fiction

Twine and interactive fiction

Readers of a certain age may recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books for children, that were popular a few decades ago.

Ahead of you, Robin Hood is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. As the remaining member of his band at large in the forest it’s up to you to rescue Maid Marian. Do you run back the way you came, to talk to the woodcutter (turn to page 7) or follow the Sheriff’s men as they lead Robin away (turn to page 8)?

That kind of thing. Basically it was a thrilling short novel in which the reader made the decisions, usually after reading only a page or two of text, and thus could read the same book multiple times, having slightly different experiences, and feeling like they were in the middle of the action. I came across a couple of essentially novelty versions for adults in the late nineties but on the whole I’d only heard of the format being used for children’s books.

Having also grown up on text-based computer adventure games (because graphics were a luxury thirty years ago) and sharing a love of noir, it was perhaps inevitable that OneMonkey and I would drift into entertaining ourselves by starting to write a detective story on the computer, with the intention that the plot could pan out in different ways depending on the decisions made at each turn.

Four and a half years ago during a hot, lazy summer we started fooling around with the tale of an unnamed private detective who lived above a chip shop somewhere near Middlesbrough, and what happened when he came home from a poetry recital one evening to find the body of one of his clients sprawled on his kitchen lino:

Yet here she was in the fringes of suburbia, sprawled on my beige and orange linoleum. She’d only been looking for a missing spaniel when she pitched up at my office last week, and wherever the dog was it wouldn’t be in my kitchen. My cat would never allow it.

Instead of the typical second person narrative (you go into the kitchen…) we opted for the traditional noir first person (I stepped over the threshold…) with the reader acting as the detective’s conscience, inner voice, or maybe guiding deity (Should I call the police or slip out the back door?).

Because we both have programming backgrounds and because it probably didn’t cross our minds that anyone else would be daft enough to do stuff like this, we used our markup facility of choice (txt2tags) and made a simple html version so you could read a passage of text, click on one of the links and move to the next passage. The only trouble was, the way we were keeping track of the interconnectedness was to draw decision trees on paper and magnet them to the side of the filing cabinet, and we were running out of filing cabinet. Fun as it had been, we were getting tangled in our own storylines and we shelved the poor detective a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to the Christmas holidays 2019, when I was formatting a radio script to send to the BBC Script Room. OneMonkey, convinced there must be specialist script software that would stop me swearing so much (and indeed, I’ve downloaded a demo of Fade In but I haven’t tried it yet), was trawling the web. He found a nifty thing called Twine, which wouldn’t help with the radio script but was just the thing we needed to get our detective back into his favourite thinking-chair.

Twine is open source (did I ever mention I use Linux? And LibreOffice, and Vim, and…) and is also incredibly simple to use. I find it just visual enough to be helpful without being overwhelming, and at its simplest you can use the default set-up and make simple text passages with simple links (like we were doing in html before), and be up and running straight away. Within an hour we’d downloaded Twine, learnt enough to get started, copied across our existing story and were examining the incomplete pathways.

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The layout of our story in Twine, which makes me think of international flight-paths

We set up a couple of tags to add colour-coding, so we know which ones are still only headings, with no text added, and which ones are end-points. OneMonkey got enthusiastic on the coding front and added an inventory (represented here by the disconnected set of items on the left-hand side) so at any time we know what our hero has in his pockets, but this is very much an optional extra.

Since our adoption of this new software approach, all we’ve done is untangle a couple of threads, add an inventory, work out where we’d got to, and sketch out a couple of scenes to be used later (the disconnected items on the right-hand side). It’s not often we’ve both got the time (or maybe I mean energy) to sit down and work on this together, but Twine certainly seems to be a useful way to do it. You can do a test run through the ‘game’ (I can’t figure out what terminology to use for this venture, I would naturally say interactive fiction but they get referred to as games) to see how it’s going so far, or you can sit in storyboard mode (as shown in the screenshot above) and edit the passages, add links etc.

As I understand it, you can get even more advanced by adding images, sounds (say you want to have a distinctive door-opening hum every time the character goes through a door), and we’ve used conditionals in a couple of places already. By ‘conditionals’ I mean the text shown, and/or the decisions available are conditional on what’s already happened – if the detective has visited the bathroom already then he will behave in a different way when he enters the bedroom, for instance. In our detective’s case he’s looking for clues and deciding what to do next based on them, so if he encounters things in a different order then he might jump to different conclusions. If you’re a programming beginner, you might want to stick to basic building blocks of narrative at first and only bring this sort of nuance in once you feel more confident.

As with anything of this nature, a quick search for how-to articles, or YouTube tutorials should turn up helpful pointers. If you want some inspiration there’s a community site with links to interactive fiction that people have constructed, you can even search for ones made using Twine.

We may never guide our detective through all the twists of his fishy plot but at least Twine has given us a way to progress, and if Above a Chip Shop in Teesside is ever available to the public, I’ll let you know.

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

Climate change fiction: some recommendations

Climate change and impending environmental catastrophe have been in the news somewhat over the last couple of weeks. It seemed like a good time to recommend some novels which deal with the topic, a few of which I’ve mentioned here before. Obviously some are more realistic than others as possible scenarios go but they’re all good to read and if they get you thinking about what you could do right now, so much the better.

I’ll start with Kim Stanley Robinson because of the books I’ve read, he’s done it best. There is a trilogy (Science in the Capital) which starts with Forty Signs of Rain, which I read a few years ago and loved. It’s full of detail, being set in Washington with the main characters including a government policy wonk and his statistician wife, and shows a near future where climate change is producing noticeable effects but society is mainly still ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. OneMonkey tried to read it but pronounced it dull and gave up – too much detail for his taste. However, I thought it was excellent in the way it showed the clash between capitalism, day to day politics, and scientific prediction. Also there was an interesting thread of Buddhism, as I recall. It was written over 15 years ago so we’re probably well within that near future now (and still the politicians say ‘I’d love to, but…’).

The other KSR is a stand-alone novel from a couple of years ago, New York 2140. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag, but suffice to say it’s full of great characters in a flooded Manhattan. Again, man-made problems and capitalism’s disregard for long-term consequences are major themes but amazingly he still manages to be optimistic.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand and deals with climate change, genetic modification, rampant capitalism and their interplay and consequences. It was brilliantly written and suitably tense but there are some pretty nasty bits in it, so maybe not for the overly squeamish.

The word ‘capitalism’ keeps cropping up here, doesn’t it? I’m partway through Economics: The User’s Guide by Ha-Joon Chang at the moment and it’s got interesting things to say about the view of consumerism as the be-all and end-all. Even the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had a load of new-looking tents, stickers and plastic bits and bobs in the photos I saw. It’s a hard one. But I digress…

The classic Ursula Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven (you can read my review at Luna Station Quarterly) is set against a backdrop of climate change, an unhealthy future that some people obviously wish they could go back and change. The main focus of the book is the reality-changing dreams of a man named George Orr, but the setting gives a good view of a 1970s vision of the future.

If you’ve already read those, or want to explore further, you can find a list of other novels to try at the Wikipedia entry for the subgenre. I haven’t figured out yet whether it’s more environmentally friendly to produce physical books (you can after all use recycled paper and vegetable-based inks but you have to transport them) or e-books (you have to build an electronic device with all its rare materials but you could charge using renewable energy sources, and then there’s the storage capacity). Borrow a copy from a friend or your local library, is my advice. If you use the library (in the UK at least), they even give royalties to the author.

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

Two anthologies and a magazine

This is a busy weekend, or to be precise, coincidentally three stories of mine are being released into the world within a few days of each other.

Firstly, I have a 100-word story in Tritely Challenged Volume 1, one of Christopher Fielden’s challenge anthologies which is out today. With this one, the challenge was to fit as many cliches in as possible and as it was kicked off while he was hosting workshops at last year’s flash fiction festival in Bath, there are contributions from Jude Higgins, Kit de Waal, Louise Mangos and Helen Rye, among others. Every book sold shoves a quid in the direction of Book Aid International, so it’s all in a good cause and is a fun collection. You can find more info, and links to buy paperback or electronic copies here.

Secondly, if you’re in the Middlesbrough area, I believe the Crossing the Tees short story anthology is now available to buy in libraries. Inside is a 700-word story of mine called Ghost Bridge, which was inspired by an episode of Time Team (for those of you outside the UK that’s a long-running, popular, and now sadly defunct archaeology series) and I guess might come under the magic realism heading. I couldn’t attend the prize-giving on Thursday evening but it sounds like a good time was had by all.

Finally, Confingo issue 9 is out on Monday. You can buy a copy online or at a handful of shops in the UK, and if you do you’ll get to read my story Last Post. It’s roughly 1700 words of a man not coping well with bereavement, but I think (I hope) you can see in its absurdity and sparks of humour the debt my writing owes to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

All good things must end

Tomorrow, after eighteen months of having as much time as I want to write, read and mess about (I mean, network) on Twitter, I start my new day job. Four days a week for the next couple of years I’ll be commuting again, which at least means guaranteed regular reading time on the train. I guess I’ll be reading more, writing less, maybe submitting fewer stories, and definitely spending less time on Twitter. Seems like a good time to look back over the last 18 months and see if I achieved anything.

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One, from Ellipsis Zine – I’ve got a story in here

I set out with the intention of editing Sunrise Over Centrified City in a proper focused way. Eventually I did (it’s called Lachlane’s Centrified City now) and so far I’ve had it rejected by one indie publisher and entered it for a competition. Along the way, I won a 3-chapter critique from Claire Dyer in a Mslexia Max subscribers’ monologue competition, so having already had a good go myself I sent Claire the first 12,000 words or so of my dystopian detective novel and got loads of helpful advice back, which put me on the right path for another round of editing.

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The novel I started writing on that first day of unemployment is now at around 35,000 words. I’m so determined to get it right that I’ve trashed whole sections of it and had days when my wordcount spreadsheet has a negative total for the day. An extract of it got me selected for the Penguin Random House WriteNow initiative though so clearly someone saw potential, and I got useful feedback from Mikaela Pedlow at the insight day in Newcastle so I hope I’ve strengthened the novel since then, even if I haven’t lengthened it as much as I’d have liked.

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Souvenir of WriteNow

I have written tens of thousands of words of fiction (and a few thousand of non-fiction, not including the blog) but as it’s not all in one project it’s not easy to see how much there is. If you glance down my publications lists, almost everything published between November 2016 and April 2018 was written or heavily redrafted during my – shall we call it a sabbatical? That’s included Twitter fiction (I even won a couple of competitions), flash fiction and short stories which have been published online, in magazines and anthologies, and I recently had my first flash CNF (creative non-fiction) published at Ellipsis Zine.

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The study, decorated with encyclopedia pages

I didn’t just sit in the fully-redecorated study and tap away at the laptop in isolation. All that time on Twitter included getting to know some fabulously supportive writers (the flash fiction crowd in particular are like a big extended family) and I joined the working class writers’ collective set up by Carmen Marcus and wrote her an article about getting comfortable with my accent. I’ve done storytelling with Alice Courvoisier and we’ve got another event planned at this summer’s York Festival of Ideas. I organised my first open mic and the story I wrote to read at it went on to be published at the Fiction Pool. I also read at other people’s events, and at a joint Ilkley Writers and Wharfedale Poets evening at a local pub.

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Me looking pompous in a pub

I made a radio programme last year with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York which sadly isn’t available online any more, then I co-wrote a radio drama called Lavender Ink with Roz this year. I even wrote a blog post for the New Writing North website about how we did that one and I remain highly excited at having my name up there (if not quite as excited about the photo. Must practice looking less gormless in front of cameras).

Script of Lavender Ink by JY Saville and Rosalind Fairclough

It hasn’t been a continuous year and a half of excitement and success. There have been projects that fell through due to funding scarcity, places I never quite felt ready to submit to, people I never quite plucked up the courage to contact, articles I didn’t pitch, stories I didn’t write (or finish redrafting). I had about 150 rejections plus a couple of magazines went silent after I sent them something (next issue failed to appear, tweets dried up – Ligature Works, for instance). As I write this during the week of the 9th April, I’m waiting to hear about more than fifteen submissions.

As I look back over what I’ve done since I quit my last day job, some of it seems so long ago. Real life intervened occasionally: domestic crises, family illness, my dodgy back and related muscular problems (relics of a slipped disc about 4 years ago) but on the whole I did a fair few things I wouldn’t have done if I’d been at work. More to the point, at least I tried it instead of maybe regretting not trying it, later on. Immense thanks to OneMonkey who agreed to a scarily large slump in household income for six months (yes, the timescale grew once I got going) and made me hundreds of cups of tea when he was working from home and I was utterly focused and paying no attention to my surroundings. I wanted the new day job to be less than full-time so I could carry on a bit of this writing life I’ve grown accustomed to, and I’m not saying I definitely won’t take another sabbatical when my two-year contract’s up, but for now I’m reining back.

If you have a passion for writing (or anything else that might benefit from some dedicated time) and you think you can possibly economise, compromise or otherwise rearrange your finances so you can take some time out to focus on it, I can recommend at least having the conversation (with your spouse, your boss, or someone whose advice you trust). If I hadn’t mentioned it to OneMonkey, my sabbatical would never have morphed from an idle dream to eighteen months of reality. And after the tight budget of the last year and a half, the prospect of a second regular income in the house is making us feel filthy rich.

But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.