The Illusion of Choice: Lessons from the Writing Excuses intensive course on writing for games

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash.

Hosted by published authors working in a variety of genres and with decades of experience in the industry, the Writing Excuses podcast offers quick 15–20 minute long episodes packed with insightful writing, craft, and business advice. This year, the podcast has shifted its format to focus on eight-episode intensive courses that drill down into a particular subject — in this case, game writing.

Along with regular hosts Mary Robinette KowalDan Wells, and Howard Taylor, the eight episodes on game writing were led by two guest hosts, Cassandra Khaw and James L. Sutter, both of whom have extensive experience writing for games. Kaw has worked as a senior scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal and as a freelance writer for various indie video game developers. Sutter is a co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder table-top roleplaying games.

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What is Poetry? A Writing Excuses Master Class

experimental photograph with blue and orange refracted light
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

Out of the many writing focused podcasts out there, Writing Excuses has long been one of my favorites. Hosted by published authors working in a variety of genres and with years of experience in the industry, Writing Excuses provides solid and insightful writing, craft, and business advice with a splash of humor — all in bite-sized 15-20 minute episodes.

In 2021, the podcast is focused on presenting a series of master classes covering a wide range of subjects. Most recently, the show wrapped up an eight-episode series on poetry, which was led by Amal El-Mohtar along with regular hosts Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor.

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Diving into the Deep

ocean waves - Thierry Meier - Unsplash
(Photo: Thierry Meier.)

I recently rediscovered the joys of swimming in the ocean. In Northern California, this means plunging into the Pacific, which is bitingly cold. The water when it first hits your feet is almost unbearable, and it takes patience to go deeper—skin tingling as the salty waves reach your belly and then your chest and your shoulders.

On my most recent trip to the seashore, I waded into the dark blue waters until I was neck deep. In the distance the line of the horizon was broken by undulating water, which swelled in front of me—rising up, up, up higher than my head, leaving me no choice but to dive into and through the water.

I had delved past the line of breaking waves. Nevertheless, with every swell of water I wondered, Is this the one that will curve into a wave too big for me to handle? Is this the one that will crush me?

Entering the ocean is always a risky business. The ocean is immense. It obeys its own laws, rhythms, and tides. At any moment, it can push you under and sweep you away.

Many times as a child, I’ve braved the shallow water along the shore, leaping through the waves. Many times, I’ve been surprised by a wave larger than I expected and tumbled, caught in a seemingly never-ending spiral of water, buffeted against the sand and rocks below, bubbling foam swirling all around with no sign of which way is up. Anyone who’s been submerged by a wave has experience a moment of terror, a moment when you realize you might not surface at all.

As I returned to the shore after my most recent ocean swim, I began to think about how the risks faced by writers and artists seem to parallel the risks of the ocean. The act of creating prose, poetry, or other forms of art can sometimes feel fraught with danger. Yet, we continue writing, continue creating, continue delving into the depths.

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What I’ve Been Working On

  1. My work adapting “How Bluebeard Ends” into an interactive fiction game continues to progress. Learning to incorporate interactive elements and story branching (allowing the player to make decisions that effect the outcome of the game) is an interesting process. Although my original story presents a series of alternate endings, the adaptation is not simple or straightforward — as I have to connect those endings in a way that allows the player to feel as though they are experiencing a cohesive world.
  2. Some of my efforts on the game were derailed when in a reassessment of Once Upon the Weird, my blog and newsletter focused on horror and weird movies, TV, games, and lore. The short version is: I’ve been migrating the blog from the WordPress blogging platform to Medium (for reasons), a time consuming process that I’ve finished as of this weekend. I’m not opening it up widely yet, but if you’re on Medium and would like to contribute to Once Weird, send me a message.
  3. I’ve been editing and submitting a few poems, something I pretty much stopped doing over the course of 2020. I enjoy working on large projects (like my novel), but there’s also a pleasure in finishing and accomplishing smaller pieces. And I’m already seeing a reward for my efforts, as two of my poems have been accepted for publication by Yes, Poetry.

Good Reads

The Poet and the Spider,” a short story by Cynthia So (Anathema Magazine) —

You saw the Empress once, when you were still a pillow-cheeked and blossom-mouthed child. She was tall and severe, and the train of her yellow dress flowed behind her for miles and miles, a river of pure gold. You stood behind your mother and wanted to bathe yourself in that river, and the Empress turned, her crown twinkling like a cosmos of cold stars, and she looked at you.

Make Believe,” a poem by Navya Dasari (Liminality) —

as a kid I made believe I was Morgana
born whispering curses over smoke
and I know you would have been
Guinevere, the one who wanders

More of the books, stories, and games I loved recently can be found in January’s Culture Consumption.

Hitting Different: NaNoWriMo 2020

Isolation - The Monsters I Keep
Photo by Francois Hoang on Unsplash.

Last year, I jumped into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the hopes of washing myself of self doubt and depression resulting from years of struggling through a novel that just wasn’t working. The challenge of writing 50,000 words on a new project — something fun and exciting — was meant to help me shift away from a need to achieve the perfect novel (or perfect for me, anyway).

It worked.

Writing last year’s brought the joy of writing back. The Monsters I Keep is apocalyptic YA horror novel about a teenage girl trying to survive in a world full of monsters. The way the novel was shaped allowed me to tell the story in shorter snippets (more aligned with how I write as a poet). The story presented it’s own challenges, but it was also a pleasure to write, providing a world I was eager to dive into.

It was also a story that I didn’t finish. Last year during NaNo, I managed to write some 40,000 words. Over the course of the following year, I added several thousand more. The first two parts are fairly well drafted, but the third part, the conclusion needs to come together.

Last year, when I started The Monsters I Keep, the world was a different place. I wrote the first two parts of this novel before COVID and all the chaos that 2020 has wrought.

Now, looking back on the themes of isolation and facing off against a world full of monsters hits a bit different. Turns out, I have new levels of personal emotional experience to draw from.

As I start in on part three of my character is coming back to people. It seems strange somehow — after experiencing everything this year has had to deliver —  to be writing the section of the novel that’s about coming back to hope.

Then again, maybe it’s the perfect time to be writing about hope.

Good or bad, I’d like to finish The Monsters I Keep. It will still be only a draft, one that will need significant amount of work to make fully readable. But if I can pull this off, then it will be first full novel draft I’ve completed. That would be an amazing accomplishment.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? How is it hitting different for you? 


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Tools for When You’re Feeling Creatively Blocked

It can be hard to put words on the page at the best of time. The inner critic can rear its head, bringing on self-doubt and uncertainty, which leads to a feeling that many people call writer’s block.

However, these are not the best of times. Many folks have been shut in at home due to shelter-in-place orders, which might seem an ideal situation to increase productivity and get writing done. Instead, increased feelings of stress, uncertainty, and depression can make it harder to be creative, compounding the problem.

My own writing process has been hit or miss over the past few weeks, with stretches of no writing being marked with sudden bursts of creativity. Since I’ve been dealing with my own ambiguous feelings towards being creative, I thought I’d share a few tools or methods I use to address the feeling of being blocked when it comes up.

Not all of these ideas are going to work for everyone, so feel free to use or discard them as you see fit.

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