Editing a ChoiceScript Game

September 13, 2019 at 10:09 am (Interactive Fiction Tutorials, Writing Ranting)

The interactive fiction community is a wonderful, welcoming space. It is common practice to share a book (aka a game) with other people before officially publishing it. Those first readers spot all manner of errors and are extremely generous and helpful.

But with THE FLOATING CITY, I needed a Sensitivity Reader to check I wasn’t unwittingly writing harmful tropes into my characters who are disabled. So that meant hiring someone from outside the community. I wrote this quick and dirty guide to coping with the weird-looking files that magically turn into shiny happy games… because if you’re SERIOUS about editing, you need to go ‘backstage’ and read every single word.

Without further ado….

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A quick guide to editing/understanding the game files.
Each reader choice looks a little like this:
You are a person.
*choice
     #This is a choice, eg. Walk left.
     #This is a different choice, eg. Walk right.
This is the same choice, slightly expanded:
You are a person.
*choice
     #This is a choice, eg. Walk left.
          Oh no! You walk into the jaws of a monster and are covered in slime.
          *goto next_bit
     #This is a different choice, eg. Walk right.
          Yay! You find a pile of treasure.
*label next_bit
Well, that was interesting.
Now the reader gets a different line of text depending on which choice they made. The *goto and *label commands bottleneck the reader’s experience, so that everyone would read, “Well, that was interesting.”
This is the same choice, but with a way for the game to remember a piece of basic information for later. Don’t stress about numbers; they’re just a method of record keeping.
You are a person.
*choice
     #This is a choice, eg. Walk left.
          *set happy %-10
          Oh no! You walk into the jaws of a monster and are covered in slime.
          *goto next_bit
     #This is a different choice, eg. Walk right.
          *set happy %+10
          Yay! You find a pile of treasure.
*label next_bit
Well, that was interesting.
*if happy > 5
     You feel happy.
     *goto next_next_bit
*else
     You feel unhappy.
*label next_next_bit
The orange part is a ‘test’. It can happen at any point in the game. Here, all it does is comment in the text. In later chapters, it might make the character succeed or fail at something.
 
In this example, one player would read:
“Oh no! You walk into the jaws of a monster and are covered in slime. Well, that was interesting. You feel unhappy.”
 
The other player would read:
“Yay! You find a pile of treasure. Well, that was interesting. You feel happy.”
With me so far? It is possible to have choices nested within choices (the number of indentations helps you track what set goes with what), and it’s also possible to have subroutines, which are just a section of text that can be located anywhere else in the same chapter, which work like this (using *gosub, *label, and *return):
You see a mountain.
*choice
     #Ugh. I hate mountains.
          *set happy %-10
          *gosub description
          *goto nexty_bit
     #Yay. I love mountains.
          *set happy %+10
          *gosub description
          *goto nexty_bit
*label description
The mountain is super tall, with trees on it.
*return
*label nexty_bit
You start walking up the mountain.
One player would choose to read: “You see a mountain. Ugh I hate mountains. The mountain is super tall, with trees on it. You start walking up the mountain.”
 
The other would read (including the choice they made): “You see a mountain. Yay. I love mountains. The mountain is super tall, with trees on it. You start walking up the mountain.”
 
If something is written after *comment, it is not visible to the reader. Usually it’s notes to myself for when I’m editing.

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The income of the full-time author

August 9, 2019 at 10:14 am (Advanced/Publication, Writing Advice, Writing Ranting)

Many years ago, I learned that the average full-time writer in Australia earns $12,000 per year (that is, considerably less than minimum wage).

Here’s what I earned over the last three years:

$20,000.

-$10,000.

$5000.

Soooo…. this year was better than last year. Yay?

The main reason I lost so much money last financial year was that I accidentally started a small business—”Murder in the Mail” and “Magic in the Mail”. Starting a small business is even more expensive than writing for a living—and yes, I’m still very behind financially on those stories (which, in small business terms, is perfectly normal).

Don’t start a small business, kids. (I mean, unless it’s what you really want to do, and you’ve saved up a huge pile of money to invest.)

As you can imagine, all this puts a huge strain on our finances. Which in turn puts a huge stress on my already-teetering mental health. Not to mention physical health (as a relatively minor example, I currently need a CPAP machine to treat my sleep apnea—that’s been on the ‘to-do’ list for about a year so far).

I’m relatively lucky, by writer standards. Weirdly enough, the main reason I’m able to write full time is that I’m not well enough to do anything else (so our finances would suck whether I wrote or not). And I also have a husband who works full-time. It’s a dirty secret that most full-time writers have a spouse who’s paying most of the bills.

The positive side of this is that writing doesn’t have to be expensive. You got a computer? at least one finger? Internet? That’s all you need. (Yes, it’s a good idea to do professional development and networking and so on, but you genuinely don’t need to bother until you’ve written and polished at least one novel, which most people will never do.)

(Yes, writing takes time. If you care about it, you find time. If not, then why fight it? Watch TV instead, or garden, or whatever.)

If you want to write, write. But remember that every dream has a cost.

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Guest Post: What doesn’t kill me. . .

May 6, 2019 at 10:19 am (Fully Sick, Steampunk, Writing Ranting)

Hello and welcome to Karen J Carlisle!

Karen J Carlisle is a writer and illustrator of steampunk, Victorian mysteries and fantasy. She was short-listed in Australian Literature Review’s 2013 Murder/Mystery Short Story Competition. Her first novella, Doctor Jack & Other Tales, was published in 2015 and her short stories have featured in the 2016 Adelaide Fringe exhibition, ‘A Trail of Tales’, and the ‘Where’s Holmes’ and ‘Deadsteam’ anthologies.

Karen lives in Adelaide with her family and the ghost of her ancient Devon Rex cat.

She’s always loved dark chocolate and rarely refuses a cup of tea. http://www.karenjcarlisle.com

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Karen is just about to release The Department of Curiosities. Here’s the blurb:

Miss Matilda Meriwether has a secret. Actually, she has several. One of them has shaped her adult life. Another now controls it. Her Majesty Queen Victoria has control of the Empire. She is the Empire, and creator of its secrets. Sir Avery works for The Department of Curiosities – the keepers of secrets – especially if they are useful to the Empire. When Tillie finds herself in the employment of The Department of Curiosities, she realises this is the perfect opportunity to uncover the truth she has been searching for. But the Queen has other plans for her.

The Department of Curiosities is a steampunk tale of adventure, a heroine, mad scientists, traitors and secrets. All for the good of the Empire.

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And here’s a guest blog:

What doesn’t kill me…

“Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker.”

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher),

Twilight of the Idols (1888)

Today I’m writing about writing processes, the evolution of The Department of Curiosities and a long, long journey through the dark.

In 2012 my life changed. For six months I floundered. I’d worked since I was fifteen. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, I wasn’t. I was lost. How had this happened? Why had this happened? Why me? Why?

I was given professional advice: do something I like. “Find your bliss,” they said. “Do something for yourself.”

I’d always wanted to be a writer and artist, so I turned to a quirky fantasy story that had been mulling around in my head since the late 1980s. But my mood was too dark for the characters. I didn’t blame them. There were other stories wanting to be freed. I turned to a steampunk story I’d been toying with… An adventure. It had a name: The Department of Curiosities. I started writing.

For almost a year I wrote, as my professional world began to crumble, and finally crashed in 2014. I felt used, abused, betrayed, and abandoned. My mental health was stretched. After twenty-eight years of looking after everyone else – my family, my patients – I had to learn to look after myself (not as easy as it sounds). I felt selfish. I felt exhausted. I felt useless.

I stopped writing.

The characters of The Department of Curiosities slipped back into the shadows not wanting to entertain the Black Dog. I didn’t blame them either. Eventually, Viola Stewart stepped forward, willing to sacrifice herself (and her eye) to support and guide me through the next three years. Jack the Ripper, and various nefarious villains, helped me explore motives and psychology as I delved into the darker side of humanity: why do people do what they do? In the process I confronted my own daemons and my personal Black Dog, which constantly nipped at my heels.

Being trained as a scientist, I needed not only to put a name to my emotions, but to discover why I felt this way. Almost five years of professional help, and I hadn’t progressed beyond: Anxiety, ‘deep breathing’ and ‘finding my happy place’.

In 2018 I changed professionals, and was challenged to confront myself. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I started desensitisation therapy.

Finally I felt a slight ease. Things made sense. There was the odd moment of calm. A smile here and there. Aunt Enid popped by, providing a glimmer of hope in my writing worlds. She was beginning to open the doorway back to my original fantasy story… but I wasn’t (and am not) quite there yet.

Tillie stepped forward. She was ready to be heard. I glanced over my notes, pulled out my original manuscript (of almost 80,000 words). I started at the beginning –rewriting, scribbling down notes and plot changes as I went. The story was a little darker than I’d originally envisaged, but overall was a much lighter story than Viola’s murder mysteries, with adventure at its heart.

The Department of Curiosities is my longest story yet – at 104,000 (ish) words/420 pages. Most of the plot has remained intact, though I’ve rewritten almost everything – cutting back on ‘tell’, rewriting ‘inactive’ sentences and adding extra characters. I’ve learned so much about writing in the past five years! During the process, I discovered Tillie, like me, has been fighting to control her own life.

I’ve heard people describe writing as a form of therapy. But it’s not an easy path (at least not the one I took), and not one for the faint hearted. I confronted some dark themes, shied away from some, and embraced others. I discovered catharsis. I’ve excised a character’s eye in revenge, peeked into the darkness of the soul, confronted the feeling of helplessness, and struggled to free myself (and my characters) from the control (or at least the perceived control) of others. I’ve even visited the happier memories from my childhood.

It’s been a long journey, and looks to be a long, rocky trek ahead. Writing has played a major part, sometimes taking me on unexpected side paths, but all heading in one direction: forward.

I feel like I’m starting to free myself from years of expectations and self-denial and neglect. I’ve found a way to work through some of my darker thoughts. It’s helped me to accept (on good days) that I deserve ‘me time’, to look after myself and my mental health. As Writing has made me stronger. I’m starting to believe in myself again. I’m facing my fears and anxieties one at a time. Sometimes I win. Sometimes they do. Perhaps one day I will bring that Black Dog to heel?

The Department of Curiosities is my fifth book – and my longest (if you don’t count that fantasy book still squirming in the back of my head), not only in word count, but in gestation time. I wrote another five chapters and shuffled two chapters into the second book of the trilogy.

I started this journey in 2013. It’s taken five years to see it to completion. It’s taken a year to finally finish the final version of the manuscript.

The Department of Curiosities will be officially released on 22nd May (Tillie’s birthday). A perfect time for new beginnings…

You can find out more information on where to buy it at: http://www.karenjcarlisle.com/shop Check out the book trailers at https://karenjcarlisle.com/books/the-department-of-curiosities/book-trailers-the-department-of-curiosities/

 

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If you want to follow the rest of The Department of Curiosities book launch blog tour, check out the links on my blog post: http://www.karenjcarlisle.com/DOC1bookblogtour You can sign up for my newsletter at: https://karenjcarlisle.com/sign-up-email-list/

Follow me on: · Twitter: https://twitter.com/kjcarlisle · Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/karenjcarlisle/ · Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KarenJCarlisle/

Or support me on Patreon (for less than a cup of coffee a month and you get cool rewards!): https://www.patreon.com/KarenJCarlisle

 

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NaNo Oh No!

December 4, 2018 at 3:33 pm (Writing Ranting)

Astute viewers may have observed a certain lack of blog posts lately… a dearth of content that started just before November and is now ending just after November.

Not a coincidence.

November (and sometimes July) is National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of writers around the world attempt to write the first 50,000 words of their novel in a month. It’s a glorious, unhealthy, stressful ride.

This year I wrote a game. It’s a magical murder mystery named “Death at the Rectory”. It’ll most likely be available via Choice of Games’s “Hosted Games” label sometime in 2019.

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It’s set at a very real, very specific location: the 140 year-old rectory of St John’s Anglican Church in Gundagai. It’s no coincidence that my mother is currently the priest there (until the end of this year). Every time I go there I think how amazing it would be to have a writing retreat there (bags not organise such a thing, though) because of the history of the house and the ridiculously high number of external doors (8, almost all in bedrooms). And incredible views from a deck that wraps around three sides of the house.

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The idea of doing a fictional writing retreat there percolated in my brain for a while, and now it’s a fully-written interactive fiction story. With murder. And magic.

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(This is the church, which is even older than the rectory—and right next door, too.)

By “fully” written I mean there are over 50,000 words, the quality of which I cannot vouch for.

Zipper is doing just fine, for those who come here exclusively for the cat pics.

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My Six Selves (on facebook)

May 2, 2018 at 11:40 am (All Steampunk Fiction, Interactive Fiction, My Novels, Pirates, Rahana Stories, Steampunk, Steampunk Australia Stories, Steampunk Series, Writing Ranting)

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And I’m on twitter, too 😛

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Monsters

March 13, 2018 at 11:39 am (Articles by others, Writing Ranting)

Spoilers for The Shape of Water.


(And highly unrelated pictures, because I’m hazy on copyright law for movie stills.)

Last night, I saw The Shape of Water, which recently won an Oscar and (more importantly in my world) has been talked up by The Mary Sue.

I walked into the movie saying to Chris, “I have no idea why a movie about fish sex just won Best Picture.”

I walked out saying the same thing. I still don’t get it.

The Shape of Water is a fantastic movie. No doubt about that. So I watched a brilliantly written and acted speculative fiction movie and… the more I think about it, the less I like it.

I certainly do appreciate that this is a movie for and about freaks: a fishman, a mute orphan, a black woman (possibly an atheist), an older gay man, and a Russian scientist. (The villain is an oh so heterosexual white man.) It’s also really cool that the film doesn’t suffer from the “male gaze” problem that so many films do (there’s a “normal” sex scene which made the audience audibly horrified, and sexy scenes with Eliza and the fish man focus on her pleasure via her delighted smile). Guillermo del Toro was very careful to give the fish man a lean, muscular body (and especially butt) for female audience members to appreciate (seriously; he consulted regularly with his wife and others) but there aren’t any lingering shots of the fish man either. It is, in short, not a film that’s all about being sexy to the audience.

However, the movie makes it abundantly clear that yes, Eliza (the main character) and the fish man definitely have sex. In her extremely interesting video on Monster Boyfriends, Linday Ellis says The Shape of Water finally took the monster movie “where scores have women  had wanted it to go for decades”.

I am just not one of those women. I’m a little disappointed in myself, to be honest. Surely my imagination and empathy aren’t letting me down right here in my favourite genre?

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I really like Lindsay Ellis’s take that “Beauty and the Beast” stories are a way for women to talk about their anxiety—and hope—when facing the daunting spectre of arranged marriage. I’ve spoken to quite a few Indonesian people who are in happy arranged marriages and it’s a topic that has fascinated me for years (and that I’m not necessarily opposed to… except of course that it gives men even more power than they already have, with the inevitable awful results in way too many cases).

Elliss’s video has changed my view of the entire “Beauty and the Beast” concept, except of course that (a) Most of the audience is NOT facing arranged marriage, so there’s clearly something else at play (b) The idea of a super-virtuous female changing a bad man into a good man is so awful. First because that’s a classic inverse of famous abuser lines (“I love you, but sometimes you just make me so angry I can’t help it.”), secondly because it relies on fundamental personality change for a relationship to work, which is both patronising (don’t ever go into a relationship thinking you can mould someone to your specifications) and dangerous (false hope and false reality, both of which aren’t healthy).

I DO think that a healthy relationship improves people, but in a mutual and mutually beneficial way. I like a romance where people are partners, and I hate a relationship where someone (pretty much always the woman in a hetero pairing) is the parental figure—either disrespecting their partner, doing more than their fair share of the work, or constantly nurturing someone who doesn’t nurture them back. (This is a topic very close to home as my husband has inattentive ADD, which causes a lot of behaviour that appears childish in a grown man. Luckily-?-my own anxiety and bad health causes a lot of childish-like behaviour in me, too.)

The adjacent idea of “Men will do anything for a pretty woman” is also super problematic. It’s linked to rape culture as well as the infantilising of men (which then links to men not doing their share of household chores, which isn’t good for anyone). I do understand the appeal of that idea. I like the idea of women being powerful, even if only because they own a pair of boobs.

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Ellis’s video also talks about King Kong and other movies, and the shift from hatred of monsters to sympathy. She says that, overall, monsters tend to represent the anxieties of whatever time they’re written in.

Which brings us to King Kong. Unfortunately, any kind of primate tends to represent (unconsciously or otherwise) black people, and it’s no coincidence that the darkest/hairiest monsters tend to be paired with the whitest possible females (Sally Hawkins is incredibly white, and her fish man is dark—another problematic element of The Shape of Water). King Kong isn’t a romance (or is it?) but a story of how a white woman is more powerful than a black man (and/or monster). Which is appealing, even to me, but also deeply messed up as I explained above.

On reflection, I think the romantic “monster” of modern books/movies is all about the “bad boy” thing. (Or, in some cases, a case of “Us freaks have finally found each other” crossed with “OUR romance is special and unique”. Both of which I’m actually fine with.)

I have a really close friend who I respect deeply (and who is an adult, mother, and wife) who loves both Twilight and Beauty and the Beast. Both of us are married to very stable, reliable men. Her life is quite stable and responsible and adult-like because her husband has a stabilising influence (it’s not boring; they can do really cool things with their whole family because they actually do planning and budgeting and stuff); my life is risky and chaotic and exciting because I know my husband will be there when I fail. So I think that might be at the heart of things. The bad boy appeals because he is exciting; ditto monsters. To me the bad boy has no appeal because I am already wild and destructive and risky. I am the monster, so I don’t look for those qualities in a partner.

Yep, I think that’s it. Okay! I feel better about monster movies now.

So what about the movie?

First, let’s talk masturbation. The Mary Sue web site loved the fact that Eliza’s life was perfectly content—she didn’t need a man (amphibious or otherwise). She was sexually satisfied by pleasuring herself, and her daily routine was exactly what she wanted it to be. When I watched the movie I wasn’t sure what the purpose of showing Eliza’s masturbation was—why have a masturbation scene, when it clearly wasn’t to titillate the audience?

I think a lot of it was just to say, “Yes, this is set in the 60s, but people were sexually active then too”, so that it felt more natural for her to have a sexual relationship with someone (the fish man, in this case) that she hasn’t known very long.

And I think it was also to hint that Eliza wasn’t necessarily entirely human herself. She was a foundling discovered by a river, with what looked like knife slashes on her neck that later turn into/turn out to be gills. She masturbates in water because she’s part fish person herself. (The fish man is clearly very comfortable mating with a human, so it’s entirely possible fish people have been interbreeding with humans.)

So that’s fine. I found it slightly jarring that Eliza’s face is quite old for a romantic lead (why, she’s over forty! Which is lovely) but her body is VERY young. Not a wrinkle, freckle, sag, or blemish.

Eh, I’m probably just jealous.

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I mentioned earlier that the film is all about freaks, which is lovely. (A mute woman, a gay man, etc.) But I hated hated hated that the gay man’s crush was on a twenty-something. The actors are about forty years different in age, and the crush was framed in the film as sweet and life-affirming and charming. I just found it creepy. I would have found it creepy in any much older person crushing on a much younger person, but so much homophobia is based on the idea that homophobia = pedophilia, and although that’s nonsense, having a huge age gap like that in a film is really unhelpful.

I was surprised and disappointed at how little time was spent developing the relationship between Eliza and the fish man. To me, you get to know someone and have a deep connection with them, then you have sex. In the movie, the fish man learns how to say “egg” and “music” and… that’s it. It’s clear that time is passing and there’s more to their growing friendship that we the audience don’t see, but they never actually have a conversation. Couldn’t we have a scene where Eliza and the fish man actually talk to each other? It doesn’t even need to be in words (or in sign language, or whatever). Although having said that, how about they learn one another’s names? Or invent names for each other?

It just didn’t seem to me as if there was much more to the relationship than a bit of sex and a rescue (which is noble and exciting, but doesn’t make a relationship). Clearly the movie portrays sex AS communication/connection.

Okay, fine. Sorta.

It also disturbed me very much that the fish man was child-like in some ways. That’s never not going to make me hate a romantic pairing. I’m fine with someone having fun and being silly, but I’m not okay with someone having the intelligence of a child and then having sex.

Much is made of the fish man’s intelligence, but he doesn’t behave like an intelligent adult. He behaves like an intelligent child.

Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.

And I have one more big problem with the movie (an issue linked to the slightly-off choice of a speaking woman actress for a mute character—when it would be so much better to use a mute actress). I feel like the movie contradicts itself. Eliza appears content from the beginning of the movie (in her rather ordinary life), and she has two excellent friends who don’t see her as a mute woman but as a person.

But then she gives an impassioned speech about how the fish man is happy to see her, and doesn’t see her as incomplete.

Sure, that’s nice. But she already has at least two friends who don’t see her as incomplete either. She’s doing just fine. So what is that speech doing there? There are so many other things she could have spoken passionately about at that exact moment.

Then, in a scene that a lot of people love, she is sitting across the table from the fish man knowing she soon has to let him go, and she sings to him and has an imagined dance sequence with him (much like the TV she loves to watch). So she longs to talk—and sing. Fair enough.

Except… she was so content until then. So it’s as if the fish man brings out her unhappiness, making her life and sense of self seem poor and shabby when they were fine before. No relationship should make you feel worse about yourself or your disabilities (a passing moment of wistfulness, sure—but not an iconic movie scene, weighted with meaning).

I would have been so much happier if her impassioned speech was about something—anything—else. The character is so much more than her disability, yet the movie treats her muteness as her most important character trait in the two most emotional scenes. I hate that.

Maybe the masturbation was all bout Eliza longing desperately for a romantic relationship—the one thing her life lacks most (other than a nicer apartment and job, two things that apparently never bother her). But a romance is so much more than sex. In my opinion.

 

And, finally, the body horror of the bad guy’s injured fingers is a total cliche, in my opinion, and something rather unworthy of a film that treats a fish man as beautiful and a mute woman as the hero. Yeah, I get that the bad guy is… well… bad. So does that mean everyone with a physical deformity is bad, too? So muteness is fine but physical disability = evil?

I really wanted to like this film, and there are so many wonderful and original things about it. But I don’t have a thing for monsters, I don’t think adult-child romances are ever cute, and I don’t think being mute is the most interesting (or the most tragic) thing about Eliza.

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A little piracy

January 29, 2018 at 8:02 pm (Daily Awesomeness, My Novels, Pirates, Rahana Stories, STORMHUNTER novel, Writing Ranting)

Last weekend I ran a stall at CanCon for three days. It’s Canberra’s biggest board game gathering, and this was the 40th year.

 

I wore corsets! It was so exciting! And there was a T-Rex. I’ve already booked the exact same stall location for January 2019.

I also wore my pretty pretty princess outfit:

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I didn’t actually take a proper camera. Most of these photos were taken on my kindle (NOT recommended, but awfully handy at times).

I’m uncommonly proud that I wore my hair three different ways over the three days. I’m often too tired to brush it before leaving the house.

My new and improved post-surgery body held up pretty well, although I was as careful as I could be while still staffing the stall. I rested a lot today, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any permanent injury to myself (I had a lot of ominous blisters and aches and suchlike, but luckily I have a lot of hospital-grade bandages which I used with great care, changing them every day). My wheelchair was handy because it made me feel comfortable sitting down (otherwise I’d feel rude), and because the armrests help support my back.

I sold a massive amount of books, and let a lot of people know about the free pirate ball happening on Saturday 17 February. My daughter also celebrated her 6th birthday on Saturday morning with a dress-up pool party (while my fellow author, Annabelle Lee, manned the stall at CanCon). Two of the younger siblings of her friends are BFFs with my son, so I took one of my favourite sets of photos ever:

These three boys are just as adorable in real life as they look in the pictures.

On the last day of CanCon I received the full set of illustrations for The Monster ApprenticeTash Turgoose does photorealistic pencils and I’ve been dying to see her work. Here are three small versions of some important characters: Captain Sol, an evil pirate; the heroine, Dance, coming face to face with a heest monster; and Ransom, who. . . well, you’ll have to read the books to find out.

 

You can immediately see that the fantasy world of Rahana was inspired by Indonesia. And that asking to have Tash Turgoose illustrate the books was a genius move on my part. I saw her book, Makeshift Galaxy, and I’ve been in awe ever since.

Why YES, she is one of the authors (and writers for that matter) for Murder in the Mail. Incidentally, I’m already taking pre-orders for Murder in the Mail. Details in the forum here.

The Monster Apprentice will be launched at the pirate ball on Saturday 17 February. It’s Book 1 of the Heest Trilogy, which is suitable for 10-14 year olds (and also people like me, that just like a great story). It’s likely there are more Rahana stories to come after this trilogy, too.

Sandy Fussell is one of my absolute favourite children’s authors (I own the entire Samurai Kids series), so I asked her for a cover quote for The Monster Apprentice. She gave me a selection! Here’s one:

  • The Monster’s Apprentice will transport you somewhere wonderful, unlike any world you’ve imagined. Caught between terrifying Heest monsters and murderous pirates, with only her name for a weapon, Dance must defend the ice island of Luar and its people.

She also said “I wish I had Felicity’s imagination” which is simply ludicrous. If you read any of her books, you’ll know why.

But I don’t mind a little flattery. I am a writer, after all.

And here’s the final trailer for The Monster Apprentice, for the three humans who haven’t seen it yet.

https://www.youtube.com/my_videos?o=U

 

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My 2017: No wonder I need a lie down

January 1, 2018 at 4:05 pm (All Steampunk Fiction, Daily Awesomeness, I get paid for this, Interactive Fiction, MegaList of Awesomeness, My Novels, Pirates, Rahana Stories, Steampunk, Steampunk Australia Stories, Steampunk Series, Writing Ranting)

What an epic year. I spent over 15 years of my life writing novels that nobody would touch, and now that it’s started to rain it’s pouring (which is a wonderful thing).

I spent vast amounts of time on the Tin Man Games “Choices That Matter” app (Google Play and iOS). It’s a story hub for serial interactive tales and it has over a million downloads of the free sample sections. The three stories so far are:

“And The Sun Went Out”

A near-future scifi which I co-wrote with KG Tan and Alyce Potter. It had 60 updates over 15 months, and clocked in at just over 600,000 words (longer than “War and Peace”). Each read-through is about 150,000 words.

“And Their Souls Were Eaten”

I wrote all of this one (edited by Phill Berrie and KG Tan), set in the same steampunk universe as my Antipodean Queen novels, but with a completely distinct magical problem (and taking place in Europe). The finished tale is 400,000 words long, and after that I had a nice lie down.

“And Their Heroes Were Lost”

Phill Berrie is writing, and KG and I are editing (oh how the tables are turned, hey Phill?) This is also sci-fi, but I don’t want to give away any more than that! Phill is still working on this story, and his fans are clamouring for each new update.

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I also wrote, edited, and published the novel “Antipodean Queen 2: Silver and Stone“, and will be finishing that trilogy in 2018 with “Antipodean Queen 3: Iron Lights” (that’s right: the title has changed since Book 2 was published).

AND my actually-rather-good pirate fantasy trilogy for kids (like Narnia, but with pirates) that I wrote many years ago has been accepted for publication and shall begin release with a free pirate mini-ball (live music, prizes, costumes, and everything!!) on Saturday February 17th.

“The Monster Apprentice” is the first book. And it’ll be illustrated, too! Plus (shh don’t tell) one of my very very very favourite Aussie authors is going to read it and give me a cover quote!

And I have three other very exciting projects coming out in 2018! One I can’t talk about yet, one will be published on the premium label at Choice of Games (they pay VERY well for books that make the premium grade), and one is called “Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” and is a murder mystery told entirely through postcards, letters, objects, and art. That link is to the shiny new forum where readers will be able to talk to one another about who they think is the killer, and how much they love all the art I chose!

2017 was a great year for my writing, and 2018 is going to be even better.

I is happy.

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Things are looking up.

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Sad, Bad, Mad: Cat Person

December 12, 2017 at 11:49 am (Entries that matter, Writing Ranting)

The New York Times published a short story, “Cat Person” and people have gone a bit nuts over it. Including me.

Minor things first:

*Trigger warning: This article might bring up traumatic memories for some people.

*Cats are awesome and cat people are awesome. Cats are not the point of the story. (But some of us will lie awake wondering about them all the same. Are they real? Am I? Are you?)

*The cats are definitely not real. I’m sure of it now. Cats feign disinterest but would definitely come to investigate the smells of a new person in their territory. Which means Robert’s creepiness factor just went up to eleven. Fake cats? That’s bonkers.

*There’s a fascinating interview with the author here.

*Yeah, that excessive close-up photo that goes with the story is super gross. I have to put my hand up to my screen to block it out whenever it comes up.

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#fixedit

*Also, the story gets really into fat-shaming Robert, which is cheap and gross and suggests immaturity on the part of the writer (as well as, of course, the character). The writing clearly mocks the viewpoint character for her various delusions, but Margot’s disgust at Robert’s extra weight is written about non-critically. It’s about as deep as having an evil ugly witch who is baaaad.

*Yes, gay folks are most welcome to have a “Lol, you poor sad heteros!” moment. Because although a lot of the story does apply to anyone attempting to negotiate dating, the deepest, scariest level of the story is absolutely about what women face when dating men.

*A lot of men feel disturbed and defensive about the story, or simply feel that it’s stupid. Although all art is subjective, most of the men that dislike the story are missing that deep, scary level of the tale. I’ll address the valid points of negative male reactions later.

*It is deeply saddening for speculative fiction lovers that no one in the story turns out to be even slightly feline. Agreed.

*The main characters’ names, Margot and Robert, make me think of Margot Robbie. This is never a bad thing.

Summary (including spoilers)

Margot meets a guy who is pretty average but witty in text form. They eventually have a kind-of date with very bad sex and then Margot texts him (technically her room-mate texts him) to end things, and he calls her a whore.

The deep, scary bit that hurts to think about

There is an underlying tension to the story that a straight female reader (or anyone in a non-male body who has dated a man) has a visceral response to: While on the surface the relationship is mundane (and in the thoughts of the main character it varies as she judges and re-judges the situation), the third layer is the knowledge that Robert has the physical power to rape or kill Margot at virtually any time (and could probably get away with it too).

Women

live

with

this

knowledge

every

day.

Here’s the worst part, the part the story doesn’t even touch on: When a women is a victim of violence, it is almost always at the hands of someone she knows. Someone she trusts. Someone she isn’t afraid of; not any more. Should I live in fear of Chris, my Chris, father of my kids and love of my life?

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Of course not!

Except, statistically, yes.

Women live in a world where half the people we know are bigger and stronger than us. We are taught from birth to be careful. Don’t go to certain places after dark. Don’t go to certain places at all. Carry mace. Keep your eyes open. Don’t wear certain clothes. Don’t drink too much. Learn self-defence. Don’t show weakness. Don’t drop your guard.

Then at the same time we’re taught how to survive in the living world: Be nice. Don’t say ‘no’. Flirt. Wear heels and makeup. Marry a breadwinner. Have a private bank account. Don’t have a shrill voice. Don’t complain. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t be loud. Don’t be unlikable. Don’t get angry. Don’t cry in public. Don’t show weakness. Don’t drop your guard.

I am an innocent, partly because I choose to be and largely because my privilege allows me to be. I am white; I grew up thinking I was straight; until recently I was able-bodied.

One of my fictional characters (in a deleted novel) leaves her shoes above the high tide line of a beach while she wanders along the water. Her friend asks if she’s concerned about them getting stolen, and she admits that sometimes they are in fact stolen, but she’d rather have to buy new shoes sometimes than to constantly worry about her possessions.

At a certain point, women have to accept that we might get murdered—and then we befriend men anyway.

I met a man online who lives in Adelaide (I live in Canberra). We got to know one another online (as much as anyone can). Daniel visited Canberra, and we began dating. Then it was my turn to visit Adelaide. He picked me up from the airport and drove me back to his house.

Like a lot of Australian cities, Adelaide has sections of well-established bushland, many of them bisecting the city itself. Daniel and I had already joked about how one of us was most likely an axe-murderer, and as we passed through an unlit section of what appeared to be virgin bushland I felt my heart beat faster.

I didn’t rehearse in my head how to throw myself out of the car, or carefully recollect exactly where my phone was in case I needed to call the police. Instead I tried very hard to pretend I wasn’t afraid. Because when it comes to priorities, men’s feelings almost always come above women’s safety.

Now, spoiler alert, I wasn’t murdered. So I was arguably right to be polite. But that knee-jerk reaction to Be Nice At All Costs isn’t just manners—it’s another type of fear. What if Daniel had noticed and been offended that I’d thought such a thing of him, even just for a moment? What if he’d been so offended that he threw me out of the car, or punched me? That instinct to Be Nice—Or Else is hugely powerful and damaging. That right there is the reason women are frozen in terror when a man masturbates in front of them. He’s already crossed so many boundaries that trying to get away might just be the catalyst that leads to him doing so much more. It also applies to so, so many other awful situations: getting groped, getting overlooked for a deserved promotion, getting interrupted mid-sentence. Women’s default setting is less powerful, and the imbalance gets wider in a thousand different interactions every day. Because men don’t want to give up power, and they push back against women who try to change things.

It’s difficult for men to understand what it’s like from the other side of the gender divide. It’s not a fun think to think about. Quite often, a man will suddenly have a light turn on in their head when they have a daughter: Suddenly they understand the terrifying vulnerability of women from a position where it matters to them.

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I asked my mother once if she was scared of being raped. “I used to be,” she said, “then I had daughters. So now I’m afraid of my daughters being raped.”

I hesitated to include a picture of my daughter in this article. You all know why. Yet I didn’t pause for even a second when including a picture of my son. Of course not.

Back to the story. . .

The story plays with the conventions of three different genres, keeping the reader guessing since those genres have very different endings.

One is a romance. I felt myself give that little ‘Aww’ smile as certain beats were hit: The cute meet over Red Vines; the nearly-missed-it moment when the girl doesn’t really know why she gave the boy her number; the tension at silly misunderstandings. Margot gives Robert several chances, and for all her flaws I admire her for that. That genre always ends with a critical romantic moment (a wedding, or meeting the parents, or a first kiss) that indicates that the pair will live happily ever after.

As it turns out, this is not a romance.

The second genre is comedy; there is clearly a slightly dark, wry, self-deprecating humour as Margot’s expectations and opinions about Robert shift and change from moment to moment, only to be ultimately let down by the reality. This layer of the story is expertly done, highlighting the self-delusions and awkwardness of dating in a way that made millions of readers say, “That is the truest story I’ve ever read.” The comedy genre climaxes (oh, lolz) with the awkward horror of the sex scene.

The third genre is horror. When it becomes clear that it’s not a romance, the reader is left not knowing if this is a comedy or a cautionary tale. The horror genre ends with violence, usually with a sense that the protagonist has somehow brought it on herself by her foolish decisions. Margot risks her safety by giving Robert a chance—doubly so by going to his house, and any sexually active female (fictional or otherwise) is guilty for the purposes of fictional denouement. A story is sometimes sympathetic to the sexually active heroine, but it will still kill her for putting out. Stories understand, consciously or otherwise, that sex is dangerous for women and not so much for men.

But refusing sex, as Margot wishes she could do? That’s even more dangerous. Because the last thing you want to do is make a man angry. She’s very conscious of the need to soothe and console Robert (before, during, and after their ‘date’) and is sufficiently aware of her own vulnerability that she finds herself unable to figure out how to break up with Robert, even though she knows she must do it.

Is she promiscuous for sleeping with a man she doesn’t want to? Or is she a victim, unable to extract herself safely from a threat? Or is Robert a victim, lead on and discarded by a powerful (better educated, more attractive) woman?

In my opinion, only one of the above interpretations is a ‘yes’ according to the story—but it’s written well enough that the other questions are allowed to be asked.

Angry men on the internet

There’s a twitter handle set up just to repost men’s reactions to the story, mainly because a lot of men don’t understand the fear Margot feels, and/or they relate to Robert as the victim but feel he is portrayed as a monster.

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Margot is not a good person. Nor is she a bad person. She is vain, certainly. She lets her imagination run away with her as she tries to figure out what kind of person Robert really is. She flirts at work (an activity that is harmless, but could hypothetically lead to mildly hurt feelings).

This article is getting ridiculously long, so I’ll be brief: Yes, being a man (especially a straight white man) is the lowest difficulty setting in this game we call life (as written about by straight white male John Scalzi, here, including several follow-ups, one of which is  here). And, as John Scalzi and others have stated loudly and repeatedly, that definitely does not not not mean that the lives of straight white men aren’t hard or don’t suck. Life has times of suckitude for everyone, and many lives just suck from beginning to end, and it hurts to be in a sucky place and feel like others are telling you:

  1. Stop whining. My sucky place is suckier than your sucky place.
  2. Give some of the tiny scraps you have away to others.
  3. A lot of what is bad in the world is the fault of you and people like you.

All those three things are true of me and my privilege as well. My methods of coping are:

  1. Trying not to compare my pain to anyone else. That never ends well.
  2. Giving away a little (money, time, and mental energy) when I can, and trying to be aware of barriers that other people face and I don’t. This also means consciously supporting minorities when I can, and continuing to learn painful truths for the rest of my life. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.
  3. Pretty much the only way to deal with this is #2.

Is Robert a baddie?

I. . . I wasn’t sure, but then I reread the story.

The first hint of a red flag is when Robert steps back from Margot’s very mild flirtation “as though to make her lean toward him, try a little harder”. If someone stepped back from me, I would assume they were not into me and nothing more. It probably wouldn’t even be a conscious thought on my part. It’s unclear if Margot is interpreting him this way or if the story is. It’s a very very subtle form of negging.

He calls her ‘Concession-stand girl’ which is either cute or insulting. Could go either way.

He plays it a bit cool with texting, letting her choose whether to keep texting or not. That’s more of a positive sign than negative, and their sharp humour is the one real connection they have. Another good sign.

He kisses her on the forehead “as if she was something precious” which charms Margot but also suggests fetishisation of the big man/little woman dynamic. In both directions.

The silly scenario they play out via their cats involves jealousy and tension. Is that because Robert is the jealous or possessive type?

He sends a heart-eyed smiley at the mention of her parents, which is a good sign.

Then he acts strange and cold after spring break. A red flag on its own, and even more so when it turns out he is jealous of an entirely fictional potential ex (although it certainly shows that he and Margot have imaginative portrayals of one another in common).

It takes longer than it should for him to stop being unpleasant and weird, and it also seems he’s trying to impress her due to feeling insecure about her higher education and youth.

(There are plenty of red flags about Margot, too—particularly the way his grouchy behaviour makes her feel honoured by his vulnerability. That kind of attitude puts her at high risk of an abusive relationship.)

When she begins to cry during the humiliating ID incident, he kisses her for the first time—like her, he is emboldened by vulnerability, even or especially as a flaw. This is a two-way red flag. Vulnerability is good, certainly, but both Margot and Robert are genuinely turned on by it. It’s not intimacy they crave, but power. That’s messed up.

I’ll stop there rather than pick apart the story line by line. Men who hate the story see Margot as more powerful: She is young and beautiful; she is the viewpoint character; she is more educated than Robert.

But is the risk of rejection as bad as the risk of being murdered?

Of course not.

But. . . is the 90% certainty of being rejected as bad as the .001% likelihood of being murdered?

I don’t know.

There are two more points worth making. First, Robert is 34 and Margot is 20. Once again, that gives Robert power. It’s also a big red flag. (Margot guessed he was in his mid-twenties and was off by a decade so this one’s all on him.) There are loads of thirty-something single women, so why isn’t Robert dating one of them? At best it suggests he prefers younger, prettier woman. Given the rest of the story, it strongly suggests he likes all the power he can get—needs it, because he is so insecure he doesn’t stand up straight.

The age difference could be just coincidence (after all, Robert doesn’t realise she can’t get into a carded bar, and is horrified she might be a virgin) except then Robert appears in the same student bar that he earlier mocked. What is he doing there? There are three possible answers. If one is extremely charitable, one could argue he has decided to study (why not? He’s smart—except it’s clearly in the middle of the semester, so no). It’s far more likely he’s looking for a new twenty-something to hook up with. Or, worse, he is looking for Margot. Either way, this is the moment we know for certain that something is definitely truly off about Robert, and while the Secret Service-style exit of Margot and her friends is needlessly dramatic, she is also genuinely afraid. And at this point, that is not being dramatic. Her friends know it, and they know what all women know: there is safety in numbers. That is the only safety women can draw on.

One of my friends was attacked at a bar because her friend was too drunk to protect her. I feel disgust at the men, but I have a burning fury at the woman who abandoned my friend.

Women protect each other. That is the law. That is how we survive.

Here’s an interesting fact: not all that many people are attracted to me. (That’s not the interesting bit.) Of the dozen or so people that ever confessed attraction to me, three were more than a decade older than me.

One of those men I never knew well. The other two both have a very clear pattern of dating younger women. One prefers women who are sexually inexperienced (not necessarily virgins, but women who lack the confidence of a past healthy romantic relationship they can use to spot his patterns of abuse). The other’s self-esteem is strongly based on being helpful, so he tends to be attracted to people who are needy in some way (usually mentally ill, or those who have been abused, or both). When I dated him, I found myself acting depressed and unhappy when actually I felt fine. It took me a very long time to figure out that I was unconsciously adapting to what he wanted in a relationship.

So again, you have older men grasping for power of various kinds over a younger woman. (Dating suuuuuuucks!)

There’s one final red flag about Robert: When they spot one another in public later he sends Margot a series of texts. They start friendly and then get harsher and more jealous, ending with the final word: “Whore.”

It is a punch of an ending, revealing the true character of the man who seemed harmless and sweet.

But (say male readers) it’s just a word.

Robert insults Margot with time-honoured sexism, condemning her as the baddie with a blithe unawareness of the irony of condemning her sex act when he was there and participating at the time. He condemns her sexual activity, when it was her fear of his anger that caused her to have that sex at all. (No, it wasn’t assault. . . but it wasn’t an empowered choice either.)

The story ends there, but does it?

In real life, would Margot ever feel safe on campus again? He literally knows where she lives, not to mention where she works and where she eats and drinks.

He is angry. The beast of legend, the monster Margot had sex to pacify, has awoken.

Margot could never possibly know if his anger was “harmlessly” spent by insulting her via text, or if he will begin/continue to stalk her. Or if he’ll get drunk one night, three months from now, and break into her dorm and shoot her.

No woman ever quite knows. She only knows that if he wants to hurt her, he can.

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Murder in the Mail

November 22, 2017 at 1:24 pm (Daily Awesomeness, Short stories, Steampunk, Writing Ranting)

I wrote a guest post here about how I fell in love with steampunk. And it’s part of a series by a bunch of steampunky types.

I’m working on a new story called “Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” which will be released by Publisher Obscura, Odyssey’s imprint for “beautiful and unusual novelty and gift books by Australian and New Zealand authors and artists”.

The fundamental concept is that it’s a cozy murder mystery that is told entirely through letters, postcards, objects, and art prints—all of which are physically posted to the reader through the mail. There are seven writers altogether (one for each character, including the victim) and six artists (five from Canberra, one from Obscura who lives in Brisbane). The story runs for about eight weeks, and I chose (or in some cases commissioned) art that was both beautiful AND something that helped tell the story.

Yes, some vital clues are hidden inside the artwork itself!

The objects are also clues about the murder (or other secrets), and chosen to be small enough to post but also to engage the senses—hearing, smell, touch, and even taste. Obviously the art is somewhat visual.

I’m deliriously excited about this project, which will probably come together bit by bit over the next 6-12 months.

Here’s one of the pictures that will be in the story (as a physical A4 print):

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This is one of the pieces of art from the story, which means everyone who buys the story gets a high-quality print of this (and seven other pieces in a range of materials). In real life, the photographer is Adam Lee. His website is here.

Update: The tentative release date is August/September 2018, and before then we’ll run a Kickstarter (which will have lots of fun & unique items, and will increase the advance given to all the contributors). And there will be a forum for people to talk murder, mystery, and art. Stay tuned!

Update: The story is well and truly up and running, with the main details here.

There are also Magic in the Mail stories!

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