Interactive Fiction and Gamebooks are becoming increasingly popular every day. The artform peaked and declined in the 80s and 90s, but now more and more authors are emerging who use this as a preferred storytelling medium, rather than as a gimmick. I’d argue we’re at the cusp of a new golden age for branching path narratives.
One such emerging author is Greg Hickey, who recently reached out to me as part of an article he was writing with a central question: Why do interactive fiction writers do what we do? What makes juggling multiple storylines worth the extra effort? He interviewed several such authors, including some bestsellers, and I was happy to add my $0.02. Here’s what I had to say:
Click Your Poison books are, at their core, a form of collaborative storytelling. By letting the reader choose brazen action or reserved caution, for example, you get to create your own story world unlike any traditional novel. My books are meant to be re-read over and over again, with clues gained from earlier reads informing future decisions. This peel-back-the-layers approach of interactive storytelling allows for a unique experience only available to gamebooks. The immediacy of playing the role of protagonist changes the dynamic from shouting at a character, “Don’t go in the house!” to wondering, “Should I go in the house? Are the rewards worth the risk?”
-Author James Schannep
Greg has completed his article and compiled a list, which includes answers from the other authors he interviewed. I’m pleased to be able to share their wisdom with you here:
No, not “Cover Charges” — none of those are required to read this blog post. Do people still read blogs in 2020? I know it’s been a looooooong time since I’ve blogged regularly (sorry about that), but now that we’re under quarantine seems like a good time to start back up again.
I hope you’re all well and staying safe. I’m having a fun time juggling a one-year-old, passing her back and forth to my wife (who is also now working from home). Other than that, social distancing comes easy to a writer.
Onto the post!
Three new covers, coming right up.
#1 — PATHOGENS
The more astute of you may have noticed that PATHOGENShas a new cover.
First, let me say that there’s a lot I like about the original cover. The detail work is stunning. That rat is amazing. The layers in the image are rich and deep. I also enjoy the throwback to Salvador Dali.
But, ultimately, I needed to change the cover for two reasons. First, I felt like the cover wasn’t closely related to INFECTEDenough — and since these are “equels” (not sequels or prequels, but occur simultaneously), I wanted them better linked.
See how they’re a better fit now? And of course the original Dali photo for reference.
Additionally, PATHOGENS sales were the worst of the (at the time) four books. Since I’ve updated the cover, sales have gone up. What do you think? Which do you prefer?
#2 — MURDERED
Right now, I’m in the process of updating the cover for MURDERED.
The impetus for this change was not in my control, actually. I started running Amazon Ads this year, and MURDERED was flagged for “excessive gore.” After a few back and forths with the customer service team, they clarified that the blood and (possible) corpse in the foreground was the issue — either change the cover, or lose advertising rights.
I decided to use this as an opportunity to “fix” a few issues I had with the cover. Or, I suppose, to apply lessons I’d learned over the years. First, was to get rid of the body. Okay, done. Now we have the gun atop the crate with the “pick me up” note featured at the start of the story.
Second, was to increase the size of the title. I asked the original artist to repeat the title on the police ticker tape, but in hindsight I shouldn’t have done. Additionally, the police tape was too muted — and after I added the CYP logo, didn’t fit the color scheme.
I added further police tape for my author name, adjusted the size and location of the images, and cropped out a “CYP” lamp, which was redundant given the logo.
What do you think? Which do you like better?
#3 — SPIED
A new cover for a new book.
What do you think? The cover for SPIED (still a work in progress, sorry), was “leaked” in late 2019 (by me, on Facebook& Instagram).
I’m a bit behind schedule on my Click Your Poison releases, but I’ll chalk that up to:
I’ve moved from the UK back to the US.
I’m now a father. Babies take time; writing requires sleep.
I wrote side-project. A linnear, coming-of-age novel.
I’m very proud of #3 (and #2, obviously. #1 I’m actually pretty sad about), and I’m trying to take this novel to a traditional publisher to find a bigger audience. But of course, this takes time. So, please bear with me, stay patient, and more interactive goodies will come your way soon. I’m still working on SPIED — and others!
What do YOU think? Leave a comment below to join in the conversation.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
If you love (or perhaps “loved”) Star Wars, but never felt right about the prequels, you’re in the right place. [Obviously, if you enjoyed Lucas’s prequels, you’re not. You have your movies, go enjoy them!] What I’ve done here, is provided Star Wars fans with a prequel trilogy that “feels” more like the originals.
I began this project as a writing exercise, a sort of “Oh, yeah? Can you do better?” to prove that the prequels were not beyond repair.
And I’ve done it.
I really have. I’m incredibly proud of these three scripts and in my mind, now they are the Star Wars prequels.
Give it a go. Reading a screenplay is like having a movie unfold in your mind. Put on a John Williams station on Pandora or YouTube and let these scripts come to life in your imagination.
Hit that hyperlink, go to the landing page, and check out Attack of the Empire.
And if you’ve been following along, you might have noticed I changed the title of my Episode II. Originally, it was going to be called The Dark Lord of the Sith. I’ve also changed Episode III from Fall of the Jedi to Return of the Sith. Why?
The titles changed between drafts. As A New Menace was born of a portmanteau of The Phantom Menace and A New Hope, so too is Attack of the Empire a linguistic blend of Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back (while Return of the Sith sits between Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi).
I felt these new titles more clearly stated my goal: Return the Prequel Trilogy to the tone, feel, and world of the Original Trilogy.
This is a blog post that I originally wrote for the website Serious Reading as part of promoting PATHOGENS. Side note/plug: PATHOGENS just received a coveted 5/5 from Awesome Indies reviewers, so if you haven’t checked out my latest book, do that too.
Without further ado:
The Pros and Cons of Branching Out
“Know Thyself” was the command inscribed at Delphi by the ancient Greeks, who arguably invented the drama and the tragedy.
“Pigeonhole Thyself” is the advice given to today’s dramatic writers, words which some would argue are a tragedy.
The idea is to pick a genre, find a niche, and build yourself a lovely summer home there. But is this advice for good or for ill? Let’s flesh out the pros and cons and find out.
Marketability. Far and away the biggest tally mark in the “pro” category, setting your writing within the confines of a single genre can help make lifelong fans. After all, readers who loved your heartwarming WWII love story might not enjoy your vampire detective novel. But if you’ve got a Civil War love story waiting in the wings? It’s that much easier for them to click the “buy” button on Amazon. It’s the same logic behind the advice, “write a series, not multiple stand-alone novels.” Brands sell. Agents think this way, publishers think this way, so why not writers? You’ll need to wear all three hats if you’re going to make it in the era of self-publishing.
Honing Your Craft. Writing and reading, that’s what will make you a better writer. Lather, rinse, repeat. And guess what? If you write, read, sleep, eat, and excrete RomComs, you’re going to get better and better at that genre.
Be memorable. Stephen King is a name that can give people goosebumps. Why? He’s a master of horror. That’s what he does, and he does it well and consistently. If you want to make a name for yourself, it might be worth doing the same.
Marketability. Yes, it can be marketable both to stick to one genre or to diversify your portfolio. The market is fickle like that. If you write only Sci-Fi novels, a thriller fan might never discover your books. But if you wow him/her with your murder mystery, they might fall in love with your writing style and seek out your other books, regardless of the genre. By casting a wider net, you open up new possibilities. You want readers to fall in love with your writing, not simply to take advantage of the love they already hold for the genre.
Passion. If you love reading children’s books, slasher fiction, and comedies, why can’t you write all three? Although, to avoid angry parents, you might want to do a nom de plume for one of the first two, lest the kiddos accidentally cross over. But the point is—writing should be fun! That’s why we all do it, or at least why we started. Write what you love and love what you write.
I’m bringing it back full circle here. The right answer? “Know Thyself.” Weigh the pros and cons, discover your own motivations, and pick what’s right for you. What motivates you to put butt to chair and fingers to keyboard? The prospect of sales? If so, you might want to take the hardline marketability approach. Or if you have a story that needs to emerge, but it’s not in your usual genre, write the damn thing. A book written with passion is so much more enjoyable to read than a book written out of duty. Your readers will notice the difference.
As for this author? I’ve tried to do a little of both. My Click Your Poison series hops from genre to genre, yet each book “feels” like it’s part of the same series. My goal is to have fans/readers pining to read what I want to write, not to be a writer who tries to write what I think readers might like. I love writing my books. That’s the first step in finding fans who love to read them.
Thanks for reading! What do YOU think? On the money of off-base?
Leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
As hinted in my tongue-in-cheek clickbait alternate title, anyone who tells you there’s a guaranteed path to publishing success is probably selling something. Usually in ebook form. As the old joke goes, if you purchase, “Learn how to be a bestseller, just buy this book!” the only thing you’ll find written inside is, “Write a how-to book; tell people to buy it.”
While there’s nothing you can do to guarantee success, there are steps you can take to increase your chances. Many authors compare publishing success (whether self-pubbed, small press, or traditional) to being struck by lightning. Think of these tips as your lightning rods.
Write a marketable book. I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this one, but the easiest way to market a book is to make sure it’s easy to pitch. In Hollywood, they call this High Concept—your story should be clear enough that you can describe it in one to two sentences, and have someone hooked if you only have an elevator ride to pitch your story. I know, you’re an artist, you write what the muse speaks and not what sells. But you really can have it both ways: Perfect your elevator pitch for marketing success, and perfect your prose for artistic fulfillment. No one will read your genius if you can’t convince them to crack open the cover.
Be active on social media. There a thousands of people, right this second, looking for their next book to read, and they’re doing so online. Social media is where you give your elevator pitch, but don’t use the internet solely as a sales tool. Be yourself. When others see that you like the same shows, or they admire your viewpoint on an issue, or fall for your under-140-character wit, they’ll pay more attention the few times you announce a promotion. Which leads us to…
Use available marketing tools. No need to reinvent the wheel, all that groundwork has been laid out for you. If you’re self-pubbed, you should consider running free or discounted promotions of your title. You can also get your publisher to run some of these promotions for you. Then advertise your promotion on the many websites/mailing lists targeted to eager bargain hungry readers. This will drastically expand your reach, increase sales, and gain you reviews.
Market off-line too. Don’t forget to reach out to the real world. You don’t have to be a bestseller to set up a book signing at your local store, or an interview on your local radio station. Tell friends at parties. Always carry business cards! By rubbing elbows with potential fans out in the real world, you’ll increase your visibility online too. Many of those new connections will reach out to find you in cyberspace, or tell their friends. Each new fan is like planting a seed to help you grow as an author.
Think outside the box. There are far, far more reading options than ever before. From the growing list of classics, to the self-publishing movement, it’s hard to stand out. You’ve got to try something different. For me, that’s been book trailers. You can turn that elevator pitch into a short film, and spread it out across the series-of-tubes just like a movie trailer. If done well, it’s an entertaining piece in its own right and most viewers don’t feel like they’re directly being advertised at. Book trailers are a growing trend, but what will be the next tool? Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to discover it.
Are you a writer or marketer? A reader/customer with thoughts on being pitched to? Add your opinion in the comments below. And don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe!
This post was originally published on author J.P. Choquette’s blog after she contacted me and asked if I’d go a bit into the process of writing interactive fiction. I liked the essay so much, I wanted to make sure my subscribers got to check it out, so you’ll find the full piece below. You should also check out J.P.’s website, she brings a great many different voices together and it’s worth a perusal.
Reigning in Parallel Worlds
by James Schannep
The main characters in INFECTED choose to wait out the zombie apocalypse inside their home, boarded up and barricaded, with enough supplies to wait out doomsday. They also leave the city in search of fellow survivors and greener pastures. Oh, and they also become zombies themselves.
No, my characters are not schizophrenic (and neither am I!), they just exist in parallel worlds.
What do I mean? Click Your Poison books are gamebooks—wherein you, the reader, choose how the story progresses. Each CYP title has three unique storylines and over fifty possible endings. Because of this “many possibilities” quality to interactive fiction, different readers will experience different outcomes and have a rather different reading experience from one another. It’s my job, as the author, to keep all these parallel worlds straight.
The problem is, every decision expands the storylines; sometimes familiar to one another, but other times they become drastically altered. Their worlds grow too large to exist solely within the confines of my head! I literally can’t keep them all straight; not by memory alone. So how do I do it? Just like in the real world—I use maps. Almost on a daily basis I’m forced to pause, stop writing, and think, “Wait, is this person dead here? And does this other character currently hate you or love you?” That’s when I check the maps.
Level one is my world map: the outline. In any novel, you need a beginning, middle, and end, with a logical pathway through the three. At the most basic level, the outline keeps the overarching plot on track towards the eventual destination(s).
Level two, interstates and roadside attractions: the chronology. Here I’ll keep a chart in Excel. Important plot points form the x-axis (time) and major storylines/characters form the y-axis (events). This helps me know which events happen at what time.
Level three, city streets, dark alleys, slums and shortcuts: the flowchart. This is my bread and butter. Without the flowchart, none of the other maps matter. The flowchart tells me, if you make decision A (attempt to play dead to avoid zombies), it will lead to outcome B (get eaten!). Often times the path will change slightly and I’ll have to go back, edit the story, and change outcomes. Without the flowchart, that would be impossible. Below, you can see a rough scrap from my latest CYP book as an example.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” If my process sounds excruciatingly difficult, good. My job (in addition to keeping the parallel worlds straight), is to make it look effortless inside the story. Your experience making decisions as reader should be smooth and clean, despite the complexity and ambiguity of the actual decisions themselves.
The real test of all this behind-the-scenes planning is your experience. So go ahead, dive into INFECTED and see if you have what it takes to survive the zombie apocalypse!
“Have a thick skin.” If you’re a writer, whether you’re a hobbyist or a pro, you’re probably given this piece of advice dozens of times throughout your creative lifetime. The gist of the sentiment is: “Don’t take criticism too personally.” And while this is a lovely aphorism, it’s also easier said than done.
To follow the metaphor, having a thick skin makes my professional persona armored like an elephant or a rhinoceros. But here’s the thing–those noble beasts are born thick-skinned, whereas a creative person is nearly always the opposite.
We wouldn’t need a battlecry to “toughen up” if it came naturally. We’re told to desensitize ourselves to criticism because it’s the opposite of our instinctual reaction. When someone judges a writer’s work harshly, this tends to feel like a judgement of the author on a personal level. How can it not? You pour yourself onto the page, whether it be genre writing or memoir, and dedicate months or years to perfecting the product.
Okay, so what inspired this newest bout of self-reflection (and/or pity)? A negative review, of course.
A thoughtful, honest, and thorough skewering of MURDERED appeared on Amazon yesterday in the form of a 3-star review and it’s been eating at me (read the review here). And before you say, “3-stars isn’t negative,” allow me to direct your attention here:
While the reviewer has some lovely things to say about the book and its author (he said in third-person), there’s quite a bit in there that I can only describe as “scathing.”
But I digress. The point of this blog post is for me to expand on how it is that I’m able to have a thick skin. How I “take a licking and keep on ticking.” Sure, I allow myself a moment of self-pity (and by “allow” I mean I accept the fact that I will experience these emotions and resign myself to it). But then I move on. What’s my secret?
My thick skin doesn’t come naturally, it’s formed from callouses.
That is to say, it’s built up as a defense against injury and assault. Each affront, no matter how small, toughens me up. Now, I’m able to look past the surface review and ask myself, “Okay, what did the reviewer really not like?”
The reviewer in my personal example compares MURDERED to a Rubik’s Cube, in a negative way. Their impression is that the book is nothing more than a simple curiosity; fun for a few minutes until the novelty wears off. And yet when I was writing the book, I actually told several friends I felt like I was creating a “literary Rubik’s Cube!” I naturally meant this as a positive–as a challenge. As a game that is fun to pick up and play with from time to time, but actually difficult and time-consuming to solve in full.
Not everyone loves a Rubik’s Cube. Then again, there are whole clubs and competitions formed by those who do. Not everyone will love my books, and some of those people will review them, but there are others who enjoy what I do and I’ll keep writing for that audience. The negative reviews still sting, but with my callouses I’m able to move past them more quickly.
Soon, I’ll be charging forward and there’ll be no stopping me.
Okay, I promised a final analysis and now–two weeks after the promotion–I’m ready to deliver. Here you’ll see the good, the bad, and the ugly. Time for some results, flaws and all.
If you recall the results from Day One, my pre-promo sales of INFECTED were low (if not stable) and my sales ranking was a sad state of affairs (jumping between 40k and 100k depending on how recent the day’s sale occurred). INFECTED had never cracked the 20k sales ranking in its history.
The giveaway crushed those numbers.
My post-giveaway numbers are (knock on wood) staying higher than they were before the promotion. The weekend after the promotion saw 79 combined sales and borrows and nearly paid for the whole promo just using those two days. Note that these numbers do not include foreign sales or paperback units, both of which have increased.
Another huge win in the ‘Good’ category is increased discoverability. This may seem strange, but before the promo I had to tell people to search amazon for “Click Your Poison” to find the book, because there were too many things called “Infected” in the kindle store (164 as of publishing this article). Now, I’m the #1 search result, which is huge.
LESSON LEARNED: This is tangential to a promo, but important enough to share. When I originally wrote the story for INFECTED in early 2008, there was nothing out there with that title. When I published the kindle version a little over a year ago, I didn’t bother to check if the title was taken. Granted, you can’t copyright a title, but you don’t want to exist in the shadow of another book either.
I did not crack the Top 20 overall free kindle books. This was one of my goals, and I’d missed it. I wanted to be the #1 free book if truth be told, but that didn’t happen. Still, I feel like I did everything in my power to promote the book. In the end, horror just isn’t as popular as genres such as romance. Nothing I can do about that. I write books that I would like to read.
MURDERED sales numbers have not seen a significant post-promo boost. In fact, the sales are worse than they were before the promo.
You’ll see there was a boost on the last day of the promotion which carried only so far as the day after. Why the drop? I’m not doing anything to promote the book right now, and the buzz is centered directly around INFECTED, so my new release is starting to stagnate. Will it go up once people have more of a chance to read the first book and start looking for more in the series? Time will tell.
The book has gained 12 new reviews since the promo began. This is a good thing. What makes it ugly, is that 1/3 of them were negative. From what I’ve read and seen from other authors, this isn’t all that uncommon. I’ve also heard that negative reviews can help your book, because it makes it seem more genuine. Pre-promo, my 48 reviews were all 4 or 5 stars, giving some people the (false!) impression that I’d paid or begged for positive reviews. If I’m lucky, this’ll shut some of those people up.
What makes some of these reviews ugly isn’t that some people didn’t like the book (I can deal with that), it’s that they actively tried to hurt my success. The first negative review was entitled, “Don’t pay for this.” Not much of an opinion so much as a command.
Another reviewer attacked the originality of the book, stating that I stole ideas from The Walking Dead because I set my survivor group up in a prison. Tangent alert! When I wrote the book, I set my survivor group in a prison a year before the cast did so on The Walking Dead. It’s a smart place to go in the event of the zombie apocalypse. But Parallel Development does happen.
Okay, enough of that. Time for…
The Final Word
DO use BookBub.
DO prepare beforehand.
DO share word of the promo with your fans, and if people spread the word, DO say thanks.
DO NOT sweat over the results. What will be, will be.
DO NOT let the bad reviews get to you.
DO learn from your mistakes.
January 10th Today starts the final day of my free promotion, and it is with some apprehension that I begin. I’ve read that the “magic number” is 20k downloads. If you get less than that, your promotion was not worth it. You also need to make it into the Top 20 free books (overall) on Amazon’s best sellers list. Bearing those stats in mind, let’s see how we’ll start off the day:
NOTE: CLICK ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE
Woof. No update in the ranking and a measly 300 downloads overnight. Fear is sinking in… Am I doing this for nothing? Have I spent all this money advertising only to fail? But I can’t think that way. Today is my BookBub day, they’re supposed to be the best of the best, and that announcement hasn’t gone out yet. Holding out faith for “BookBub the Almighty” I’m still worried. I’m listed in the horror category which is one of their smaller lists. As you can see in the pricing chart below, the average downloads for a free horror book are 6,700 with a historical maximum of 10k over the entire promotion.
Seeing as how I’m only using a single day of BookBub, I’m thinking I’ll be lucky to get 6k. Which means <12k downloads. Which means… failure. Well, at this point what’s done is done. Best to let it play out and hope for the best (along with continued plugs on social media). Yesterday’s lesson was to be patient and not to panic, so I’ll try to keep that in mind as the day progresses.
Here’s a mid-day update, after BookBub has gone out:
Whoa! Now that the BookBub announcement has gone out, the downloads are gushing forth like spray from a firehose. I can literally refresh the page every few seconds and see more and more downloads. #26 overall! Maybe I’ll make the Top 20 before the day is through?
LESSON LEARNED: BookBub rocks. Until something changes, don’t do a free book promotion without them. This is my honest advice.
I'm currently giving out copies of INFECTED at a rate of 3k every 2 hours. Hahhahaha, what? This is insane. #enjoytheride#cloudnine
With numbers like this, I’m very very hopeful again. Though I’ll only be “On top of the world!” for a fleeting instant, it’s nice to bask in that accomplishment. When you do your own promotion, don’t forget to do so as well.
LESSON LEARNED: Enjoy yourself.
Everything’s going my way! This is amazing! I’m climbing the chart, I’m absolutely killing it, I —- just got a 1-start review. What? Ugh. Hours before my promo ends, someone shows up and says “Do not buy.”
LESSON LEARNED: Shrug off the haters. As much as it sucks getting negative reviews or bad press (someone also posted in the comments of an INFECTED blog review how much they hated it…), if you manage to give out 20k copies, you’re bound to have some readers that don’t like what you’ve done. There’s no pleasing everyone.
Okay, time for one last check as the promo ends…
The best INFECTED was rated during the promotion was #22 Free in Kindle Store, so I didn’t quite make the Top 20, but I did (barely) make 20k downloads. Will it be enough? Time will tell…