Thinking about interactive storytelling

Like a gear finally catching, and the machine lurching forward, a couple nights ago when I stumbled across inklewriter, my mind and momentum were altered. I’m still depressed, don’t get me wrong, I’m still overeating, feeling like crap, and being generally nihilistic – but instead of being distracted by video games, now I’m spending much of my time engaged in actual creative pursuits. The upside of which is much better than the upside for video games. My sleep schedule is off-the-charts weird, things have been extra stressful and difficult with my wife lately (she’s a teacher, it’s the first week of school, which I think is an obvious factor, plus her first attempt to get a reading endorsement didn’t work out as well as she’d hoped, so she’s having to sign up for additional classes… it’s a whole thing and I’m not posting about that right now, but I am dealing with it in my life), but at least I’m thinking about getting back to some creative work. Actually, I’ve been digging in a bit and getting my hands “dirty” with the tools.

Well, err, tool, anyway. inklewriter. It’s an authorship and hosting/sharing tool for choice-based interactive storytelling. (This is, apparently, as opposed to the sort of interactive fiction you got in the old text adventures, where your inputs were freeform and parsed; in the most recent popular, web-based wave of interactive storytelling, the reader is presented with explicit options to choose from, rather than a command line.) My brother has also been looking into creating interactive storytelling of his own, but where I want to create things closer to books or short stories (ie: longform narrative, closer to literature than to games), he wants to create things closer to the video games end of the spectrum (he’s a big fan of failbetter‘s Fallen London). failbetter themselves are working on adapting the tools they used to build Fallen London into StoryNexus, a platform for creating very game-like interactive fiction. Another developer associated with that team has been working on Varytale, which is geared toward more book-like interactive fiction, broken into small chunks they call storylets. (I recommend you read one of their sample interactive books, How to Read, about how to read interactive fiction but more importantly about the uses, implementations, and value of interactivity in storytelling.) I am also obliged to mention additional tools/platforms like Playfic and Choice of Games, both of which are very deliberately wading in the games end of the interactive fiction pool.

Some of these tools are publicly available now, some require you to request access or submit a book/game/project proposal, and others are still in closed beta. Some of them have very user-friendly, GUI interfaces that require little or no coding, others were clearly designed by programmers who think everyone thinks like a programmer, and a few explicitly require you to code all the interactivity in your stories by hand. The three I’m most interested in are inklewriter, Varytale, and StoryNexus – in that order. inklewriter is the only one of those which is open to the public right now. It and StoryNexus don’t require any real coding. It and Varytale are designed with more-booklike projects in mind. None of them, unfortunately, offer any tools/capabilities (yet) for exporting/saving/backing-up your stories, or hosting them on your own site. They’ve all got plans to integrate monetization, but none is actually up and running with those features, yet.

Of course, my books (especially my digital books) don’t actually make much money, anyway. So I’m seriously considering making my next project an interactive fiction project. As I said at the beginning of the post, I’ve been tinkering in inklewriter for the last few days. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to be able to have meaningful and responsive conversations with their Twitter account about the current features and future plans for the service. I’ve made several pages of sketches of plot structures made possible by the technology (most of which would be unimplementable on paper, ever, and unlikely to work within existing eBook formats), I’ve actually used the tool to implement one of them fully (though it’s just a skeleton, without much of the flesh of the story itself, so far), and others partially (to see how my initial ideas had holes in them, mostly, though also to wrap my mind around meaningful logic implementations for coherent narratives), and I’ve begun brainstorming about what sort of very-large (for interactive fiction) project I’d like to build.

I could flesh out (and design logic for) my initial insane idea. I’ve determined that for a target average-story-length of 3k-5k words, I’ll probably have to write 40k-60k words to fill out every possible path/branch/intersection/insanity I initially mapped. It’s only about 200 discrete story chunks with about 100 total decision points, but getting them all to play nicely with one another, the way I’ve designed it, would be … challenging. Probably what I’ll do is play with another few short projects, and share them freely with everyone (maybe enter them in one of the ongoing interactive storytelling contests – I’ve never really submitted anything to contests before…), and then do something … big.

What I’ve been thinking about most recently is building my possibly-pending adaptation of Dragons’ Truth as interactive fiction, in one way or another. Actually, it would be the whole trilogy (yes, I’ve been planning on turning it into a trilogy when/if I re-write D’T), and then the problems become things like producing print and audio editions. If I had a larger, engaged fan base and appropriate analytics tools, I could do something like tracking which choices readers make most often or polling people about their preferences, and let the readers decide what the “definitive” version of the books will be for the audio version and the limited-edition print runs… though if I do it this way, to me the interactive version will be the truly definitive version. And then later I can release a “director’s cut” eBook with the version I get from my own responses…

Of course, I’ve still got a huge backlog of research and planning to do before I can tackle that project, and then I’ve actually got to sit down and write it. (And write several times as much as “normal”, if it’s interactive.) So … it’ll be a while. But that’s what I’m thinking about now. My decisions in the coming days and weeks will certainly shape the nature of my research and planning in coming months.

As always, your responses are welcome, though not expected. Feel free to comment, email, text message, call me, or send a letter with your thoughts. Bonus points if your letter arrives by post and was typed on a manual typewriter.

Never Let the Right One Go – release date is looming

The official publication date for Never Let the Right One Go is 5/12/2012, which is this Saturday. In about 26 hours, I’ll be uploading the eBooks to Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Goodreads, and Indie Aisle. Around the same time, both eBooks should become automatically available (or earlier, depending on your time zone! They’re available worldwide) in Apple’s iBookstore – Both Emily and Sophia are already in the iBookstore, available for pre-order, right now. Then I’ll have to update to say that they’re available, too. I’ve been waffling a little about whether I ought to start giving away the eBooks for free immediately on, or wait … some as-yet-undecided period; I’m leaning toward uploading the free versions to my site immediately after uploading the paid versions everywhere else. I’ve also re-worked the book trailer (the original one referred specifically to the Kickstarter campaign, the new one says the books are available), so that’ll be replacing the old one on YouTube Saturday. Lots to do, tomorrow night after midnight.

Some things getting started even earlier: I’ve finished the editing of both audio books, though they still need to be mixed thrice, and I’ve begun podcasting them on the Modern Evil Podcast. The first episode of Sophia went up last Friday, the first episode of Emily goes up tomorrow, and then starting next week there’ll be a new episode on the feed every Monday (Sophia), Wednesday (Unspecified), and Friday (Emily) through Halloween. According to the current version of my plans, both books will then appear on (complete) on Halloween, 2012. I keep trying to figure out how to sell the full audio books directly from (no intros or outros on each chapter, just a straight audio book like you’d get from Audible, or on CD), and I’m really close. Maybe not “ready to launch on Saturday” close, but … nearly.

One (big) thing getting launched a little later: The limited edition hardcover has been ordered, and printed, and shipped, and is apparently currently on a truck slowly making its way across the country to me – the books should get to me on Monday, May 14th, 2012, just two days after their official publication date. Then I have to sign and number them all (and cut one page out of each one) and then I can put them up for sale on Actually, as soon as I have the boxes of books in hand I’ll probably add the ‘Buy buttons’ to the site, since I’ll certainly be able to get them out by the end of the next postal day, at the latest. I expect to film myself signing and numbering the books, then edit together a (mostly time-lapse) video of the process – look for that, some time next week.

Lots to do, lots going on, and that release date just keeps getting closer and closer. (With Phoenix Comicon approaching at an eerily similar rate of one day closer per day… Hmm… Do you suppose they’re working together?) I think I’ve got all my ducks in a row, though. It ought to be a smooth launch, even though some of the parts are coming a couple of days late. (I don’t expect to sell out of the hardcovers within a couple of years, so a couple of days at this end just seems like a big deal. It isn’t, in the long run.)

Never Let the Right One Go is nearing completion

I managed to finish recording the audio version of Never Let the Right One Go on Friday, finished updating the text, updated the InDesign version for the hardcover, did four or more passes over every page of the book to be sure it was ready to go to print, double-checked that I was happy (enough) with the dust jacket design, and uploaded the book to LSI – I should be getting a proof copy sometime this week. Then I also got the two eBooks ready (twice) and sent out updated copies to all the First Readers who never finished, and copies to my Beta Readers and a couple of book bloggers who expressed interest in reviewing the books (still looking for more book bloggers, if you can recommend any you think would be interested). I had to build/polish/test the eBooks twice because I was sending different versions as ARCs than I’ll be selling, later; I added a couple of chapters of the other book to the end of both Sophia and Emily, so readers who only bought one will (hopefully) want to go buy the other–but I didn’t need to include those preview chapters at the ends of the ARCs, since I knew I was sending both books to everyone getting the ARCs. Anyway, then I sent the “finished”/current versions of the eBooks to Apple, to get them set up for pre-order through the iBookstore – Apple is the only eBook retailer which allows me to do this; for Amazon, Smashwords, BN, et cetera, I have to upload the files on the “release date” and hope they get processed in a reasonable period of time (Amazon can take 2-3 days!).

Remaining to complete: I have to edit the rest of the two audiobooks; I’ve only done about 10% of the audio editing so far. I need to update the Book Trailer I created for the Kickstarter, to post when the book is actually available, and to point people to where they can buy the eBooks. I have to go over the proof copy very carefully and then either approve it or prepare corrections – and once approved and the 50-copy limited edition is ordered, I’ll have to sign and number every copy (and cut one page out of each copy, incidentally). I’m considering putting together a couple/few copies of the two audiobooks as a single audiobook-package of audio CDs; it would be 14 discs, and I’d have to charge at least $35 for it; it would also be a fair amount of work, and need to be done before Phoenix Comicon. I should probably also record several versions of audio promos for the books, to run on all my existing Podiobooks – I have no evidence that any ad I’ve ever run there has resulted in a single person spending a single dollar, but … I guess I just have to keep trying, eh?

There’s a stack of things I’ll need to do when the May 12th, 2012 release date rolls around, including uploading the eBooks everywhere, uploading the new Book Trailer, and updating a bunch of pages at to reflect that they’re out/available, and then there’s the “marketing” I’m “supposed” to do after that, to actually get people to be aware of the books’ existence… but the actual creation of the books is nearly complete, and that’s what I consider my real work. Then, over the following six months or so, I’ll also be podcasting the books on the Modern Evil Podcast, but since the whole thing will already be written, recorded, edited, and (probably) assembled, it’s just a matter of uploading the files and creating the posts. Which is good, because I really want to be working on my next 3-4 titles, and some art, too!

Audio production frustrations

Audio. There are limits on how rapidly I can work through the recording of an audiobook which don’t exist for phases of creation such as writing, editing, cover design, layout, or even editing and assembling the audio itself; most of the creative work I do, if I want to bear down and power through a week or two of sixteen-hour-plus days, I can accomplish amazing things at an astounding pace.

There are only a limited number of hours in the day during which I can record, for a start. Between 9 or 10 in the morning and a little after 11AM, my sister is awake and getting ready for her workday – unpredictably doing noisy things like showering, making breakfast/lunch, and sometimes adding a workout video to the mix. After 1PM most days, the level of traffic (where I mean vehicles with intentionally-loud engines, revving aggressively as they cruise slowly through the neighborhood, alternated with vehicles which have ridiculously-amplified sound systems thumping away as they go by) goes up significantly, adding a lot of pauses waiting for silence to any attempts to record, though not unbearably so. After 3PM on weekdays, between kids getting out of school and more people getting off work, the traffic noise does become nearly-impossible to record through. After about 5PM, and until about 7AM, my wife is home and we’re either doing other things together, usually noisy things, or she’s sleeping (in the room where my recording setup is), and even though the neighborhood goes quiet after a certain point (on nights without any parties), I can’t realistically get any recording done at night. This leaves 3-4 hours a day when I could potentially record.

Interestingly, this corresponds pretty closely to the other major limiting factor on my recording: my voice/quality only holds out (at most) 3-4 hours a day, anyway. Whether I go hoarse, or my mouth becomes exceedingly tacky, or my nose clogs up, I can’t seem to get more than a few short hours of high-quality voice work done on any given day. I haven’t taken the time to experiment with it, but I have the impression that when I do more recording/talking on one day, it reduces the number of good hours I have the next by a corresponding amount. Recording every-other-day seems the best at reducing incidence of sore throat by the end of a week, though it isn’t always possible.

Between these two factors, there are hard limits on the amount of recording I can get through in a given period. In addition are factors such as my irregular sleep schedule (for example, I slept until 1PM yesterday), my wife and/or sister’s days off work (weekends, spring break, sick days), and everything else in life I need to accomplish, not to mention the time lost switching to/from different activities. (The last factor meaning that generally, even if awake, having only 7AM-9AM and 11AM-1PM to record only gives me two and a half or three hours of good work, generally.) In the end, I can’t actually record the theoretical-maximum 20 hours a week; at best I can probably do 12 hours, and 6 to 9 hours a week is more realistic. (Keep in mind an hour of recording translates to at most half an hour of finished audio, after another couple of hours of editing.)

Alternatively, as you may recall, I recently wrote almost 48k words in nine working days, and I once wrote about as much in under 60 hours of continuous, uninterrupted work. Coming to terms with these sorts of limits on my creative work is proving to be difficult. Scheduling the part of publishing a book which requires it to be recorded continues to throw me off, usually by weeks. With the work on Never Let the Right One Go, I’m currently more than a week behind my initial projection for having finished the audiobook and I’ve recorded fewer than half the chapters. For my next book, I’ll try to remember what rate I can actually make progress at, and schedule appropriately.

I’m still on track to get the hardcover flipbook published in time for Phoenix Comicon, and with the numbers I had in Q1, financially, I’m not worried about my business being at a loss for the year – even if zero copies sell, which would probably be both shocking and super-depressing, Modern Evil Press should stay in the black in 2012. If a bunch of them sell, I’ll do a lot better, of course. I still can’t afford that font I want (unless some more art sells in the next week or so), but otherwise everything has come together quite nicely.

Oh, and I’m working out a plan/schedule for podcasting Never Let the Right One Go which may have the first episode going out on the Modern Evil Podcast as early as yesterday. Which doesn’t make any sense. I better bump that up to … today at the earliest. I may put the first episode of Sophia on the Modern Evil Podcast as early as today. (Savvy readers who have been following the project closely may already have listened to chapter 1 of each book, and/or read the first two chapters of each book.) Depends on how the next 14 hours or so go, I suppose.

Never Let the Right One Go – Kickstarter not funded

The Kickstarter campaign for Never Let the Right One Go ended a few hours ago. There were $361 in pledges from 14 different backers, 10 of whom pledged $30 or more and wanted the limited-edition hardcover. Unfortunately, since the goal was $1000, no funds were collected, and none of those people (currently) have per-orders in place for the book. What I expect to do is post a backers-only update, when I have the books in hand, and offer the finished books to backers at the Kickstarter price. (Or the final price, plus shipping, whichever is lower.)

The main thing this Kickstarter campaign was meant to do, which it did quite successfully, was to gauge reader interest in my new books. As I said before, if a hundred or more people would have been willing to pay $30 for the hardcover, I wouldn’t want to have limited the edition to 50 copies. If 1,000 people wanted to buy the book, I’d certainly want to do an additional unlimited-edition (paperback) and also pay the LSI distribution fee, at least for the first year, getting the paperback on Amazon &c. for that huge audience’s friends. Likewise, if fewer than 50 people expressed interest (as has happened), then my planned limited edition of 50 copies is sufficient.

Interestingly, the Kickstarter campaign’s gauge of interest showed me something else: I had nearly double the number of backers, versus my last two Kickstarters. Half of the hardback-level backers were people who found the campaign on their own, browsing, and liked my project enough (not knowing me or my existing body of work, not following my links, my friends’ links, or any other thing extended from my online presence & social network) to pledge. This speaks well to the general-public appeal of the books, I believe. Perhaps the eBooks will, indeed, find an audience.

re: Printing the hardcover edition, when I take into account all the costs of producing a hardcover print run (setup, proof, printing, shipping, ISBNs, free copies for the photographers, et cetera), if I want to keep the pricing in line with my new scheme, and start at $25 or $30 a copy, and not lose money (presuming all copies eventually sell), I can’t realistically do an edition much smaller than 50 copies. In fact, I’ve been running and re-running the math, and if I follow my current/new pricing scheme, and if I start them at $25, and if I sell all 46 salable copies, my net profit will only be about $70 for the whole publication. If I start at $30, I can double that, and if I sell all 46 copies at $30 I can net roughly $457 of profit. My current estimate puts me at having spent between 1,000 and 1,250 working hours on these books by the time I’m done, not including the hours it’ll take over the years to actually sell them. Yet here I am, trying to decide between valuing my time at 6¢/hr or 11¢/hr, and feeling bad about having the audacity to suggest I might like to earn 38¢/hr for my efforts by standing fast to a single price for all copies of the signed, limited-edition hardcover.

Actually, technically, with the latest numbers, I can’t really afford to print the limited edition without putting my company in the red for the year… I’ll need to actually sell a bunch of copies to earn the difference between my early estimates and the actual numbers I’m getting now. And/or sell a few more pieces of art soon. Ack. Not to mention, the profits mentioned in the previous paragraph are on a per-title basis, not an overall-business basis, and do not take into account my overhead costs. Like, I keep thinking/wondering/hoping about how many copies I’ll sell at Phoenix Comicon, and how much money I’ll earn that way – but showing at Comicon costs me hundreds of dollars, dollars which have to come out of “profit”, one way or another. If I price to only earn $70 or even $140 on the full print run, even the best-case scenario of somehow selling out at Comicon wouldn’t actually be profitable, after overhead. I’m terrible at business, I guess.

Of course, there’s no good way to know how many people will buy the book (or the eBook; if the eBooks sell well, it takes a lot of pressure off the hardcover edition), regardless of venue. At the last two Comicons, I sold only a couple dozen books across all my titles, including very cheap books, each. My best-selling title (in paper) has sold fewer than 20 copies in two and a half years. If I were to guess, I’d say that probably 3 or 4 of the backers will follow through and actually buy the finished book, now that the Kickstarter has failed. I have no clue how it’ll do at Comicon: Probably either really well, or like a lead balloon. It would be foolish to expect to sell more than half the print run before the year is out, based on the data I have now. That many sales would cover my accounting underestimation, but then what?

I don’t know. I’m very frustrated, right now. I probably need to get some sleep. I was hoping I could work through more of this, and come to a better emotional point through logorrhea, but I still feel quite mixed up, and my eyes are begging to be shut. Expect another couple thousand words on this, and related topics I don’t want to even begin to write about tonight, soon.