reflex to plot/outline before the story is finished. This is my head game and how the Inner Editor manifests: wanting to plot and do character development and all this fun auxiliary stuff, instead of writing the infernal thing. The urge is even stronger when I hit a roadblock in the storytelling. The novella Dirge was strangled by all the plotting and char dev I did in my attempts to unstick myself, which only created more story complications, mental noise, and ultimately, a sense of despair and defeat. So, no more of that during NaNo. Not even make margin notes/reminders as I write. That can come later. Now the story needs to just get out.

I’m looking forward to this. I’ve always loved NaNo, especially since it encourages writing at a pace that leaves your conscious inner editor behind. Writing into the dark is nerve-wrecking, but it’s also exciting. At the end, I hope to have gotten further in my adventures in a writing career, and, for once, have a fully-grown tree to show for it.

🎮 I made a Twine game. Or: It is illegal to serve Hot Sauce to a Dragon in Granada.

It is illegal to serve Hot Sauce to a Dragon in Granada | mirrored on Philome.la | hosted on my site

This is my first time using Twine, and the first interactive fiction (IF) game I’ve ever made. So I welcome any and all feedback and opinions on Project Dragonsauce! (Because that title is a mouthful.)

Inspiration.

It all began with this writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog, where everyone commented with a title for another commenter to “adopt” for a flash-fiction piece. Someone had posted this exact title, “It is illegal to serve hot sauce to a dragon in Grenada [sic]”, and my imagination instantly latched onto it. I originally wanted to write flash-fiction/short story as per Wendig’s challenge, but after a few abortive attempts, gave up, filed the title away, and didn’t do anything with it for a couple years. But a few months ago, when I was examining Twine and idly contemplating a foray into IF game creation, this title prompt came instantly to mind, and the entire storytelling/game structure resolved itself in that moment of inspiration.

And there: I had a story all ready to create in Twine. So I did. It took roughly 2-3 months of dabbling, in total probably less than a week of real-time work, to make a 5-minute IF game.

Process.

It took an afternoon to storyboard and write the text for Dragonsauce, and get accustomed to the Twine interface, which was very user-friendly. This was the easy part. After that, I spent several months on-and-off learning the basics of Harlowe (the scripting language beneath the Twine interface) and then scripting it to do what I wanted. I solely used the Harlowe manual to learn; somehow it never crossed my mind to look for YouTube tutorials, but reading instructions and then doing them has always been my default way of learning.

Lots of referencing the manual and trial-and-error: circling back and forth between things I knew how to script, and things I wanted to script but hadn’t reached that level of mastery yet. Rather tedious, but I’m glad I persevered through beginner’s frustration. At the end of this game, I think I’ve mastered enough of Twine scripting to know which references to look up, but will need to keep experimenting and iterating to get a real handle on Twine’s full capabilities. Solidly beginner, starting to move into the intermediate levels.

Being a gamer, particularly an avid player of text-based games, helped a lot with Dragonsauce’s design. I’ve played enough of Fallen London, Open Sorcery, Choice of Games games, and MU*s (the progenitor of both parser IF and MMOs) over time, to have internalized the infrastructure of interactive storytelling. The structure of Dragonsauce literally crystallized out of this melting pot. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and immediately knew how to organize it. I didn’t have to consciously “figure it out”.

Gameplay and story presentation.

Having written only novellas before, interactivity is the aspect of IF that I find most intriguing. How does one present stats to a reader and give them a way of tracking progress and change, while maintaining the integrity of a narrative? How to avoiding making this too explicitly game-y?

Dragonsauce was a particularly good story for learning Twine because it had a modular structure, and each module allowed me to experiment with different ways for a reader/player to progress through the story, and how I might present it narratively. There were only two fundamental stats for me (and the player) to manage, which made it easy to keep track of in the scripting, but still interesting as I got a taste of what additional variables can spin out from two stats (answer: a LOT if you don’t keep yourself in check), and what “balancing gameplay” means and involves. I think the three game endings are well balanced and hope they satisfy the player.

I got sucked into playing around with the scripting, to the point where I had to pull back and ask myself how this served the narrative, and how I can effectively present this as a story, and use storytelling to elegantly cover up the bones of gameplay mechanics. (And how much time I wanted to spend just dickering with an unfinished project!) All this experimentation meant that the narrative of Dragonsauce supports a core gameplay style, instead of vice versa. More game-y and less story-esque than I’d hoped, but I was using this story to learn Twine and its capabilities.

I’m pleased with what I’ve made, and like to think I succeeded with keeping the storytelling vibe while also effectively communicating game/stat changes through narrative. But I wonder what players think. (I would appreciate your feedback very much!)

What’s next?

IF and text-based games are the convergence of reading and gaming, two activities I enjoy, and any place of boundary crossing and convergence that stimulates creativity, tension and new ideas attracts me. I thoroughly enjoyed making Dragonsauce, and found balancing this tension between game and story very engaging. This is my first IF game, but I’m confident it won’t be the last.

Now that I’ve gotten a handle on Twine scripting, I would like to focus more on narrative and less on mechanics. So the next project is to develop a story and keep narrative as the main objective, and see how the Twine medium can support it.

I already have an idea kicking in my head, but it’ll have to incubate a bit longer as other writing projects are taking priority. (NaNoWriMo cometh!)  This will surely be a major project for 2019.

📚 Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.

~~~

Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.

Weird dream.

Last night I dreamt about Serbian guerilla fighters in a muddy field beneath a looming cliffside containing a network of caves. The sky was cloudy and overcast, and it was all damp and probably drizzling. I was in the field, dug into the grass and mud, and then I was inside the cliffs with the soldiers, who were all dressed in blue uniforms, tramping through the tunnels, talking about Skopje and strategizing about some important mission there.

M. and I. were in the caves with me. They’ve been on my mind recently, and M. comes from a European country but is decidedly not Serbian. Apart from that tenuous link, I have absolutely no connections to the Balkans.

Sometimes, a weird dream is just a weird dream.

🎵 Now listening. Turrican Soundtrack Anthology, vol. 2 by Chris Huelsbeck, and the rest of the Turrican Anthology soundtracks.

How have I not encountered this music/game/composer before? These soundtracks are magnificent. The first track of Turrican II (“The Final Fight”) alone is worth the price of the whole album. Instant buy!