Second Novel – A Frank Discussion

Finishing your first novel is a complicated experience – at least, it was for me. First there is a sense of accomplishment that, however flawed, you completed a substantial work – in my case, a 90,000-word novel. But immediately thoughts should be moving to the next novel (or short stories if you want a change-up), we are told. I have found myself fixated still on the first, though. I’m not happy with it. As much as I admire some of the sections of the book, I am not happy enough with the total work. It mirrors how I felt when I ran my first marathon – I got my tactics wrong and ended up walking a lot during the last 10 miles, finishing outside 4 hours. You are supposed to feel a sense of accomplishment at completing a full marathon, yet I was left with an anticlimax – yes, I had finished a marathon, but I hadn’t entirely run it and finished under 4 hours. The next marathon I ran 3hr 57min … cue celebration? Nope. Again, I got my tactics wrong and finished badly. 4 weeks later I ran 3:55 in a more consistent run. Only after 3 marathons did I feel satisfied.

So I am engaged in a retrospective. I have reflected on novel number 1, which I elected to self-publish despite some promising initial feedback from 3 agents (though none would ultimately represent it). I have tormented myself about whether to leave it well alone and move on to the next, whether to do some rewriting of it with a re-release, or a third way.

As it happens, I have opted for the third way. I am writing a brand new novel, but one that will be what the first one could have been. I am a different, hopefully much-improved writer than the one who began The Murk Beneath in late 2009. I don’t want my first, flawed novel to swallow ideas that I can revisit and better express in the second. Will there be some overlap between the second and first novels? Yes, clearly. But they will still be very different experiences. Would someone who read the first novel feel a bit cheated if they read the second, given some similarities? I hope not and I don’t think so. But we are not talking about many readers, so it should not be something to worry me if I plan on a much more successful second novel.

I did agonize about just getting on with novel #2 and not looking back. What I like to do is to write a couple of chapters and see if they are “grabbing” me. If they don’t, I move on and try again until something grabs on to me. Only when I tried my third way did I get further and feel the magic again. There is a theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi, which is a bit like a state of Zen. In the “flow channel”, you are finding things relatively easy, though there will be peaks and troughs (e.g. you flow easily through a chapter, but then have to figure out a nice way to end it that will hook the reader into the next) – but when in the flow channel, you keep safely between anxiety (e.g. writer’s block) and boredom (e.g. not really into the subject matter or theme of your novel). I’m only 3 to 4 chapters in, but I feel it. I think it will be a huge improvement on the first and I’m optimistic that this time I will get a good agent. No guarantee of course, but at least I’m in the channel now.

My reflections on the launch of The Murk Beneath, part 1

It was a long time coming. I put virtual pen to virtual paper back in late 2009 during the masters in creative writing I did in University of Edinburgh. By the end of that course, I have about 20,000 words of Mickey Bosco novel #1, original title The Long Run Back. Over the next year or so the word count was at 40,000 and then stalled. It gathered dust, so to speak. And then in the summer of 2014, when I should have been concentrating on my PhD (thank God I didn’t because I subsequently changed my topic), I started to write. And write. I wrote 50,000 words in 24 days and finished the first draft of the novel. I sat on it for a bit and did occasional minor rewriting and editing. And then in the summer of 2015 I decided to try my luck with literary agents. I probably submitted to about 16 of them, all respected, all representing legit authors, some of them prize winners. I had initial success with 3 agents. I knew immediately that I was way ahead of the curve. Most writers don’t get near to that. And we’ve all heard the stories about famous authors being rejected initially. The initial success was having the full manuscript requested – this is a big deal; it means the first 3 chapters or 50 pages was of a good quality and the agent sees potential in selling you on to a publisher. I thought I had it made at that point. And then 1 very polite refusal (lots to admire, etc.) and 2 tumbleweeds (you need to get used to black holes and tumbleweeds in this business, i.e. non-responses to queries – rude but they would claim they don’t have time – don’t have time to email with a single sentence? – “lot’s to admire, but we don’t think we are best placed to represent your book”, or similar).

I gave up for a bit then. The novel was shelved. I got my head down and concentrated on the PhD. Then I decided to submit to a small publisher in Ireland. I had seen them publish a big prize winner in crime fiction. What followed was a slightly bizarre email exchange where they said my query email only mentioned male authors, that the publishing industry was mostly female and that for future queries I should try not to alienate them. I only included some of the latest writers I had been reading – as it happens they were all male. Most of the authors I have read of late are men. I don’t see how that makes me sexist; I just gravitate to the writing I like and the fact that most have been male of late is more coincidence of timing than design (I have read in the past works by Val McDermid, Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, even Janet Evanovich, for example). Anyway, eventually I got a polite rejection (the lots to admire, but can’t be confident in representing it, type of email).

That was it for me. I decided there and then that I must self-publish, but do it professionally. The industry has been really shaken up in the last few years and it is well documented that most writers can make more as a self-published author and get more freedom and flexibility about how and when to publish, for how much, etc. But it need to be done professionally. I had the confidence that the quality of writing was fine (comments from agents like “very promising”, ” really enjoyed it”, “you can write”, “dialogue is spot on”), which drove me on and gave me confidence to put myself out there. I believed that the book would be enjoyed by the majority of those that read it, acknowledging that my novel was a bit too niche perhaps for a London literary agent to be confident in representing (i.e. that they could get a big advance from a publisher to get their 15% cut). Or maybe I am making excuses …

So that’s some of the story about the initial years of my journey to publication. In future posts I will discuss the self-publishing process, about how to do a professional job in putting the paperback and eBook together, and about marketing the book. With the book now finally published, the feeling of being a true writer is there. Of course you are a writer when you have finished a major work, be it novel, play or collection of poetry or short stories. But there is always an awkwardness when talking to others about something they can’t get their hands on – it’s all too abstract. Now I can point to the book on Amazon and say – “try calling me something other than a writer now!”.

One other thing that publishing the book has done is to release the shackles. While humming and hawing about whether to self-publish, whether to hold out for that publishing contract, I neglected my writing. Now that I have made the decision to just published and be damned, I feel something in my bones, something urging me to write. Never mind the money, the fame-seeking, etc., just write. And publish. And I will.

It’s coming very soon

ebookcover_800px

PhD Log 25/11/2016

Concentration on the game continues for the next few days before I return to the thesis. I had a meeting with a subject matter expert (education and physical education), which was really useful – got some good directions to go in terms of theory, etc. and she also gave me the confidence that I am on the right track.

In terms of game development, I continue to concentrate on what is probably the key game mechanic: the gathering of clues and making deductions, which is really a game dynamic because it dictates most of the gameplay and further builds the aesthetics of challenge and discovery. I have now completed the basic mechanics of the deductions user interface – gathered clues and red herrings relevant to each question are displayed and these can be dragged into deduction slots; when a clue is dragged into a deduction slot it disappears from its clue slot; if when all the deduction slots for a question are filled the deduction has not been solved, the player can drag the clue out of the deduction slot, release the mouse button, and the clue will be placed back in a clue slot. The image below shows the player in the middle of solving a question:

20161125

The tutorials on drag and drop from Unreal / Epic Games were very useful as a starting point, but there needed to be customization and refactoring, and a lot of additional development. The refactoring has really cut down the amount of code and I can see there are ways to really slim it down further. One major change from the tutorials was to create an interface to apply to all objects containing clue information. All the objects are gathered as they are and later, when they need to be interrogated, the interface is used to ask for the clue data (currently just an image and the clue description). This means that any object in the game can become a clue – I cast the generic object to a clue as required; I store in the underlying data structures as the generic object.

The next step is to give feedback on when a deduction has been made, i.e. the correct clues have been dropped into all of the deduction slots. I also want to have a cascading mechanic whereby only the questions that need to be answered now are enabled and / or visible; some questions will be locked until a prerequisite question has been answered. In addition, it may not have been possible to discover clues for a question yet (it may be in a future room) and so questions should be locked until all the clues are available.

PhD Log 22/11/2016

Busy, busy, busy. I’ve been working every spare hour the past few days on getting the important deduction interface working. It’s getting quite close now to a first fully-working prototype (of that deduction interface, not the full game!). At that point, I can start thinking more about game content, the lesson plans, in effect.

20161122

As you can see from the image above, a number of deductions are to be made in the level. Right now, I envisage each deduction requiring 2 to 4 clues to solve it. In the top row of clues will be the clues that solve the question, plus a small number of red herrings, e.g. if 3 clues are required, I might include 2 red herrings. The idea here is to acknowledge who will be playing (not hardcore game players, for the most part) and how to keep them in the zone between frustration and boredom (in the flow channel – based on Csíkszentmihályi‘s theory of flow). If there were too many permutations, e.g. 3 deduction slots to be filled from 10 clues, then it might take too long to solve the deduction if the player is reduced to guessing. On the other hand, if there were 3 deductions slots, but only 4 clues to choose from, then a very quick trial and error process would solve the deduction. Right now, I would tend towards about 50% extra “red herring” clues, but initial play testing will help determine the best ratio (even before a pilot study designed to test transfer of learning, etc.). Red herrings could be clues that are relevant to other deductions, or clues that are not applied to any deductions.

Right now, the player can click on a question to solve (i.e. to make a deduction). This will make visible 2 to 4 deduction slots in the lower row. The player can drag clues from the upper row (clue slots) into the deduction slots. The player can click through the questions and the clues that were dragged into the deduction slots will still be there when the player clicks on a question again. Currently the clue slots don’t change when you click on a question – however, I have an underlying data structure that links clues and red herrings to deductions to be made and a bit of scripting will make that work too. The next step after that will be to give feedback to the player when a correct clue is in a deduction slot (e.g. green border around the image) and then to let the player know when a clue has been solved, and perhaps what has been unlocked as a result. A final step will be to apply some stylish graphics.

PhD Log 17/11/2016

The pace is definitely picking up now. I have a bit more free time away from teaching and other duties as the semester draws to a close (though I must correct 30 game essays and a number of game group projects, nearly 40 Spring framework assignments and a number of group Spring web / database projects by early January!).

Today I made some progress on the clues / deductions drag and drop user interface. You can now walk around and right-click on objects and those that are clues will add an image to a free clue slot in the UI. Right now I have a maximum of 10 clue slots – maybe I ensure that some deductions are made and clues cleared before moving on to the next section and 10 will be enough. These clues can now be dragged around within the clue slots, dropped into a free slot or swapped with an existing clue image. This might be useful if the player wants to group what he/she thinks might be related clues. The solution involves scripting the drag and drop behaviour of the clue slots in the UI, while maintaining a parallel array of clues; all very old fashioned programming / scripting in some parts. Here is what I have so far:

20161117

It’s a bit rough yet, but with some prettifying it will look just fine. In the background, I have scripted the beginnings of the deduction data structure and the management of it. I have decided that in each level, I will create an array of object references (i.e. reference the actual 3D object that was dropped into the level, which will have embedded clue metadata – clue text, clue image, etc.). This is a 2D structure with an array of deductions, each of which has an array of associated clue object references.

To allow for flexibility as to what a clue object is, I created a ClueInterface, which each type of interactive clue object will implement (it simply has a get method that returns clue text and clue image). This means that my base interactive object, and by extension any more specific objects that inherit from it (e.g. newspaper articles, notes, etc.), as well as any other objects like non-player characters or anything else, can be a clue – it just implements the interface and the get method, returning clue text and clue image property values. This avoids the bad cast-fail-cast pattern because you never need to cast to a specific type of object, you just cast to the generic one-size-fits-all ClueInterface type.

Next step is the drag and drop to the deduction slots below, plus being able to select which deduction you are working on.

 

PhD Log 16/11/2016

General musing

One of the most crucial phases in a thesis is arguably settling on a structure and the chapters within that structure. Put simply, it’s the stage when you know what the hell you are doing. I seem to be at that stage now, meaning that there is a marriage now between project plan and thesis, and thus more focus. And a focal point: getting done in 18 months.

I spent so long settling on a topic … 2.5 years, to be precise: an initial 6 months settling into the PhD, then 2 years working towards a thesis on how publicly-available (released into the wild) cultural heritage metadata was being used in a myriad of ways from the analytical to the artistic. I was going to build a case study around how the Tate Britain metadata had been used. I had the Serious Leisure theoretic framework ready to roll by way of methodological development. The topic is actually a really good, viable one for a PhD, and if anyone ever wants to pursue it, I’ll gladly hand over what I have. Maybe strike that … let me get my PhD finished and then I’ll supervise whoever wants to do it 🙂

The bottom line was that my heart just wasn’t in that topic and I feel I would have drifted for several years before maybe giving up. Sometimes the best course of action is to go back to square zero and start again – be dispassionate about it by answering one question: will whatever I do get me to the end of the PhD faster, even if it means starting all over again?

Now I have confidence in being done in 18 months (but I won’t panic if it takes 6 months longer than that).

Work done since the last post?

Not much that’s functioning in the game – my next focus is on getting a clues / deductions interface working. I think once I have that interface working that I’ll be ready to implement a story containing little lesson plans, e.g. talk to an athlete, look around his/her home as a little case study in choices and their consequences – oh, there’s a newspaper with the guy in the headline winning a gold medal… oh, there another one with the guy in the headline being called a drug cheat… oh, there’s a leaflet about a kids/drugs outreach programme… deduction: successful guy gets caught and is trying to make amends (I’ll actually have more fine-grained clues and deductions than that). Now a line of conversation opens up about the consequences of being caught, or ways that amends can be made, what it’s like trying to make ends meet while banned, etc.

There isn’t much choice in terms of Unreal Engine 4 tutorials on the subject. The main one, which is a series of 3 recorded live streams by an Epic Games employee, are quite detailed and easy to follow, but what is being developed is a rather more complicated inventory systems with two floating widgets, with icons being dragged and dropped between them. What I need is there, but in the midst of dragging and dropping entire widgets, which make s it more difficult to pick out what is relevant. What I have right now merely does the following: displays available clues slots and deduction slots to drag them into; you can drag a clue image over a deduction slot, but it won’t drop in there yet. Very rough and not dynamic, but I’m only half way through the tutorials. I’ll need to add a lot more to the GUI, like clue descriptions, deduction text, make it all dynamic based on what is discovered in the game, etc. The following image doesn’t say much:

20161116

On the writing side, did a bit more on serious games, MDA framework. Next step is to try and complete the Lit Review (at least the first full draft of it). This will include some fundamentals on education / pedagogy – the kind of stuff that is foundational to any thesis featuring education of some kind; also some foundational stuff on games and game design. That’ll lay the groundwork for when I get more specific in later chapters.

PhD Log 03/11/2016

Over the past 4 weeks I’ve worked on the design of the game and written maybe 1,500 words towards the thesis.

With regard to the game design, I have made a fairly big shift away from first-person perspective as can be seen on this previous post. I spent some time playing games, waiting for inspiration to hit me. I’ve been hoping to achieve a detective feel to the game. I experimented with third-person, over the shoulder perspective, but was never satisfied with the results. Then I played Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders and I knew the perspective had to be from a spectator / fixed rotating camera point of view. Each room will have a camera set up which constantly looks at the player character. The mouse is used to point and click at a destination (click on the floor and the protagonist walks there) and to point and right-click on objects to view / interact with. I also threw out the dialogue plugin I was using – it did not seem to be supported any more by the developer and I did not have source code to allow me to continue upgrading Unreal Engine. I had spent many hours integrating that plugin into my project, but I don’t regret switching to a new dialogue plugin which is future proofed as I have access to all code / components. Below is a screenshot showing the new point of view.

20161103

Note the speech bubble above the non-player character, which is a nice little touch that I coded. Also, when the mouse hovers over an object that can be examined, a magnifying glass icon is superimposed, with a similar icon for articles / notes. These suggest affordances that I will document briefly in the thesis. The dialogue has a new look too:20161103b

That smiley face will be replaced by a headshot of the non-player character. The headshot will be particularly useful when my protagonist is talking on the phone to someone.

Another addition is obviously the protagonist 3D model. If you get a close look at him, you’ll see he is at least 50 years old and looks like he’s been around the block a bit, maybe reported on a war or two.

In terms of game design and development, I need to develop some kind of clues and deduction mechanism. The Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes (Crime and Punishments) games have good solutions that I can draw inspiration from (there is a newer Sherlock Holmes game, but I can’t justify forking out €45 for it). I want my protagonist to be able to examine objects, read notes, etc. and then allow the player to combine these clues together to make deductions – some clues will be red herrings and won’t combine with other clues. When a deduction is made, some action will be unlocked, such as a line of questioning through dialogue. There is a bit of GUI work to do in the game to allow the player to drag and drop, combining clues, but it’s very doable.

Once I test that out in the one scene I have, it will be time to begin the implementation of the first fully functioning prototype, with more scenes and characters, for initial user testing.

I need to write up all of these design decisions to get some word count into my thesis, though.

PhD Log 05/10/2016

Interesting bit of news in the last couple of days with Sharapova’s ban being reduced from 2 years to 15 months and how it has been spun by Sharapova’s PR team. It just adds to the context for the game.

With respect to the game design, I purchased a pretty nifty 70s-style office environment that gives my investigative journalist a really gritty home in between levels. Being of a 70s style just adds character, I think. Gives it that “All the president’s men” type of aesthetic. I will intersperse the environment with more up-to-date props like a laptop and smartphone. I think it adds to the backstory of the freelance journalist as someone of a set of principles of a bygone age – i.e legwork your way to the bottom of a story rather than relying on social media, press releases, public opinion to purely guide the story.

20161005

In between levels, I can image stories breaking via a wire service (Reuters / AFP style) and these will direct the interviews in certain directions. The rotary dial phone will ring with a call from the commissioning editor – the tone of the conversation will be dictated by the articles submitted in previous weeks – e.g. if the editor is worried about litigation, public opinion, etc., he will voice concerns and this will challenge the player’s integrity and choices about what to write. Just adds to the moral complexity of the game – PEDs are a moral minefield in their own right, never mind journalistic ethics and integrity.

PhD Log 01/10/2016

Fitted in some work on the PhD today. Added the ability to withhold dialog and make it available as information about objects or articles, or notes, are discovered. The player is also told how many dialog choices have been withheld. This will hopefully encourage the player to continue exploring to discover objects / articles and unlock the final parts of the conversation – all of this being ultimately linked to the article the player journalist will write, like uncovering jigsaw pieces that can be fitted together later.

Thus far I can allow for up to 12 choices on one screen, with one of them being used to display how many choices are hidden. This could be multilayered, so there might be one object that when discovered opens up up to 12 more options – ad infinitum potentially; a dialog tree where each branch can lead to up to 12 more branches, some of the options immediately available, others hidden. Screenshot below shows an example where options that are not available are hidden and collapsed (i.e. we don’t have blank lines where choices are hidden, the one below moves up a spot to take its place).

20161001