In a world of mechanical lifeforms, a shapeshifting robot must stop an endless war and restore energy to the devastated landscape.

     The idea of machines evolving naturally, without builders, sounds intriguing. Yet many of the story elements feel like stock ideas with a robot veneer added. Examples include the zombies, gladiators, and the lone infiltrator concept. Too many parallels to Earth lead to slip-ups, such as a when a mechanoid gets referred to as “the old man.” Something “knocks you unconscious,” and something else refers to your heart as a seat of conscience. Would alien robots have brains and hearts like humans and use them as we do in language and metaphor? The story works well, though, by increasing tension and conflict along the journey. It also strives for some emotional investment.
     Like Penwarden, Moonowl lets players use a six-sided die only, in this case by choosing a particular vehicle form. Other good ideas include the options to return to base for repairs (at a cost of time) and to ignore bracketed text for quicker playing. This becomes useful for rereading sections. I also liked the specialisms, though I prefer more creative ones over mere number tweaks.
     The vehicular shapeshifting sounds fun, but it too amounts to math over prose. So instead of a paragraph describing the landscape rolling by, we get another number to write down. In fact, the player must constantly measure out spoonfuls of time and fuel deductions. Players can rarely put the pen down long enough to get immersed. At least in my playthrough, all that tedious timekeeping only applied once in the story.
     The mechanics here lack refinement and accessibility. Players who don't have printers must draw the character diagrams. I believe some of the stats could have merged to make the game more player-friendly. The combat rules, though intuitive, slow the action with complexity. The first battle, potentially against the arachanoid, adds more special rules. The player gets no time to ease into the already cumbersome system. The battle with the warlord involves a grueling six special rules or conditions—six obstacles to getting anything done. Players must flip back to the overelaborate rules for applying wounds and further penalties. It gets downright pedantic (trust me).
     This introduces a recurring theme: obsession with failure. Consider section 95, a nightmare for players who chose Bike or Plane forms. With a Strength of 10, they have no chance to skillfully hit even the weakest of the three enemies. They must roll sixes repeatedly for the automatic fluke hits. But taking the other option, we get this:

“For each area on your body which is not already at 0 armour, roll an attack roll at Strength 18. If you lose the attack round, deduct one wound from this area. Repeat this for every part of your body.”

Imagine having the Truck form with 20 body parts. Imagine saying “lose” to yourself 20 times. Or, if you have the Bike form, you simply lose automatically unless you roll ones. Players must crunch numbers just to watch their drawn-out demise. Relying on pure luck does not feel heroic, either. Players sometimes have the option of melee or ranged combat to mitigate the cruelty of dice. But this requires more special rules.
     Similarly on Section 81, layers of complexity heap themselves onto a nearly impossible string of five successive lucky rolls. Failure on one means starting over, so this can drag on. It feels like math homework. The text does not explain how the Strength or Dexterity check works. Presumably, players hope to roll under their score. But what about a roll equal to their score? The game also punishes the player with a game over for having the codeword BUD, attainable by trying to rescue a dying friend. Apparently, a gatekeeper judges this as reprehensible. It seems like a design mistake.
     The entire system lacks any feel of revision. Codewords add to the stack partway into the game, suggesting that Moonowl made some of the rules spontaneously. Some sections, like 35, contain large paragraphs describing outcomes and scenarios of which only one may apply to the player. Players get bombarded with if/then statements within other if/then statements, the whole block of which may not even apply (89). The system, with all its cramped checks, needs far more than 100 sections to work smoothly.
     The bracketed material also indulges in this fixation on numbers. The epochs contain too much dry data or recipe knowledge. The areas often feel like more sensation goes on than perception. So data hits the brain, but little gets done with it. Even outside the brackets, the writing needs to take all the description and declare what it means to the character. It does make sense, though, for robots to view the world like this. So it could all work as a strength in terms of atmosphere.
     The writing also suffers from plurality issues: “There's [singular] no leads [plural]” and “Most [plural] have been reduced by time to a [singular] metallic skeleton.” Overall, though, the paragraphs look pleasing with good grammar, clarity, and variety of structure. Some short sentences would help with that variety and relieve readers.
     Frequently, though, the sentences grow too long. Overuse of dashes, where commas will do, stretches the sentences even further.

“A few dozen mechlengths behind lumbers a Harvester unit – the dreaded disposal units used by the Dominoids to gather the burnt-out husks of formerly living mechanoids to smelt down into components, its cuboid body fronted by a mouth-like pit and two extendable claws.”

Moonowl knows of the problem, as he writes, “You have never understood the scientist's preference to use three words where one will do.” Indeed...

“each transition between different areas.” Traveling will do here.
“accumulate in puddles on the floor.” Pool (verb): (of water or another liquid) form a pool on the ground or another surface.
“lets out a screech of pain and anger.” Wail(s): a prolonged high-pitched cry of grief, pain, or anger.

     Long sentences will work fine, but redundancy and pleonasm make them clunky. With “labyrinthine maze [tautology] of tunnels below the planet's surface,” simply underground maze would do. The first paragraph of 45 has room four times. Everywhere, tautologies riddle the text: Slowly shambling forward, advancing towards, torn fragments, cruel persecution, smooth floor, and roll an attack roll.
     Moonowl also gets carried away with adjectives, as with the string “increasingly complex economic exchanges.” At times, we get a river of them:

“Your cell commander, the scientist Recognitron, looks at you with barely-concealed disdain, the stare in his glowing red eyepiece as piercing as the silvery-blue protrusion of his alt-mode drillbit, right now pointing at you from the centre of his white-and-blue robotic chest.”

But unlike Wright, the adjectives here at least provide useful information rather than spectacle. Still, breaking the sentence into two or three would dilute the problem. And “right now” seems redundant in present tense.
   A few less serious problems appear throughout:

“As a mechanical being, your functioning depends on sustaining a healthy amount of energy. You lose energy by fighting, moving, and certain other actions.”

Too many ing's.

“. . . the rubbish-heaps of ZetaEpsilon district, on the outer rim of the ruins of the city of Fluxiplex.”

Four of's.
     As with other entries on the 2015 list, the paragraphs lack indentation and have an extra space between them. I wonder if using OpenOffice has granted me special cyber protection from .rtf woes when files get sent in. Moonowl's dialogue handles itself well except for inconsistency. Sometimes commas and periods appear inside closing quotation marks, and other times outside of them. He needs to choose either the American system or the British one and stick with it.
     The prose contains slightly fewer clichés and aphorisms than in earlier entries on the list. However, they seem particularly ill-suited on a distant world where such Earth phrases would never have evolved. Consider, for instance, “are left at the door.” Would robots wear clothes and doff articles at doors, thus developing the same expression as on Earth? This sentence contains two clichés: “The odds are stacked against you, but you trust your courage to see you through.” Others include: may be your ticket into, you think twice about, for dear life, appearances can be deceiving, and dead ringer.
     Overall, Mechanoids/Droidchangers: Fight or Die has heart, a decent elegiacal tone, replayability, and novel features. As with Wright's work, Moonowl's shows a good grasp on English despite all my nitpicking over style. Really good, in fact. God, do things ever get wacky further down the list of entries. I think this one mostly bothered me because of the troublesome rules and the horrible impression I got from those Transformers trailers.

 


Comments

Andy Moonowl
11/22/2015 6:17am

Thanks for reading my gamebook, and for such a detailed engagement. Also, thanks for recognising its replayability and other strengths. Some of the criticisms you make are well-made. For instance, all my readers so far agree on the issue of 'too much dice rolling and the rules are too complicated', there's a few missing rules, and there's some things I didn't 'de-earth' (although of course, real extraterrestrial sentient robots wouldn't speak English, either).

And of course you're entitled to your opinion, and your stylistic preferences. But I wonder if you're being unduly rigid about what a text should look like. You sound in your reviews (previous years as well) as if you've been taught that there's a single 'right' style of writing, and I disagree with this position. My background is in academic writing, and I try to strike a similar balance with gamebooks as when I write introductory materials: simple enough that an average reader won't get bogged down trying to understand it, complex enough to convey the idea or situation I'm going for. I'm not aiming for the simplest language possible. Sometimes the 'more complicated' word is evocative; sometimes it's just the word I would use in that circumstance. Hence, my style is somewhat more 'purple' than yours, whereas your criticisms position you towards the 'beige' end – although in practice you often write surreal, evocative stuff too! I don't deliberately complicate language, but I'm aiming for evocative worlds and an inner experience. I feel that 'beige' writing often focuses unduly on action at the expense of emotion, context, and plot. It often becomes hard to picture the situations described, and the characters can seem one-dimensional. But there's advantages and disadvantages to both, and I'm not coming out badly on readability ease tests (this one comes out as easily comprehensible to a 13-14 year old according to several metrics), so I don't feel it really harms my writing.

So some of these things might look different to different readers. What you see as overly dry description, others feel is effective world-building. What you call 'more sensation than perception', I see as letting the reader form their own impressions, instead of requiring them to experience through the eyes of a pre-formed character. I understand you take a different approach to character development, more like novel-writing. This is fine, but it can be offputting if the reader doesn't like the character, and it limits the character's options. A lot of commercial gamebooks like Fabled Lands and Fighting Fantasy have pretty much no characterisation, so I think it's legitimate enough in a gamebook to leave this to the reader's imagination. A lot of the bits you're objecting to are my way of showing you what the places, characters, situations look or feel like – I want the reader to visualise the scientist for example, not just classify him as another character. Saying 'labyrinthine maze of tunnels below the planet's surface' gives emphasis to the experience of complexity and the shift in location; 'underground maze' is just blunt description. Similarly, I'm not quite sure where you're drawing the line between a cliché and a turn of phrase. I would never have thought of 'left at the door' as a cliché, and I wonder if anyone's actually watching how many 'of's' or 'ing' words there are in a sentence... are you an English teacher or something? :P

Also, there's a couple of mistakes regarding the structure. There are various ways into and out of the smelting pool (depending how you arrive there to begin with). It's not a straight choice between fighting the guards and jumping in the pool; you don't have to end up at section 95. There's an option involving an item you can obtain which basically eliminates the guards and lets you abseil down... finding the easy route is part of the replayability. The codeword BUD doesn't come from helping your friend, it comes from dropping him back in the pool. Codewords weren't added late and it's possible to get one a few sections in (in the ruined city encounter), though they only have one function as a final hurdle. Time is only checked once, but it has a big effect (whether Wheedle's there and if so where), and it's the main advantage to playing as a less combative bodytype.

Reply
Stillman
11/22/2015 3:44pm

Hi Andy. You bring up some interesting points, and I'd like to elaborate on my position.

Some readers interpret aliens as speaking in alien languages, but the story translates to English for our convenience akin to voice dubbing or subtitles. Star Trek goes a step further with its convenient universal translator. You wrote the story, so you can decide if they really do speak English. But without some explanation for it, I think readers will lean toward the most realistic explanation.

Regarding style, only grammar rules count as “right,” and even those can bend if the bending looks intentional. However, some of the guidelines I mentioned have universal benefits. Reading takes more effort than speech, so many experts in academia and the market agree that we shouldn't waste readers' efforts with repetition. Readers may also feel insulted as if they need restatements to grasp the obvious. While I mentioned only a few examples, they add up. It helps to think of real-life examples, like a friend saying, “nice room room room room you have here.” Most agree that some stylistic rules sound more “right” than none at all.

You can have your evocative language and reduce sentence clutter at the same time. Reducing wordiness grants you more space to inject whatever tonal content you want with no consequence for the reader. For instance, everyone knows that labyrinthine and maze mean the same thing, and you have over a million other options to achieve that emphasis or depth you desire. Why not do so without the tautology, a well-known writing blunder?

Regarding too many of's or ing's, the repetition does stand out and distract. How much effort you wish to put in to reducing problems for the reader remains up to you. But more effort seems better than less, I would think.

I should have elaborated on the BUD issue. He requests that you let him die, and granting that wish feels to me like the morally right choice instead of prolonging his torture. Regarding the mechanical issues, some readers only have time for one or two playthroughs. So if they get a bad first impression, they might not want to hunt for ways around it.

Please don't take my word for it concerning the stylistic rules. You can look up why readers have such preferences. I wouldn't call the guidelines “right,” just “better.”

Anyway, I probably came off overly harsh with this review after a lousy night shift, so I failed to mention the many things you did right. Best of luck with your future writing endeavors.

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:44am

I'm not arguing that people shouldn't follow any stylistic rules. And I'm certainly willing to recognise that my own style needs some work. But I'm arguing that the stylistic rules you're employing are not optimal for fiction writing in all cases – and I don't really want to modify my work in the direction you're proposing. You're using a set of rules which produce a beige writing style: short words, abrupt sentences, more 'perception' than 'sensation', avoiding emotional explication, avoiding long descriptions of scenery. I don't think this set of rules define stylistically 'good' writing as such. A lot of the people I'd most like to be able to write like – such as Tolkien, Lovecraft, China Mieville, Ursula le Guin – do not use anything remotely like the style you're promoting (or like each other, for that matter). So while I'm quite open to advice which would bring me closer to the style I'm aiming for, and I'm open to stylistic rules which achieve this, I don't feel the particular rules you're applying are appropriate for my writing. It's like I've made a chocolate cake, it's an imperfect chocolate cake, maybe it's a bad chocolate cake, but you're judging it as a badly-made beef roast.

When I write and edit my work, I'm aiming for a rather different set of stylistic criteria. For example, I want the reader to understand and sympathise with the experience of the character, even if the character and reader are very different. I want to convey emotion through style as well as content. I believe that in fantasy and science-fiction, world-building is extremely important, and I want the reader to react as if they can see and feel the setting they're in. I aim for a type of writing which conveys the maximum information and expressive content possible, short of frustrating understanding or drawing attention to the language itself – so I'm not aiming for 'as simple as possible', more for 'balancing simplicity and complexity'.

Also, I don't assume the reader is someone like me, with the same background assumptions and the same orientations. I'm writing for readers who might be very different from me, who might not follow my thought processes at all. This requires filling things in a lot more, and making less generous assumptions about what the reader will infer or guess or remember. I feel that you write for people like you – this was particularly clear in last year's entry. Someone who is not like you will not follow your thought processes because the presentation is too abrupt. For comparison, content which would be redundant and repetitive in an academic journal paper would be completely appropriate in an introductory guide or a lecture.

In terms of the small grammar and style things you point out, I honestly believe that most readers will not notice, or care about, these things. I'm not getting similar responses from other people, and I don't notice these things when I read others' work, or when I re-read my own work. I'm not annoyed or deterred from reading something which displays these features. It interferes with my reading experience when there's as many writing errors as there are in Tammy Badowski's entries for instance, because it gets to the point where it distracts from the story and interferes with comprehension. But I don't read a novel or a gamebook and ask myself how many 'of's it contains. But I'd probably notice these things if I'd taken a formal grammar course, the same way I notice (say) gender representations now. Hence, I think you notice them because you took an English course and because you pride yourself in avoiding such things in your own work. I don't know – maybe these things impact on the feel of the work, maybe I'd do well to take a grammar course before I get deeper into writing. But as I say, I'm not aiming for a strongly beige style, and my grammar and style aren't affecting the reception of my work in general.

Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:56am

Oops, apologies for spamming. The website kept saying "post again".

Shall I post the rest, after you delete the duplicates?

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:57am

*part 2* I think we have different images of our readers – maybe my imagined reader is more like me, and your imagined reader is more like you. Reading takes effort, but my feeling is that repetition and clarity (e.g. direct description) aid ease of reading. In my experience, abruptness makes reading more difficult. Insufficient background description makes it harder to picture what is being read, which also makes reading more difficult. Also, the things which make for 'good' writing in a critical sense (i.e. something a literary critic would appreciate) are not the same things which make for easy or popular or successful writing. There's a lot of massively successful material which is full of cliches and repetition, because it makes for an easy read (think of romantic fiction for example). Some readers may feel insulted if you're reminding them of stuff they remember. But readers may also feel insulted if you simplify your language, or if you're talking about traumatic experiences without recognising their emotional impact. And I know a lot of people who dislike beige style. Some feel they're being talked down to, or talked to like children. Some feel they're being shouted at. Some feel that the style limits the emotional range that can be conveyed – we're always on the verge of fight or flight. They consider it a 'male' or 'macho' style. Most people dislike extreme purple prose too, but some people are more comfortable with mild purple or intermediary styles than with beige.

Maybe there's rules common to both. I think we can agree that writers shouldn't repeat the same information (in most cases), but I hope we could also agree that descriptions need enough information to give the reader a sense of the setting, and that expecting a reader to remember on p. 90 some minor detail introduced on p. 2 is unreasonable to the reader. I suspect we'd draw the line in different places regarding what we can expect the reader to pick up or remember. On the one hand, I assume my readers to have a larger vocabulary and better attention span than you do. On the other hand, I assume them to have a lot less capacity to figure out what you're getting at from brief, abrupt descriptions. What's obvious to one person is not obvious to another, and I err on the side of too much rather than too little.

In several of those cases, there's more to what I'm saying that what you're allowing. You're not just replacing a long word or a redundant repetition with something simpler. For example, you're reading 'labyrinthine maze' as tautology because you take 'labyrinthine' to mean 'maze-like', in which case I've said 'maze-like maze' which is certainly superfluous. But 'labyrinthine' also means (or connotes) 'complicated, tortuous' (see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/labyrinthine ), and a labyrinth is not simply a maze but a particularly complicated, intricate, difficult-to-escape maze (see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/labyrinth?s=t ), so the phrase 'labyrinthine maze' connotes 'complicated, tortuous, intricate maze in which it is difficult to find the exit of objective'. It doesn't just connote 'maze'. And the system of tunnels is not deliberately designed so it is neither literally a maze nor literally a labyrinth. I'd read 'maze of tunnels' fine, but I want something more than that, and 'labyrinth of tunnels' sounds wrong (using a metaphor too literally). 'Smooth floor' is certainly not a tautology, not every floor is smooth, 'uneven floor' or 'rubble-strewn floor' are just as possible; 'torn fragments' could be precisely cut fragments instead, 'advancing' can be in any direction and not necessarily 'towards you' (e.g. 'advancing on the terminal on the far side of the room'). Regarding repetition, you're right that I wouldn't say 'room room room room', or 'room-like room' for example, but this is not what I'm doing in section 45. There's 3 'rooms' and 1 'anteroom' (not 4 'rooms'), and they're all part of statements saying very different things ('the room is', 'at the far side of the room [there is]', 'the room is guarded'). Given the context and distance between them, I couldn't just replace 'room' with 'it'. For instance, having said 'you reach an anteroom to the supercomputer', if I started the next sentence 'it', the reader wouldn't know if I was referring to the room or the computer. So at most the objection is that I didn't insist on replacing 'room' with some other synonym on the later occurrences ('chamber' or whatever) – a strange objection since you also want me to use simple language.

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:58am

*Part 3* The BUD thing is more complicated, and you're right that I penalise something that is arguably the right thing to do, but I'm modelling a specific kind of noblebright virtue ethic ('what it means to be a Factronoid') which is similar to the classic Transformers universe (where leaving your buddy behind is a no-no), rather than a consequentialist ethic which goes for the lesser evil. The underlying idea is holding to one's values under pressure, which in real life is loosely connected to reducing risk factors for PTSD in combat survivors. Again, noblebright vs grimdark is a stylistic choice with advocates on both sides, and noblebright makes sense given what the character needs to do at the end (i.e. the character needs a 'pure heart' to be trusted by the energy source). By the way, you also used codewords/clues triggered by 'moral' choices last year, and your use was even further from the obvious than mine. At least my guy didn't have to have sex with his dead buddy or roast him on a spit to get the right codeword :P

Also, I'd like to respond a bit in a similar vein, although mostly I haven't done reviews this year due to lack of time. I think explaining the problems I have with your writing style will help elucidate why I feel mine is just different. I liked your entry this year better than either of the last two, probably because of the compromises with reader opinion which you've reluctantly made. I thought the structure was too simple, most of the choices are just matters of energy to use, and there's a lack of meaningful consequences – even something big like keeping Amanda or kicking her off has no effect on the story. But there's some really clever moments, and I especially like how you parody contemporary society. Although we're worlds apart politically, I very much recognise the things you're parodying – both the creeping economic breakdown and the liberal-inflected hyperregulation. Your setting feels realistic. In fact it's unlikely that such a vibrant counter-community could exist so close to the coast of a hyperconformist society, but your portrayal mirrors things that are happening in parts of the global South, where areas are falling outside state control and into the hands of gangs, pirates and suchlike. Your characters are three-dimensional as well, although somewhat stunted in their emotional life. There's a small structural problem in that I'd expect your frogmen, living in a society of frogmen, to be able to replenish or purchase air. I don't understand why they have to use the tanks they have for the entire duration of the gamebook. But otherwise, it reads like you know a lot about diving – a lot more than I do as a reader.

But there's things about how you write that I find jarring, the same way you do with me. To take an example, my Old Oil Can and your Rig are similar locations. We're aiming for something similar, but we're doing it very differently. On first read, I got a clear sense of the Rig, but I realise looking back that it was relying a lot more on my imagination than your description. You've marked the Rig as a liminal zone, so my memory draws on similar locations elsewhere (many of which are seedy bars, so the leap isn't too great). I know the place because it's an archetype. The Rig (or at least the bar on it) is Mos Eisley Cantina, the bar in Total Recall, the base city in Waterworld, the home spacecraft in Titan AE, Jimmy the Snitch's bar in Buffy, not to mention real-life Sealand, so I've imagined it with little snippets of these. It's the wild threshold zone where the shadowy underside meets the light of day. But I know it, and can imaginatively reconstruct it, precisely because it's archetypal – in your terms, a cliché. You've taken the standard liminal zone and put it out at sea, the same way I've taken zombies and put them on a world of robots. If you hadn't done this, then there's just not enough information to put together a picture of what the place is like. We know it has greenhouses, shops and berthed ships, it's covered with frayed rope, it has a bar with loud music and dodgy people, and it's a good place to buy illicit items. But that's about it. The rest is a mixture of extrapolation, imagination and archetype. In other words, if you were writing a genuinely non-cliched location, there just wouldn't be enough information to form any kind of impression of the place. On the other hand, when I wrote the Oil Can, I included detailed descriptions of its location, layout, economic function, what the owner looked like, what the dealer looked like and where he sat, and so on. It's an archetypal setting – I don't claim it's anything else – but it could stand on its own descriptively, even if it wasn't. And I feel that giving it such descriptive details redeems it as an archetype by giving it particularity. But I daresay you would find all that surplus description to be unnecessarily verbose and redundant. It doesn'

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:58am

*Part 4* There's other times your abruptness of style gives insufficient information for me to understand easily where you're going. I'm having to suspend understanding or re-check what I thought I'd read quite a lot. And I'm experiencing a lot of ruptures, where one sentence does not follow smoothly from the rest, which as a reader, puts me on edge. Sometimes this is productive. In action sequences, it builds tension. It's good for conveying fight-or-flight reactions, or trauma, or fragmented memories. But you're using it all the time, even in situations where it comes across wrong. I suspect this is an unintended side-effect of your austere writing norms. You cut so much 'superfluous' material that the skeletal structure no longer holds together, at least for someone who isn't like you. This means that you write great action sequences, but your style is lacking in the calmer moments of the narrative. I also feel you overuse unmarked metaphors, and some of these can be confusing in the context of a sparse style. And let's face it: metaphors and austerity don't go together. Basically, people don't use metaphors (except cliches) when they're barking orders in a firefight; I daresay they don't think in metaphors either.

I think I'd make the reverse observation about the sensation/perception thing. Your characters jump to conclusions, and you expect the reader to jump too – and this jars me as well. You make statements about other people, about things you can't possibly observe directly, which you state as fact when they couldn't be fact for the character, in situations where you are writing as the character and not as an outside narrator. This gives a certain vibe of 'my character is omniscient' or 'the conclusions my character jumps to are right', which exaggerates the objectivity of a personal point of view. For example, 'He has two brain cells in search of each other'. This needs to be 'It looks like', 'it feels like', 'it seems like', 'you imagine that'. 'They all lack the connections'. How do you know they don't just distrust you? 'You don't find anyone who'll admit having the right connections' would be better.

To take another issue, it jars for me that I have to identify with the worldview of your character to participate in the story, in cases where I don't spontaneously sympathise. I'd find this easier if the characters had a clearer backstory and emotional reactions. I was sympathetic to your character because I feel similarly about over-regulation and personal freedom. But I often have difficulty putting myself in the shoes of your characters (previous years as well), because they're so macho. Not that there's anything wrong with writing macho characters, but at the moment you're not doing the work to speak to readers who don't react and think the way your characters do. We have your character acting on his ethos, and we have a bit of background in terms of bad childhood experiences, but we don't really find out why, emotionally, the character arrived at this ethos because of these experiences.

It also jars with me when description is so direct that I can't picture the environment, and when you introduce characters or concepts in the heat of the action, in a very abrupt way (see Our Guy, below). I'd have written the hallucinations, for example, quite differently. Hallucinations are basically sensory messes, not movement-events. You might remember that I included a dream in Tipping Point – I took the emphasis on sensations even further than usual there.

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:59am

*Part 5* For example, take section 35. 'In the tedium, high school memories wrestle their way in here' is wrong, as if the memories are literally in the space rather than your head, as if the memories have agency as a character, even as if the tedium is the physical space you're in. You're talking in an action-film-ish way about the inner life, as if memories are soldiers on a search-and-destroy, which is appropriate if you're talking about traumatic flashbacks, but I'm not sure you're going for that kind of intensity. I'd have said something like, 'With your mind under-exercised due to tedium, you fall prey to lurking memories of high-school', or, 'without the stimulation of thought, your mind becomes a receptacle into which memories creep unbidden'. 'The heating didn't work except for the kids' breath' is wrong – the kids' breath does not count as working heating. I know what you mean here, but it jars because it mixes up metaphor and literal observation. I'd have said something like, 'It was cold, and the only heat in the building came from the kids' breath'. 'Fluorescent lights cooked your eyes' is wrong. Cooking one's eyes is a metaphor for being literally blinded, not distracted by glare (I literally thought of the eyes sizzling up into fried eggs, like in a cartoon). 'You couldn't concentrate because of the flickering/intensely bright fluorescent light' would make more sense.

Section 51 - 'You display your bicep and point to the red armband. But the boy retreats, vanishing into the cruiser. In these murky optics, the red cloth looks gray. The kid could have perceived a Navy SEAL flashing an emblem' – firstly, 'display your bicep' is needlessly wordy (which I don't mind but you should), 'pull up your shirt sleeve' would do. 'Vanishing into the cruiser' is giving too big a spatial referent, and if I understand rightly he's already in the cruiser; 'retreats from the window' might be better. 'Murky optics' (half-light) and 'perceived' (seen or imagined) are also unnecessarily verbose. 'Murky optics' is also wrong – 'optics' is either a branch of physics or a metaphorical framing, a way of seeing. It doesn't mean 'lighting conditions'. You mean 'in this murky light' or 'in murky optical conditions'. It's also jarring that you've combined the super-technical 'optics' with the colloquial 'murky'; ditto 'perceived' with 'flashing'. It's a bit like one time I told someone that Deleuze's theory pwned Lacan's, except that was deliberate, and trolled the Lacanians no end. These kinds of unexpected collocations remind me of Beckett and Joyce, and work perfectly well if you're trying to frustrate the reader, but they don't really gel with an action-oriented style or with your broader writing philosophy (Beckett and Joyce break all your rules, all the time, just to piss the reader off). The 'murky optics' statement appears from nowhere, and makes no sense in context until the next sentence is also read. This frustrates readers' attempts to follow your train of thought. You should have said first that you're trying to explain his actions, or reversed the order of the two sentences. And your character is jumping to conclusions based on partial information, without enough hesitation. I'd have said something like: 'You wonder if the kid thought you were a Navy SEAL. Your red armband looks like a gray Navy SEAL band in the murky half-light of the ocean'.

Section 71: I took the hallucination route first time (I always at least read the different options/routes after completion, in those cases where I don't actually replay), but I was some way in before I realised the experiences were meant to be hallucinations. You describe them as a 'nitrogen narcosis flashback', but a reader with no diving background will not understand what this means. You introduce Our Guy without any background, and for several sections I've no idea who or what he's meant to be. Presumably I'm supposed to figure out from context that he's an advertising icon, which I eventually reach (though not at his first appearance). But there's no visual description, no sense of what he looks like. Of course the character wouldn't need this description, but the reader does – is he a burger bar employee, a cartoon animal, someone in a mascot suit, something completely different?

At other times, I feel the abruptness deprives your work of much-needed emotional content. Here's another passage, 48: 'Five frogmen suddenly close in from the black water. They point amphibious rifles at your softer areas. You go compliantly with them to their speedboat.' The operational term 'close in' gives no sense of what it means to the character. Again the juxtaposition of technical 'close in' with metaphorical 'black water' is jarring (it's either 'close in from the surrounding ocean' or 'appear like ghosts out of the black water'); ditto 'amphibious rifles' and 'softer areas'. But the biggest problem here is that there's no emotional content whatsoe

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/23/2015 2:59am

*Part 6 - end* But the biggest problem here is that there's no emotional content whatsoever. Being captured at gunpoint is a traumatic experience for nearly anyone, unless they're so traumatised that they feel numb. For a character like your protagonist, for the kind of person who won't obey a simple rule about avoiding light/dark metaphors, submitting to the hated ground-based authorities would be emotionally difficult to do. I daresay, he'd be in fight-or-flight mode, and it would take willpower to submit, unless he froze up completely, in which case he'd feel he betrayed his machismo afterwards. But the way you've written it, it's just brute facts without context. If I was writing this, I'd not only spend much more time on the experience and tell it from the inside, I'd probably give options to fight or flee (even if they're instadeaths), and maybe even require a willpower check or somesuch to get such an independent-minded character to submit (look at how Joe Dever wrote the capture sequence in The Darke Crusade for example: Lone Wolf wants to stab the bastard, but knows he can't). Even a little word like 'reluctantly' or a phrase like 'swallowing your urge to spit in their faces' would make a lot of difference, making the situation feel more real.

Finally, I'd say there's a performative contradiction in what you do. You believe in strict grammatical and stylistic rules, in order to comply with readers' expectations, avoiding frustrating or insulting readers. Yet you also take the position that authors should challenge readers, put them outside their comfort zone, so as to jolt them into recognising the situation of degeneracy as you see it. If I understand what you've written, this is tied-in with promoting 'masculine' virtues. But does this really accord with an operationalist, technical view of the writing process, and its conceptual basis in the view that the goal is to satisfy the reader's expectations (i.e. to stay in their comfort zone) for reasons of commercial success? And does it accord with strict principles of grammar and style? I think that in a post-breakdown world where people are cultivating macho virtues of courage and so on, nobody is going to care about grammar – for the same reason nobody is going to care about political correctness. People coming from the real-life equivalents of the Rig are quite likely to be illiterate, but if they write or produce culture, the way they do it is... well, let's just say listen to some gangsta rap. That's kinda what it sounds like. So you're combining an orientation to shock the readers and promote a particular ethos, with a style which responds to and reinforces the ethos you're trying to shock people out of.

Reply
Stillman
11/24/2015 12:24pm

Thanks for clarifying the particulars of your chosen style. I do advocate researching whatever guidelines editors and experts give, then reasoning out which ones work best for you. They say story trumps all, so you can probably make most styles work.

I often warn myself about prolific writers X, Y, and Z. First, some of them succeeded in an older era before the internet when readers had more patience (and perhaps stricter schooling to handle long-winded prose). Second, they won the writers' lottery. Though talented for sure, their name branding means they could get away with anything. You and I probably can't; we don't have the marketing machine and infrastructure pushing our materials out like bibles. We'll probably have to compete by annoying the readers the least.

For example, when experienced readers see a tautology, they don't stop to consider your reasoning behind it. They tick it off as an error and move on. With enough ticks, they stop trusting you, maybe for life. Readers do judge the small, accumulating grammar problems on Amazon reviews, book blogs, conversation, everywhere. It speaks to your standards. You wouldn't want a surgeon to make preventable mistakes.

You mostly dispute the “show, don't tell” rule. I consider that rule, plus the “omit needless words”/“CUT”/“Kill your darlings” among the most important. I hope you consider reading more about those two. After a couple's heated argument, something wonderful happens in the reader's brain when he reads, “She left.” Don't worry about how. Whatever immediately comes to mind there, you've got it exactly right.

As you pointed out, the neo-noir I write does cater to a specific kind of audience—probably not the choicest material for a contest for all age ranges. Emotions...hm. Noirish characters lost their emotions along with any hope of ever becoming somebody. You wrote a big paragraph on what the protagonist felt, getting it right exactly. Thank goodness I didn't mess that up with words.

Regarding my last year's entry, the player must become a complete monster to win. The player must also learn that some people don't want rescuing. I agree many will find this disagreeable.

I also agree Frogmen has flow problems, and I mellowed out the choices to simple strategies. I experiment quite a bit. But memories that wrestle, breath as heating, and cooked eyes count as personification, analogy, and hyperbole respectively. Readers generally accept the intrinsic wrongness of those in exchange for something (hopefully) lyrical. Those should help with the beige problem.

For “murky optics” on 51, I used the medical definition, “optical properties” or this other one: “the physics of light and vision.” I guess it depends on which online dictionary one uses. That sentence does have some context where it stands because the paragraph starts with the red armband of rebel recognition. But even without that, readers expect things to unfold eventually. They trust me. Switching the sentences as you suggested has some pros and cons. I like to end some paragraphs with a bang. Realizing that you assumed the wrong color or getting mistaken for an enemy both sound like Ok bangs to me.

Oddly, you propose my three words, “display your bicep,” look wordier than your five. And why use “window” for something previously established as a mousehole? I doubt editors would mind putting technical words next to colloquial ones. I picked out what I consider the most important rules that I believe will work with nearly any style.

As for Our Guy, I can't control him at all.

One of your suggestions, “It was cold . . .,” I can't really do. I write in E-Prime. “Was” has never appeared in any of my stories, ever. I doesn't appear here or in my reviews unless quoting someone else.

I don't recommend this.

Of course, readers know that heating in a school implies a solution to cold, eliminating the need to mention “cold.” They've known this their whole lives, as they've known about every floor looking smooth.

All of them. Yes, 100% of floors, all smooth, always. One day you may describe an odd one as not smooth. Until then, picture a ten-dollar bill. Does it have the number ten on it? Of course. They all do. But one time I drew a zero, making it into a hundred. So I better tell my readers, just so they know, that my character holds a “ten-dollar bill with the number ten on it.” Some tens have the face scratched out. But not this one. I tell my readers, then, about the “ten-dollar bill with the number ten and a face on it.” Hopefully, you can see the usefulness of rounding up all floors to smooth.

I would fix the repeating room problem on 45 by simply removing both instances of “of the room.” Everyone will still get it.

I'd fix the skeleton sentence problem by adding more skeletons. Join th

Reply
Stillman
11/24/2015 12:32pm

...I'd fix the skeleton sentence problem by adding more skeletons. Join them with conjunctions or introductory clauses if you must to vary sentence length. Of course, I mentioned in the intro that my reviews mostly reflect how I would do it. I wish you the utmost success in doing your own thing.

As for the contradiction of rules (comfort) plus roughness (discomfort), well-applied grammar and style rules affect the reader's subconscious, or they don't affect him at all. They say most people only notice the writing errors, and we don't notice as much when it goes smoothly. So you hope to avoid problems with the reader and pray to God for that neutrality or nothingness. But readers do notice the tone, jabs, ideas, anything related to content—the rough massage. A soft massage will work too, as long as they feel something. So something plus nothing gives the reader a net gain of something.

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/24/2015 3:10pm

I think my biggest objection here is: you treat writing as if it's an operational technique, like putting together flatpack furniture or working an assembly line. It isn't. Writing worth reading comes from the soul. You have your opinions on the problems of the world, and I have mine. One of mine is that far too much of modern life has been reduced to the quantitative, instrumental, and operational. In the process, we are losing the qualitative, expressive, and meaningful, and our entire lives are correspondingly impoverished. In terms of Bourdieu's categories of aesthetic markets, I'd place my values at the autonomous end. You seem to be at the heteronomous end, more concerned with market success. But you're refusing to recognise that the controversy is even there, because you insist that technical criteria are the only valid criteria. It's the literary equivalent of the Pop Idol model of music – which dismisses metal, rap, indie, punk and so on, because they don't fit the technical criteria of the mainstream. Also, if had to run my writing through the kind of meat-grinder you seem to be using, I'd lose the motivation to write at all. I don't live my life as a rule-following kind of person. I don't seek to manage my life or my subjectivity in line with neoliberal performance norms. I'm interested in style guides if they help me move my writing towards what I want it to be, but I'm extremely sceptical of any claims to 'general' rules which work for everything. I'm seeking to craft something like an artisan, not to hammer it into shape from a fixed template. You'll probably slate this as denying the reality of the world or whatever. But just remember the stuff you wrote about Philip Armstrong's work, how you panned him for pandering to modern consumers and their decadent tastes. I think you're also drawn to the autonomous pole, but you're combining it with an attitude to technique which is very much at the heteronomous end.

I think you're missing the point about my objections. For example, I'm not saying tautologies are good. I'm saying that the phrases you point out are not tautologies. You perceive certain things as stylistic problems, and stick labels on them based on categories from English class, but this is just your own perception. You assume that readers in general react the same way, and are annoyed by the same things, as a homogeneous mass. You assume this reaction is the same as yours. But I think your reactions are very particular. They don't reflect the average reader's experience. In fact, I've run 'labyrinthine maze of tunnels beneath the planet' versus 'underground maze' past a number of people, and everyone so far prefers the former. As far as I've established, nobody except you thinks that 'labyrinthine maze' is a tautology. It doesn't mean 'maze-like maze', it means 'complicated maze'. Nobody else thinks 'smooth floor' is a tautology either. Uneven, broken, or rubble-strewn floors are far more common than $10 bills which don't say $10. Cavern floors are not smooth. Floors of abandoned buildings are not smooth. Anyway, you're using trivial examples to ground observations about controversial examples. On the other hand, some of your phrases just sound wrong to me, and they aren't going to sound right because you pull out the correct jargon to justify them. You can find technical categories to fit them into all you like, but they still sound wrong. Eyes exploding sounds to me like a physical phenomenon. It doesn't sound like hyperbole because the gap between there's a type-difference between the base experience and the exaggerated experience. I figured out what you meant, but the gap between meaning and exposition is annoying. It's making the reader do work. Mixing technical and colloquial terms feels wrong to me in terms of consistency – maintaining a consistent tone, the same way a character shouldn't slip in and out of dialect. I guess I use 'keep tone consistent' as a rule.

Do I reject 'show not tell'... it depends how you're meaning it. The balance between description and action is controversial, and varies a lot among authors. Only a minority see 'show, don't tell' as a general rule for all writing. Most see it as a question of finding the right balance. I'm not aiming for excessive 'show'. Heck, I don't want to write like Lovecraft's early stuff, and I don't want my gamebooks to read like my academic work, but I don't think I have to pare back all description to the minimum to avoid that. Maybe I tilt the balance too far towards description, but in my view, you tilt it much too far towards action. In my view, there's good reasons for erring towards description when in doubt. I'm not writing for people who I assume are carbon copies of myself. 'Show, don't tell' doesn't work well for me because I'm too different from most of my readers for them to intuit what I mean. As I said before, you seem to be assuming that readers will intuit what you intuit, that you can guess cor

Reply
Andy Moonowl
11/24/2015 3:11pm

As I said before, you seem to be assuming that readers will intuit what you intuit, that you can guess correctly what they will and won't assume. In my view, that's a kind of authorial arrogance, and it's bound to alienate anyone who isn't sufficiently similar to you. In practice, as a reader there are many times I don't understand what you're conveying because you assume I'm going with your flow when I'm not. The hallucination scene, for example, was just confusing for me. Most of the flashbacks I had to read several times to figure out what you were saying.

I feel 'display your bicep' is wordier because 'bicep' is a technical term, it's not plain English. I have to think and figure out which muscle is the bicep to understand it, and then I have to process what it means to display it, which is the direct act of pulling up my sleeve (i.e. you've indirectly described pulling up my sleeve). It's more work for the reader, therefore more annoyance. On my end, remove 'of the room' and the statements become grammatically unclear as to whether they refer to the room, the computer, the statues, etc. The reader will probably figure out that I mean the room, but this is making them work harder than they need to in order to understand. Saving interpretive work reduces annoyance.

You're assuming readers will share your intuitions to an extraordinary degree. 'Whatever immediately comes to mind there, you've got it exactly right'... not necessarily. You're assuming everyone's alike. You're assuming that your reader will mind-read what you intended. But readers are diverse, and don't have the same assumptions. This was pretty blatant last year ('you' were meant to 'be yourself' and yet 'you' were necessarily male, straight, able-bodied, located in a country with a cold North, had a bad time at university if 'you' went at all...)

And anyway, figuring stuff out takes effort. If you're making me figure stuff out that you could have told me directly, you're making me work harder than I need to. This annoys readers. Or at least, it annoys me, when I'm reading for fun. I don't especially like 'bangs' either, because they jolt me out of the relaxation of recreational reading. I want excitement, but not at an overstimulating rate.

You say that 'noirish characters lost their emotions' with their life-chances. It sounds to me like you're writing characters with either PTSD or depression. But I wonder if you need to do more research on these. They're undergoing anhedonia and/or numbing. And the thing is, these are precise, articulable emotional experiences in which emotions are cut-off in order to survive. They aren't simply a lack/loss of emotion. Nobody's numb all the time. There are likely to be spikes in emotion corresponding to crises and moments of intensity. Depression often has anger and fear underneath it. Trauma has triggers and fight-or-flight.

You say:
“You wrote a big paragraph on what the protagonist felt, getting it right exactly. Thank goodness I didn't mess that up with words.”
But the point is, I wrote a big paragraph on what I thought the protagonist SHOULD be feeling, which you didn't say. As far as I could tell from reading your prose, the protagonist was NOT feeling any of these things. He should have been (from my point of view), but he wasn't. And the fact that he wasn't was jarring for me. It made the character feel two-dimensional. If I'd explained what I thought the character was feeling from your point of view, I'd have said he found the event routine, it barely affected him. It paled next to the other events which received more detail.

I have to say, I'd no idea you were using E-Prime. I'd heard of it before, but I'd never seen it used. If I understand rightly, the philosophy behind E-Prime is to avoid God's-eye point of view (derived from Korzybski's work), and I've caught several God's-eye statements in your work (turning 'nobody sold me TNT' into 'nobody had the contacts' and describing a non-POV character's brain cell activity for instance). I've read Korzybski's big book (yes, all 700 pages) and the basic gist is that we need to suspend judgement more, to relativise claims, to make our language much more concrete. Anyway, it's a technical issue because 'I was cold' is an example; I could as easily have written 'I felt cold' or 'it felt cold'. My point is that the statement as it stands is jarring, at least as I read it.

Reply
Stillman
11/24/2015 11:23pm

Well, Andy, I can't blame you for taking risks by casting off certain best practices. I take plenty of risks too. For me, I like to balance the risk of disturbing content by applying more rules than usual.

I encourage you to trust your readers more, though. I'll go on trusting that readers have entered many rooms in life, so they know things described in a room refer to the room they stand in. Nearly all of them stood on a smooth floor the very day they read your work, so smoothness goes without saying. Many things you think they don't know go without saying.

I don't know why “bicep,” arguably the most well-known and often-displayed muscle, would make you think harder. Nearly everyone knows what displaying a bicep means, but if you want, you can cater to the few who need all the steps spelled out. But I hope you'll look into trusting the reader rather than coaching them through common things they've already become expert in. Regarding your dislike of specific or technical terms over commonplace general ones, you'll have to take that up with Strunk and White.

With “She left,” I see the woman as storming out and slamming the door. Maybe you see her shaking her head in frustration and going shopping. Either way, you got something out of it, and the writer did his job. No specific intuiting or mind reading needed.

I admit I stripped Frogmen of some much-needed functors which breaks up the flow. I don't go that brutal on my regular work, and I agree that it jars.

In Why Don't They Leave the House?, I used gender neutrality (as I do for all my gamebooks), and the readers only do the sex scene if they choose to with their precious one life. They can get an equally helpful clue via another path or win without either clue. A female player can choose lesbianism if she wants. Sure, adding a sex scene with a male would help (as done so well in The Independence Job), but the brutal world doesn't care about preferences in my story.

I believe all the CYOA books assume able-bodiedness too. I trusted readers would understand the limitations of gamebooks, that I can't add infinite sections to get the wheelchair, the dialysis machine, or the oxygen tank in there. You went to an intentionally vague “convention” in the North which could revolve around most fields of work. I made it clear you traveled there. You don't necessarily live in the North. Maybe your future self will have a job with a mandatory convention. Maybe it had to do with a hobby you like. I trusted readers could handle that leap. In exchange for accepting that I control them a little, they get an adventure. But anyway, I won't overly defend what I call an experiment.

I think you've rigged the test with your “labyrinth maze of tunnels beneath the planet” versus “underground maze.” In the actual story, readers have already experienced a planet. In your isolated test, you give them a whole world in your preferred sentence and less information in mine. As I explained earlier, I would have stripped it to “underground maze” so I can add more quality material to it.

Reply
Philip Armstrong
05/24/2016 5:02am

Coming to this late, but wow Nicholas, you really hit a nerve. I've never before seen someone argue that readers are babies who need to be denied the imaginative part of reading.

Reply
Stillman
05/24/2016 6:28am

Greetings. Here in Droidchangers, I argue that readers, as experienced humans, can do without what they already know for sure (flat floors, mazelike mazes).

Reply
Andy Moonowl
05/25/2016 1:49am

Nah, you argued that 'smooth floors' and 'labyrinthine mazes' are tautologies. Labyrinthine = especially complex, and nobody assumes a smooth floor in a dungeon. You also argued that background description of people, places and things is unnecessary verbosity. :P

Reply
Stillman
05/25/2016 4:25am

Hi, Andy. I never argued the latter. In fact, I mentioned your descriptions could work as a strength for building atmosphere, especially as robots might scan the environment and leave themselves out of it. It probably never quite worked for me because, usually, exposition shouldn't stop the plot from moving forward. It may also have a bit to do with the narrative summary problem described here:

http://freesciencefiction.com/writing-tips/eliminate-99-of-your-competition/


Nothing wrong with a little experimentation, though. I'll bet plenty of people liked what you did.

I can't back down from the tautologies thing, though. Readers will probably lean toward labyrinthine meaning “resembling a labyrinth” or mazelike. I believe your underground parts had manufactured floors, nothing like a cave or such, so that implies the default smoothness. As I've said, the more redundancy you cut, the more greatness (and imagination) you can add.

Reply
Andy Moonowl
05/25/2016 4:53am

Yeh... we're not going to agree, because your definition of good style consists of minimalism and a strong action focus. It's not a style I like to read, and therefore, it's not a style I like to write either. I write the world as I live it, and as I dream it, and this includes plenty of passive sensation, detail, and reflection - not constant action. I recognise your right to write in your preferred style, and I can even recognise aesthetically what you're doing and appreciate your work. But you really ought to stop pretending that your own stylistic preferences are universal rules of good writing. Extreme minimalism is controversial. Extreme action focus is controversial. Dressing up extreme minimalism as "kill your darlings" or "avoid purple prose" does not stop it being controversial.

I've asked over a dozen people about the alleged tautologies, including another writer (with a minimalist bent) and a creative writing tutor. None of these people think that 'smooth floor' is a tautology, especially in an underground dungeon. Only one of them thinks 'labyrinthine maze' is problematic (but they suggested 'labyrinth' rather than 'maze'). Face it - you're on your own here.

Don't get me wrong - I know my writing style needs work, and I'm open to constructive improvements - but I don't want to move it in the direction you want, and I often have exactly the inverse criticisms of your work, i.e. too little world-building, unclear sensory information, lack of emotional connection. I appreciate the time you've put into engaging with my work. But you seem to want to slam my work and one-up me, rather than to engage and improve what I'm trying to do. And if I find time to write an entry this year, I'm expecting you'll hate it for exactly the same reasons. I don't see what you're getting from this.

Reply
Stillman
05/25/2016 8:04am

Well, let me explain what I get out of it. Recently, English grammar has declined greatly as the west marches toward the end goal of ghettoization and orgies in the streets. While your work shows no sign of this decline, I apply the same basket of guidelines to all my reviews for consistency sake. I picked out the important techniques known for their editor-friendliness. Think of all these rules as good starting points. You may not need them, but you have to admit many writers these days need...something. Try to see these posts from the perspective of others who've never heard of these practices and want to submit to traditional editors or literary agents.

I come from the world of harsh 99 percent rejection rates from the traditionally published magazines. Grimdark Magazine bluntly puts this on their submission guidelines page:

“Paid writing is a hard, brutal, unforgiving and often unrewarding world—a bit Grimdark, you might say.”

Those considering the path will want every edge. Based on the rare feedback I get from editors, they hunt for any excuse to reject a story. The internet era provides a sugary illusion of “anything goes.” I hope to help out writers by asserting otherwise. I believe you'll do well with your style, so I guess my posts go out to the “do whatever it takes” crowd.

Reply
Philip Armstrong
05/25/2016 8:18pm

Oh jeeze. I didn't mean to spin this back up again. Apologies.

Andy, I get where you're coming on this one. Nicholas' feedback is a hard pill to swallow. He goes for the bone and holds us all to a high standard. It feels cruel, but you know what? I've done Windhammer for three years, and for three years his feedback has been the most helpful. When writing my entries his corrections are the ones that spin around my head. It's not fun to be criticized so heavily, I know. But gosh darn if my work isn't stronger for it.

You're right though, there are different types of readers. Modern fantasy (to my personal dismay) is about over-detailed worldbuilding. Fans of the genre eat it up. I can't stand it. Books like "The Name of the Wind" are huge best-sellers and regarded as tip-top. I wanted to throw it across the room. I feel insulted on a ~human~ level by each redundant phrase and cliched characterization. The whole time reading I was marking away with a mental red pen, deleting unnecessary words and tautologies. But the book is highly regarded so I just got to shrug and seek out things that excite me.

Nicholas' books may require some effort to read but they thrill me. I marvel at the way he casually tosses out earth-shaking metaphors like "Fluorescent lights cooked your eyes" or ". . .the only heat in the building came from the kids' breath." That level of imaginative description floors me. It's no surprise that I voted for "Frogmen" this year, but not for "Droidchangers." That's not a knock on your book, but it didn't excite me. Not in the way Our Guy did.

But you know, you placed and "Frogmen" didn't. Maybe the audience that reads gamebooks just doesn't want to do the work that Nicholas asks, even when made more palpable for a general audience. I find that disappointing. Both "Frogmen" and "Gunlaw" are on a whole different level. But it was it is.

The thing I can't understand about your argument is your passionate conviction that reader's need every detail laid out for them. I know you're not saying this, but to me it reads as if you're advocating against the very imaginative act of reading. Reading doesn't happen on the page, and it doesn't happen in your mind. It happens in a nebulous horizon, where your mind and the author's words meet to make a new thing. Believe it or not, it's a collaborative act. To deny that by laying down the specific layout of a room, the exact position of a robot's drill-bit, or the flatness of a floor is to deny the reader their part in the act. That they are a baby who cannot be trusted to imagine a scene. Again, I know that's not what you were trying to say, buy boy-oh-boy does it sure sound like it.

(I do admit some authors can get away with it. Check out "The Worm Ouroboros" by Eric Eddison if you want to gorge yourself on description. But these authors are exceptions to the rule.)

Nicholas's style isn't my style. I may be envious of his way to delight with metaphor, but I would never try to emulate it. But his advice on grammar isn't about style (we'll so much), as it is about pointing out those basic-level mistakes, those ones that are so easy to write without realizing it and so easy to miss during revision. You can still write with your desired verbosity and have an effective piece, one that doesn't assume the reader is devoid of an imagination. Part of Windhammer is writing under some tight constraints. We only have so many words at our disposal. Imagine how much more you could do if you weren't wasting words on maze-y mazes and floor-like floors.

Reply
Andy Moonowl
05/26/2016 5:09am

Philip, there's a particular aspect of my writing philosophy where I disagree with the things you say about Nicholas's comments, and with the general vein of Nicholas's criticisms. For me, people are always communicating *across difference*. Each of us can't assume that other people think, know, or feel the same way we do. A writer is necessarily trying to communicate a world stemming from their own perceptions to readers whose perceptions may be quite different. Understanding someone else's point of view is always a struggle. The more one minimises the struggle (without losing what one is communicating or evoking), the more successful one's writing has been. Leaving gaps for the reader to fill, providing insufficient detail and neglecting world-building lead to greater difficulty for me as a reader. As a reader, I want the author to show me new worlds, problems and situations. These have to resonate archetypally to work for me - this is my imaginative role as reader. But, I don't want to be left guessing, or having to figure out, what the world is like, what the characters' motives are. I need a lot of help from the author to visualise their world, and their characters' motives and emotions - which might be very different to anything I've seen or felt. Short of the point where it harms comprehension or overruns the plot, verbosity is an asset. If an author leaves a lot of gaps, they're relying on me to intuit something sufficiently similar to what they intend for their story to make sense. I usually fail to do this. (If you "trust" me to "imagine a scene", then the scene I imagine will be unpredictably different from the scene, or range of scenes, you intend; this will interfere with my understanding of your characters' motives, your plot, etc). As a result, I find suggestive, minimalist, and high-pace writing frustrating and exclusionary. I feel the author is only interested in talking to people who think and feel the same way they do, and they've written in a way which quietly excludes anyone who doesn't. They're failing at the basic task of communicating across difference. I don't like extreme verbosity either, because it also interferes with understanding and resonance. Nicholas's stuff is sometimes past that point where bridging differences in perception becomes a barrier to imaginative reconstruction for me. Philip's rarely is. But, I sometimes find the same thing reading (or viewing) successful work - usually set in the real world. The author is assuming the reader experiences the world in ways I don't, operating with schemas or breakers which I don't have. So the book, show, movie doesn't doesn't work for me as a reader - I don't understand why this character has acted in this seemingly irrational way which is so different from how I'd react; I don't recognise the author's description of a subway which is nothing like how I'd see it, or they assume I know what some location looks or feels like when I've never been to one.

Now, one or both of you may think this makes me a 'baby' or not quite 'human', or decide it means I lack imagination as a reader. For me, it just means that I'm more different from you than the readers you're used to dealing with. So I'm assessing things by very different criteria from other people. I'm not very interested in writing as an abstract competency, or in judging my own or others' work by some checklist of criteria of how excellent the writer's performance is relative to a norm, or by displays of virtuosity in one or another aspect of technique. I'm interested in whether the imaginative world is communicated, whether it's engaging, whether it's creating the communicative link that brings you inside the world and makes you care what happens there.

My impression is that I'm not failing to communicate the world - you're understanding what the world looks and feels like, the characters' motives and emotions, the plot (these are the sorts of problems I'm sometimes having with Nicholas's work) - but I'm not getting the emotional resonance/commitment in your case, partly because you're so concerned about style and technique, on the fact that I'm explaining things you don't think need explaining, or providing details you don't think you need, and this is distracting you somehow - like a little guy on your shoulder with a red pen is stopping you from just reading and enjoying. If I was writing for people similar to me - if I could assume a homogeneous "human" with a homogeneous set of schemas as my reader - if I was inside this homogeneous category myself, then I could intuit how others would imaginatively reconstruct my work. But I'm not, I'm writing for readers who on the whole are very different from me, and so I have to communicate more directly and thoroughly for any of the meaning to get through. This may well mean that I should stop writing, that I can never write things which will be optimal from the point of view of people used to reading things by/writing for others

Reply
Andy Moonowl
05/26/2016 5:10am

But I'm not, I'm writing for readers who on the whole are very different from me, and so I have to communicate more directly and thoroughly for any of the meaning to get through. This may well mean that I should stop writing, that I can never write things which will be optimal from the point of view of people used to reading things by/writing for others like themselves - this is certainly possible. But you should realise that it works both ways - things that you would accept as passing a minimum level of comprehensibility for the reader to imaginatively reconstruct, frequently fail to do so for me. I simply can't intuit - because I wouldn't assume myself - that you would already know that this particular floor is smooth (and it works both ways: I struggle to reconstruct Nicholas's work because he assumes I share his form of life and his schemas - the way he assumes that "you", the actual reader of 'Why don't they...' in 2014, are a straight male who goes by bus to conventions in the cold and remote North of your country is just an extreme example of this). So when someone criticises me for not knowing they'd assume the floor was smooth, they're really criticising me for being different from them, for not having the same schemas that they do - which isn't something I can learn to do "right". It isn't that, if I'd just thought about it or edited more carefully, I'd just have known that Nicholas would assume the floor was smooth because for him, unmarked floors are always smooth. I can't read other people's minds as to what background assumptions they'll make.

Instead of bashing me for the things I can't do (i.e. read your minds/be like you), why not focus on aspects of my work that I *can* improve, like how I build my worlds, whether the characters' emotions are believable, whether the plot is coherent? The dice rolls were too difficult this time - this helps me. I slipped up a few times using earth terminology on a robot world - this helps me. The robots thought/felt too much like humans - this was partly deliberate, but still, it helps. People have said the Tipping Point adversaries were too generic, and most people missed the transition to modernity hook (the elementals were a play on the discovery of modern elements) - this is something I can work on. I didn't keep the humour up enough in Problem? - this is something I could catch on a read-through. In Droidchangers, did you pick up the hero's war-weariness, the wasteland of the world, the dilemmas about holding to principles? Did the liminal zone seem like a liminal zone? Did you care enough about the little guy that you felt anything when he died? If not, what did I need to do to make him a character you'd care about?

Philip Armstrong
05/26/2016 7:59am

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult you. I wasn't trying to call you a baby or imply that you're less than human. I was describing how *I* feel when I perceive a book talking down to me. That you seem to advocate for such works is what compelled me to respond. But as you say, there are many different kinds of readers. Many don't mind redundancies, some, as you describe for yourself, may need them to envision a scene. Some may be so distracted by them they can't engage with the other elements of a work. That's how I felt about "Tipping Point" and "Droidchangers." The writing was clunky enough, in my estimation, that I couldn't really get into the mechanics or characters or messages. (I loved "Problem?" for it's bravery, and the jokey tone didn't clash with the style so garishly.) But that's where I'm coming from as a reader, and I'm just one person.

Andy Moonowl
05/26/2016 9:41am

OK, fair enough, no hard feelings.


Your comment will be posted after it is approved.


Leave a Reply