Nov 112015

When I started writing stories in New Glory several years ago, I refused to call it a setting. I couldn’t tell you why, but I knew somewhere in the back of my mind it was something much bigger than that. When I started hanging around game writers, I picked up the term “story world”, which seemed much more fitting for the place I was building in my mind, in my notes, in my stories.

Over the last couple of weeks, the online writing program I’ve been participating in has been discussing setting, which turned into a discussion of “world” vs. “setting”. So many writers learn and practice setting, the when and where of a story. So many science fiction and fantasy writers learn setting, but then learn and practice worldbuilding, the wider space that contains the when, where, and culture. The first group, after listening to the idea of world and how it works, were definitely open to exploring how that affects their own practices with setting.

As part of the discussion, we were asked to think about our own definitions of world and setting. It was crazy how many of us described “world” as the much larger landscape where many stories can happen. For those of us more used to thinking in terms of worldbuilding, it was amazing how many of us described “setting” as the place and time where this one story happens.

And that’s really how it goes. “World” is the bigger picture, the cultures, the lives, the geography, the boundaries. “Setting” is where the character was when the story happened. If we were to discuss this in terms of the real world, “world” might be your home country and “setting” might be the corner pub. It’s that simple.

Nov 042015

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the need for new practitioners of any craft to stop calling themselves “aspiring”. In a world that only a few years ago actively tried to beat down pro-am and DIY types in various athletic and artistic fields, this change is amazing and welcome.

So, let’s start by talking about getting started in a new craft. Because everyone has to start somewhere. Maybe you saw someone else doing something and thought, How cool would it be if I could do that? Or maybe it’s on your bucket list, something you wanted to do as a child but couldn’t for whatever reason. The inspiration is there. For some people, that’s where it stops. They get inspired. Maybe they do a little research. Maybe they start telling people they want to do something. For others, that inspiration is the spark that that pushes them into looking into how to get started, how to take first steps, finding learning resources and materials. And they take that momentum and start becoming more and more involved. I’m writing this for that second group, because you’re the ones who encounter this.

Something happens when you’re developing a skill on your own or in a small community of practice. You start building momentum in your work, and you call yourself a practitioner. And then it happens. Maybe someone says you can’t call yourself a whatever because you aren’t getting paid for it, or because no one knows who you are. Maybe you get a compliment from someone who is a professional or a big deal in the field, and it kind of freaks you out as you start trying to process the thought: Maybe I really am doing all right at this. And so to soften the blow or make it less scary or because you got bullied into it, you start calling yourself “aspiring”.

Here’s the thing, though. The reason you got that attention to begin with is because you did something. You started learning about that skill you wanted to have, and you used it to make a first project. You have tangible proof that you have started on a path to learn and use that skill. You’re no longer “aspiring” because you’re doing. Aspiring practitioners don’t do. They…well, aspire. And if you start calling yourself “aspiring” when you’ve really moved beyond that, you risk sliding backwards into “aspiring” territory.

What I’m really saying here…what anyone campaigning for newer practitioners to drop the word “aspiring” from their self-definition is really saying…is that once you’ve done, once you’ve taken that first tangible, time consuming step on your journey, you’re not aspiring. You’re a new practitioner. Own that. Hold your head up high, and drop the word aspiring from your vocabulary.

Oct 292015

Earlier this year, I was cast in a role in an audio drama where my character was ultimately revealed to be the antagonist. I learned this when I was given my script. Everyone else learned it as they read the script notes. It was the first time since I’ve started working on audio dramas that I’ve been put in this position, and it turned out to be an experience.

For a few years in and around grad school, I was involved with a couple of LARP groups. In one, I was a PC (a player character), but I also was often in what amounted in that group to the Storyteller position so I usually knew what was going on in a game session. In the other, I was an NPC. I had no idea what I would be playing until I got to the game site, and within minutes of arriving would learn the entire story and my role within that session. And before I got involved with LARPing, I played tabletop RPGs, in one case playing a character designed by a GM (game master) because he needed the character for his story and thought it would be more interesting if I played her instead of allowing her to be an NPC. As a result, I had some information my character wasn’t expected to know any time soon. So, I’ve spent a lot of time playing characters with out-of-game knowledge of where the story and the character were headed.

Out-of game knowledge, where a player knows what’s going to happen in a game before it does, can be a useful tool for a voice actor or it can be a total nightmare. As I said, I’m used to playing LARP characters with out-of-game knowledge in my possession, and I’d like to think I’ve done a reasonable job of not mucking things up too much. But I’ve known players who couldn’t handle the responsibility too well, and have really trashed a game session because they were desperate to benefit from their out-of-game knowledge. One time, I was in two different games with the same player who had out-of-game knowledge in both games. His inability to manage things finally led to a lot of, “Does his character actually know this? Can we actually act on what he just said?” in both games, and the games folded soon after because of him.

So, I sat there, script in hand, starting to record my lines, with this little voice in my head every single take: Remember, you’re really the bad guy. It was something I never had to deal with as a gamer, and I found it very distracting as a voice actor. Like this little voice was telling me to “cheat”, even though it was really just telling me to play the role correctly. It made for a very interesting, very nostalgic morning.

The second part of the audio drama posted yesterday, just in time for World Audio Drama Day. Enjoy!

Oct 232015

For the last couple of months, I’ve been participating in an online class on thematic immersive storytelling. It’s been an interesting experience, and you can see what I’ve learned reading this tag. But it’s also been a confusing experience, on a lot of levels.

We’ve spent this class working toward “enchanted objects”, things that incorporate Internet of Things (IoT) technology to allow people to do things that can seem straight out of a science fiction television show or movie. Things that require an ability to talk to something nearby and react in a way the user can take advantage of. Which is why, last night, one of my more tech-savvy team members asked me during a design document revision discussion why we were trying to shoehorn sensors into the enchanted object we’ve been working on for the last month.

“Can’t we just use a cell phone? It can do everything we need.”

Another part of this process has been developing the object within a Sherlock Holmes theme. The objects we’ve been working on have all been taken from the pages of the Sherlock Holmes stories. We’ve built and solved crime scenes. We’ve prototyped a crime scene for others to solve, complete with a map suitable to a time Sherlock Holmes has been presented in. In this last stretch, we’ve been developing a Sherlock Holmes-themed enchanted object intended to help immerse players in the story and the world.

So, no. We can’t just put it all on a cell phone and be done with it.

This came just a couple of days after someone suggested we attach a GoPro to our object, which we had discussed and decided was impractical for what we were really trying to develop. But they attached a picture to their suggestion: a small dog with a camera rigged to its back. Perhaps a bit more practical than what we had been wrestling with, but it had no immersive possibilities (and it didn’t make sense within the crime story we have been working from).

It’s not like we’re creating a set or anything. People will be playing in an open space, and their imaginations are going to have to fill in the blanks. We as designers encourage and empower that when we do what we can to help them paint that picture through props that can actually be in the world we’re asking them to step into. When we make choices that don’t support the illusion, we’re not doing ourselves any favors. And that’s important to keep in mind in this kind of situation.

Oct 202015

There’s this weird paradox when it comes to your work: Your fans come because they like what you have to say. But then they want you to change what you’re saying to suit their own worldviews.

It’s kind of crazy. For both the creator and the fan.

And we’re not talking about those fans who just want continuity in a story or storyworld. We’re talking about the ones who can’t handle when your creative interests expand in different directions, and those directions don’t match the fan’s interests. Or those who have their own opinions of how things should have gone, but either haven’t been introduced to the concept of writing fan fiction, have some sort of weird mental block against fan fiction, or simply have a desperate need to influence the canon of a favorite story without regard for the creator’s vision. You know, that thing that originally attracted the fan.

But sometimes, a fan (or group of fans) can come up with a good twist, or a possibility the creator didn’t see because they’re so close to their own material. And that’s when the creator needs to remember it’s okay to collaborate with fans (to a point), but to do it without sacrificing their own voice and vision. That gets a bit dicey, too, because it starts creating complicated questions of copyright, intellectual property ownership (which I’ve kind of avoided on this blog), and proper compensation for profitable ideas.

It’s a thorny situation.

At any rate, it’s never okay for a fan to demand a creator change a story to suit their whims. It is appropriate, unless the creator has a ban in place, to create fan fiction that explores those alternate views of the story. It is not appropriate for a fan to decide their fan fiction is canon or, even more fun, supersedes the canon. it is appropriate for a creator to encourage an inventive fan to pursue and create their own original stories and worlds. Everybody clear on that?

Oct 162015

It’s funny when your childhood runs headfirst into your adulthood. Last week, I wrote about artifacts that can tell their own story. This week, I’d like to talk about storyless artifiacts – objects that may or may not have a story of their own that can be repurposed into other stories.

Having a hard time wrapping your mind around that? Then try this: Do you remember when you were a little kid playing with your toys? Stuffed animals, action figures, and fashion dolls all had their own names, their own histories, a set of preferences that made no sense to anyone beyond you. And you would play with those toys within those stories. But then one day, this stuffed animal would host a gathering and would invite everyone except that one uppity action figure. Toys that might never have played together before were suddenly best friends, or hated the hosting toy for shunning the action figure. Two days later the host and the action figure would be best friends in this game over here, but a whole new drama was brewing over there with two stuffed animals over a dump truck.

We’ve all done it.

What’s been interesting, and perhaps a little hard to grasp, in the SherlockIoT MOOC is that we’ve really kind of been designing those toys. We’ve created artifacts that we then used to tell a story within our team, and then we handed those artifacts over to a game system that broke them up and distributed them to completely new teams who used them to tell their own stories. (I think I’ve actually talked about this before. Maybe not.)

In this last bit of the MOOC, we’ve taken a single object from the pile the team created and redesigned it to be a storyless artifact. While it came from the space of the story our team created weeks ago, it’s been redesigned in such a way that others who are unfamiliar with our story can tell their own stories with it. We’ve had to conscientiously move from the security of our story to the freedom of that stuffed animal in the toy box. It’s a different mindset, and a bit terrifying and freeing at the same time.

I feel like this is kind of how it is in narrative design, be it for a game, a transmedia event, or a storytelling collaboration like this. You have to be able and ready to create a fully realized object, developed with its own personality and story, and then be able and ready to let that object go and become whatever those interacting with it need it to be. That’s not easy when you’re so used to creating things that are meant only to be consumed and perhaps interacted with on your terms. It’ll be interesting to see what develops moving forward with this experience under my belt.

Oct 142015

I’ve never thought of myself as being confused by the differences between third person limited and third person omniscient. But I got involved with a writing group last year that left me wondering if I had misunderstood third person omniscient, or if that point of view had radically changed. While the writers represented various levels of experience, there was this pervasive thought throughout the group that third person omniscient was sheer evil, and anyone caught utilizing it (regardless of whether or not they were using it correctly) was shamed for it.

Basically, here’s the metaphor I’ve always used to keep third person limited and third person omniscient straight. In the first, the camera follows one character with a telepathic recorder stuck on that one character. In the second, the camera follows the most interesting person in the room with a telepathic recorder stuck on that character. When the camera changes people, the telepathic recorder goes with it. Yes, there are rules that govern those camera changes, but they’re not overly complicated.

Granted, I don’t write a whole lot in third person omniscient because I tend to prefer first person or third person limited. But I’m pretty sure I know the difference.

I think why the camera metaphor has always worked for me is because it’s easier to think about who the point of view character is and where I want the action to be seen from. First person is like strapping a video camera onto the person. Third person limited is having the camera follow a specific person. Third person omniscient follows the action. It just makes sense to me.

Oct 092015

There’s a phenomenon in the fantasy genre where a person can pick up an object and learn about what the object has “seen”. Sometimes, the person does this through a spell. Other times, the person does it through an inherent psychic ability often referred to as psychometry. You see it in stories where the main character has amnesia; they’re presented with objects and places that had great personal significance to them in the hopes something would trigger. The movie Anastasia has a great scene early on where Anya sneaks into a boarded up building that is really the palace she grew up in. As she wanders through, she touches or picks up various objects, and each one triggers a different memory.

This concept that an object can record and retain memories is completely fictional, but the idea that objects can tell stories about a time, a place, or the people who used it is part of what drives archaeologists and museum curators. Finding remnants of past lives in the form of architecture and objects helps archaeologists and curators construct stories of life within the culture they’re exploring. That said, if you’ve ever been in a museum and refused to walk into a given area because you just knew something dark and foreboding was waiting for you, you’ve experienced a little of this psychometric phenomenon.

We now live in a time where objects can become a player in, or at least assist, creating our stories. A cell phone can record where you go, who you talk to, what you do, what was important to you. Smart objects can learn about who you are and how you behave under certain circumstances to tailor their use and activity to your lifestyle. They craft a story about who you are in a place, in a time, and can in some cases track how you change over time.

Enchanted objects, as smart objects in an Internet of Things setting can be called, can tell us a story. They can be embued with a set of triggers that will reveal bits about a story as you interact with it and with other parts of the story. It opens up a world of storytelling and immersive fiction possibilities. I doubt this will be my last time exploring enchanted objects, and I’m looking forward to seeing how different storytellers incorporate them into their narrative designs.

Oct 072015

A lot of my time lately is spent collaborating. I contribute to projects on hitRECord, responding to prompts or taking someone else’s record and remixing it. The work in the Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things MOOC is largely collaborative, in brainstorming, in writing, in designing.

But I’ve noticed something funny about how I approach my work on each site.

On hitRECord, which builds largely on contribution and collaboration, I tend to get a bit perfectionist in my work. If you ever look at the site, you’ll realize quickly that “perfect” isn’t really a thing there. hitRECorders create. They get inspired by something around them, be it their world and experiences or records others have contributed, and they build something from it. It’s very much by heart, a key value of the site. But I feel like if I’m going to add my voice to someone else’s work, it should be as perfect as I can get it or else it disrespects the initial contribution I’m responding to. There’s a tension in my work, a holding back, you don’t find often across the site. But they seem to like my efforts anyway.

In the MOOC, we’re all throwing out ideas and building off the ones that work. The MOOC was intended to incorporate aspects of improv, primarily the “Yes, And” element, and I do that with my team without a second thought. It doesn’t matter where an idea came from; if it works, it moves forward and becomes something. We may take only aspects of someone’s comment and tie it into what we’re doing, and so I throw out ideas and projects with that understanding. What I offer may not get used. It may get used in its entirety. It may get picked apart, only the more interesting bits making it out alive. And I’m perfectly fine with that, because we’re pulling together something really cool from all these bits of ideas.

I can’t tell you why I seem to have this split personality when I’m collaborating on these sites, just that it happens. What’s really funny is that hitRECord really works like the MOOC does, but I work more like a cog in the system than one more voice blended into the pile. It’s fascinating to watch.

Sep 282015

When I was a kid, there was a comic going around of a student napping on a pile of books. The punchline was that he was trying to learn by osmosis. If only it were that simple, right? Not that books make the best pillows, but think of all the books you could draw knowledge from this way.

While osmosis may not really work that way, drawing knowledge from something you haven’t actually experienced can. That sounded a little weird, didn’t it? It’s okay, because it’s something you’ve probably engaged in without ever realizing it.

Think back to your school days. (If that’s too far back or too painful, you can think back to the last time you watched someone play a video game or went through some sort of hands on training.) More than likely, you hoped you would never be the first person to try something. You wanted to see how other people handled the hands-on so you could see what worked and what didn’t work for them. If you were really lucky, you’d be near the end, and could see everybody’s else’s struggles before you had to step up.

While you were grateful to look less foolish than those who went before you, what you really did was learn vicariously through everyone else’s experience. Every time someone made a mistake, you thought about what you would have done to avoid that error or you watched to see if maybe something useful was overlooked in the hopes you would remember to be more mindful when you got your chance.

That’s the catch. You have to be mindful as you watch. You have to think about what worked for the person you’re watching, what didn’t, and asking yourself critical questions that will help you process what you’re seeing. And you’ve done it already. You’ve done it most of your life; you’ve just internalized it.

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