19 November 2011

Update on Stories

My quest to be a published author of static fiction continues. Of 7 updates since October, 6 rejections and 1 problematic publication. So, another slew of stories to send out, I suppose...

A Ruined House - rejected for reprinting 14 Oct
Teiselwalk's Bridge - rejected 17 Oct
Brochure Found Near Storm Drain - rejected 20 Oct
Jabeld's Casket - rejected 23 Oct
Mosquito-Things - rejected 12 Nov
Pennies of Doom - published 14 Nov
The Pendant of Zeklin Kha- rejected 19 Nov

Of all of these, I was particularly impacted by the rejection of "Mosquito-Things" from the Innsmouth Free Press. I thought for sure it'd find a good home there, especially given the focus of its impact is on what I think is real cosmic horror, rather than this catch-penny, be-tentacled "Lovecraftian" sentiment that misconstrues the Gentleman from Providence as some sort of cephalopodphobe or something. I did discover it's possible to almost get thrown out of a bar for ranting about misconceptions of H.P. Lovecraft. C'est la vie. I'm sure the folks at the IFP are a cultured bunch with higher standards than my literary sheddings can yet achieve. Well... some day, perhaps.

I've been quite surprised at the rejection of "Mosquito-Things" from every place I've sent it to, actually. I think the story itself is well-written every time I re-read it, and I've gotten nothing but positive feedback from other readers-- even in rejection letters, it would seem. Why can't this story find a home?

I did get one story published-- "Pennies of Doom." It's another crypt thief story, the second to be published at Flashes in the Dark. Unfortunately, there have once again been problems with the formatting of the story which have yet to be fixed, despite my complaints. There are 7 instances of words run together which should not be (e.g., "deprived every" is posted as "deprivedevery"). This is bothersome and, I think, makes me look sloppy when the errors did not originate in my version of the text to begin with. Then there's a sentence whose meaning has been entirely altered from its original intention. As published, it currently reads:

"Whispers spoke of ways for dealing with the nightmare magic of the Sorim. Ways that twisted these hallways and distorted the senses, but none worked so well, the teacher said, as meticulously maintaining a trail."

But the original says:

"Whispers spoke of ways for dealing with the nightmare magic of the Sorim that twisted these hallways and distorted the senses, but none worked so well, the teacher said, as maintaining one's trail."

So you can see, it's originally intended to show that the nightmare magic of the Sorim twists hallways and distorts the senses, not-- as the revision seems to suggest-- the thieves' ways of maintaining a trail. Maybe it could've been worded better, yes, but while the revision might fix the awkwardness of the sentence, it perverts its meaning. This is something I've also asked the editor to fix.

On a similar note, the formatting errors in "The Pendant of Zeklin Kha" (my other story published there) still have not been entirely fixed, either. The first paragraph still has two words run together, "Sorimlegends" which should read: "Sorim legends."

I suppose I should send the editor another nudge about this tonight to make sure it gets fixed.

In other news, I recently went back over some of my old stories. I've been fond for the past year or two of talking about how I tried to write a novel and failed miserably (regarding a work I "finished" in 2005 that is basically a stupidly modernized retelling of Hamlet) and have never needed to try again. But I re-discovered last night my second novel attempt, which I'd basically forgotten about.

This was a thing I'd started in 2004 while I was working menial, minimum wage jobs. I was writing stories purely out of enjoyment then, just coming home from a dull day with a head full of imagined escapes and needing to get them down in some form. Working title: The Supermarket Prophets. The result is a series of stories generally linked together by locations and characters, but each exploring different fantasies of escape as the characters go through their days working at a supermarket. Because I didn't really think about the thing as something I would ever try to publish, the stories take all kinds of forms (personal narratives, discarded applications for employment, history lessons, an IF walkthrough...) and go in all different directions. I don't think it would be possible to string them together in a strictly chronological order, as there are lots of alternate realities and each narrator has their own uniquely varying level of reliability. I remember intending that I would be able to read through all the stories and decide which I thought was its actual ending whenever I wanted at that particular moment of reading (and which were fantasies told out of boredom by inventive store clerks).

One problem is that some of the stories' voices sound a little too similar. This can be fixed. Others, though, sound quite vastly and distinctly different from each other. That's a good sign, I think.

One thing I was a little comforted to find in this case was how what I think of as my "casual tone" can work to make compelling narrative, even if it is a little overused amongst these stories in particular. Since these works, I hadn't used my casual tone again until The Ascot, and I haven't really used it since then in a serious effort. It's nice to see that it can do something special. Maybe I should write something in it some other time.

In the meantime, I'm a little excited at rediscovering this thing and think I might try to get some more work done on it if I find the time.

How Suzy Got Her Powers

As promised, I'm posting my thoughts on this year's ADRIFT games from the IFComp in the form of letters to the authors. I'm beginning tonight with a letter to David Whyld, author of "How Suzy Got Her Powers."

* * * *

David,

I was glad to see you entered IFComp this year, as I've been glad for your renewed activity with IF in general. Unfortunately, I have to say I was disappointed with your IFComp entry this year. Perhaps I'm just used to expecting off-the-wall comedy from your work, but I can't say I haven't also enjoyed your more serious writings like "The Final Question." I think part of what nagged at me about this one was that it seemed more like an IntroComp entry than one meant as an IFComp entry, so it felt out of place. As a superhero origin story, it left me unfulfilled.

A superhero origin story needs to go beyond the plain fact of how one gets their powers. To take an example, Peter Parker doesn't just get bitten by a spider, "The End." He gets bitten by a spider and chooses to use that power become a crime fighter. An origin story should tell us what a hero fights and why. Suzy, aka Scarlet, is fighting... what exactly? We don't ever really see it. She's not fighting from intrinsic motivation either, which makes her harder to work into the mold of a heroic figure. A lot more is left vague than I would've liked in that regard.

Superheroes need to be strong characters, defined by what they do. What does Suzy do? The interpretation I got was that she's a sexually harrassed waitress who hates kids and lugs around useless items that she loathes. Especially given her items, I felt like I was getting mixed signals, expecting Suzy to be a farcical superheroine, but that didn't pan out.

The story claims that her usual response when a crying child says their mother is trapped a building she can see is currently burning is "to shrug [her] shoulders and say, 'Yes? And?'", which didn't do a lot to make her likable to me. Is she supposed to be an anti-hero? I get strong reluctant hero vibes from her, but that doesn't really work with the rest of the setup unless the Magic Eye compel completely changes her. If it does, though, we don't get to see any of that, so we're missing out on major character development.

I feel like I should've gotten some development from Suzy's debatably brave rush into danger, but it sort of happens and is done, and that's it. Quite a bit of the game, instead, is spent developing interactions between Suzy and the annoying child (giving it the mints and wiping its face with a tissue, oh-so-motherly-like), even when those motherly representations seem to run counter to the rest of her character. Is she motherly at heart or does she hate kids? If she balances this contradiction, might there be a better way to show it? As it is, the nurturing actions are all optional content. Was there other optional content I missed that maybe made her character stronger than I'm getting from what I played? I'd be curious how the scoring breakdown of the game characterizes Suzy.

Come to think of it, overall I'm just confused about who Suzy *is*. Messages are too mixed. If you could pick one action in the game defines her as a heroine, what would it be? Is it her expression of apathy? Her rush into danger? The way she gives mints to kids? Or throws fire extinguishers? Or is it just the virtue of her always being the only one around?

It's pretty hard to get an audience into a conflict the protagonist doesn't even care about. Like Suzy herself, the writing felt like it was just reluctantly going through the motions in an aimless, "Well, I guess I'm here, I might as well" sort of way. I much prefer your writing when it lets loose from conventions and blasts off full force into its subject matter, like in For Love of Digby or Back to Life... Unfortunately. There are a lot of stock phrases in this story that I think you could easily re-write into something thematically potent and exciting. I know you have the talent to do it.

I played through about four times and never did get full points. I appreciated that some work went into getting players to execute non-standard commands and into the presentation of the inventory. I imagine the inventory as it is would mean always having to keep the number of dynamic items down in order to avoid one's inventory from really bloating up the screen, but I think that could be a good design decision overall. I would've liked to be able to throw my brick of a cell phone at the sprinkler system I couldn't otherwise reach. At least then it might've been good for something. The tissue and mint... also didn't really do much for me in terms of character development or usefulness. What does the story lack without them that it needs?

I'd've liked to see how Suzy reacts to being Magic Eye compelled, too. The story just kind of ends at that point, but we don't know how she feels about it. Again, it sort of felt like if we just said, "Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider-- the end." Maybe giving us one bad guy to hunt down or one crime scene to investigate afterwards could've helped to better establish expectations of Scarlet as a heroine.

We didn't really get to use our New Alien Toy for very much. How do you envision it working in the future Scarlet release or releases? It would've been nice to use it in that intended way at least once in the set up so we'd be ready for it when it comes up again.

Overall, what direction do you see Scarlet going in? What non-spoilery info could you tell me about the villainy she'll face? Will she have a costume? If so, what do you envision and what does it tell us about her?

I hope your game's reception in the IFComp has not dampened your enthusiasm for writing this character or her story, but I'd like to see more development in both. To that end, I am eager to see more of this work. I think you might do well to follow an episodic model for releases in this case. I could really see it working, especially as that's been more-or-less the normative mode for superhero development.

Well, that's about all the input I have on that for now. Any thoughts? Please comment below, or perhaps we can take this over to a thread on the ADRIFT Forum or intfiction.org (in which case I'll update this post with a link).

Hope all is well,
Duncan

18 November 2011

A Post on "The Crooked Estate"

Bit of a longish post on my blog regarding The Crooked Estate. It is an excerpt from a sample thesis prospectus I wrote up last June. My thesis has changed direction slightly now, focusing on escape and entrapment rather than the nightmare of anonymity, but I thought this might be worth sharing (for the curious) despite its lack of timeliness.

The new post can be found here.

Anonymity & Nightmare in "The Crooked Estate"

     Ostensibly, this writing should be about interactive fiction, which forms the core of my body of artistic moltings. My project of obsolescence has no long term goals that can be attainable by the exertion of effort; it operates only in a frustrated present. I am comfortable in admitting my ignorance here just as I am in admitting my insignificance anywhere else.
     What is not necessarily interesting in the IF interface is the keyboard itself, which is just a vehicle of the parser framework. One might as well use a gamepad, a human body, or two rocks. Any controller will do. What interests me in this construction balanced between knowledge and discovery is its allowance for a player to exercise lateral thinking, to synthesize information and solutions under their own power. Enacting these answers through the self holds a different quality than an answer processed through an other-- it is the difference between seeing and doing, amplified by the idea that one has come to such an action independently, that it is one's own (rather than, say, a solution looked up in a walkthrough).
     This is, of course, a false conclusion, and one I am only drawing up against myself to tangle fruitlessly with a goal which is still unclear to me as I write. Let us try an example: When one plays The Ascot, one can play without ever breaking the rules and come to any number of dull or unsatisfactory endings. When one breaks the rules, however, and discovers the best solution-- that is, [removed for spoilers]-- one does not actually believe this to be a choice invented just by oneself. Obviously, it is only another authored path, albeit an obscured one. Perhaps the true joy here has only to do with a feeling of completeness and necessity in the game's formal affordances that allows for such an ending. The game otherwise feels exceedingly crude in its craft and pointless. It was released in 2009 and will be forgotten, as with all of my work that speaks a language that few can or want to bother interpreting.
     Much has been made of the potential archival power of the internet, the ultimate database, yet I cannot help but regard so many parts of it as extensions of anonymity, of nothing- and nowhere-ness, of loss. I use the internet like a child hiding dead spiders in the back of a sock drawer: telling no-one, but failing to shut my failed work from my mind, knowing these things still exist and can be found by anyone with the easy means and mere will to do so.
     Even then, each shedding of myself will fade into the nameless architecture of time, essentially erased of any connections or identity-- even with its names and descriptions attached-- as the representamen of the original objects take on their own lives and mutations, struggling to form a perfect blankness. Several will be found with the wrong name on them, founded on lies, and desiring nothing but to eternally go on telling things that never happened and that never will be to nobody in particular. They will be only so much more digital flotsam in a great sea of information, negligible, empty meanings that perhaps once had meant to say something, but were made dumb by the idiocy and indolence of their creator and their nature, only ever part of a silence that might have desired to speak or had fooled itself into the illusion it had a voice of any kind. Even this document, too, is a falsehood. For when these pages are finally re-encountered, if they are not outright rejected like malignant growths of the information machines they came from and went to, when time strips away their context, should they ever be discovered they will only ever reveal an intent-- never a reason or substance, but only an undefined lack.
     Much has been made, too, of lack. To Lacan, our lack defines us. The boundaries of our selves serve to exclude us from objet petit a and the Other we find all around us, at the same time they trap us inside of a thing which may alternatively also not be us or our consciousness-as-it-identifies-itself, a many-fractured and senseless, kaleidoscopic thing given senses. This series of organic machine-things may operate even without our conscious intent or permission. If we choke, it will spit. If we stop our breathing, it will start it again until some exterior force stops it definitively. We are tied inextricably to the horrors that are our bodies. In this machine, within the inescapable magnitude of the currents of time in our corner of the universal void, it is as though we are stuck in the last lines of T.E. Hulme's “Trenches at St. Eloi”:
“My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.”
It may be interesting to explore the thought that the corridor of one's mind may intersect with others, unlike those strict parallels that marched into No Man's Land and death. Yet these hallways-- infinite in their virtuality, regardless of their location-- exert subtle pulls upon their inhabitants, such that “There is nothing to do but keep on” in any particular one. Where intersections are clear, perhaps, one may in fact change direction, yet anyone at the intersection of infinite corridors cannot move in infinite directions. Where one has too many corridors, the space of the possible must be sacrificed until it can be managed. Where sacrifice cannot be performed, the result is a sort of paralysis within space, a visible, writhing menu of still-live possibilities that will never be chosen, committed, or realized.
     This paralyzing infinitude, one form of chaos, serves to remind us that “consciousness has overreached the point of being a sufferable problem for our species,” to which the response of Norweigan philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe is, to wit: “to minimize this problem[,] we must minimize our consciousness” (Ligotti 30). As summarized by Thomas Ligotti, Zapffe offers the following as possible methods of minimizing consciousness:
“(1) ISOLATION. So that we may live without going into a free-fall of trepidation, we isolate the dire facts of being alive by relegating them to a remote compartment of our minds...
(2) ANCHORING. To stabilize our lives in the tempestuous waters of chaos, we conspire to anchor them in metaphysical and institutional 'verities'... that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds.
(3) DISTRACTION. To keep our minds unreflective of a world of horrors, we distract them with a world of trifling or momentous trash... [this method] is in continuous employ and demands only that people keep their eyes on the ball...
(4) SUBLIMNATION. ...this is what thinkers and artistic types do when they recycle the most demoralizing and unnerving aspects of life as works in which the worst fortunes of humanity are presented in a stylized and removed manner as entertainment... these thinkers and artistic types confect products that provide an escape from our suffering by a bogus simulation of it... [artistic] composition cannot perturb its creator or anyone else with the severity of true-to-life horrors... just as King Lear's weeping for his dead daughter Cordelia cannot rend its audience with the throes of the real thing.” (Ligotti 31-32).
Confronted with the paralysis of chaotic infinitude, art seeks by a series of choices to frame chaos, to isolate and anchor it, to distract our consciousness from its incomprehensible magnitude and sublimate our irrational emotions in its wake. “The frame is what establishes territory out of the chaos that is the earth... the frame cuts into a mileu or a space” (Grosz 11-13). Here “the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogenous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic” (Kristeva 235). Chaos is imminently frame-able.
     Each of my projects, then, has utilized text and interactivity in the form of interactive fiction to frame chaos in one way or another, be it ridiculous or horrific. I have made some works as comedies and some as horror, at times using the mantra of seeing the horror in humor and the humor in horror. Often, I would like to leave the determination of such value with the viewer themselves rather than assigning it outright. As Kristeva mentions, horror is “Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter-- since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection” (235). In this fashion, the project of any horrific work is itself laughable, whether this is the laughter of a jester in a hall of merry circus mirrors or the laughter of a hanged man echoing from the silhouette of a gallows at night.
     The Crooked Estate is one such a work, an interactive fiction with no clearly-defined narrative except for a set of pre-constructed possibilities that allow its players to explore the simulated space of an ancient, deliriously arranged and impossible series of galleries filled with abandoned puppets. It is not necessary that the reader come to an understanding of the estate as a metaphor for a world built on a foundation that is deranged at its heart, but that they might absorb through the descriptions of objects within the space and the repetition of particular events a sense of unusualness from the place whose staircase and doorway leading back unto themselves and into a space repeating ad infinitum indicate “a suspension of that natural laws against whose universal dominance our fancies rebel” (Lovecraft 434).
     At the level of the navigated storyworld, the player encounters a number of creations-- cobwebs that continually break and cover every crevice, rotting wallpaper whose peeling layers continue forever without revealing anything beneath but more of itself, the unnameable designs on the wallpaper, or the crevices of shadow underneath twisted, empty frames-- that intend to invoke, like Kristeva's abject, “violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (Kristeva 229). These all I could describe further, but they are not as interesting as the puppets.
     The figure of the puppet I borrow from Thomas Ligotti. In this case, the image applies not only to the heaps of clothy things lying like corpses in the centre of the estate's gallery, but also to the player themselves. For, according to Ligotti, the puppet is not just a puppet, but a thing which might
“negate all conceptions of a physical naturalism and affirm a metaphysics of chaos and nightmare. It [the player] would still be a puppet, but... a puppet with a mind and a will, a human puppet... [they] could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakeable [sic] sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation. Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own-- that you are making moves and thinking thoughts that seem to have originated within you-- it is not possible to believe that you are anything but your own master” (Ligotti 17).
These intentions, as I have mentioned earlier, may be the only hint available to a player as to the real content of the piece. Even it may disappear over time, detached from its coupling with an author. Certain players will no doubt find the space subvertable, perhaps imposing their own delirium of whatever upon it, or merely shuffling about unaffected in a dull boredom.
     The code for the piece shall also be available for perusal of the player [ in its presentation at @party 2011] at the same time as the level of their enacted world-- this code, too, hints at intentions by the inclusion of another layer of virtuality over the database itself. Within the code, players may find things which they are either unlikely to find within the experience of the story itself or which do not explicitly exist within that level of the experience altogether.
     For example, one may find another room to the work, entitled Outside, whose description contains only the text of William Blake's “A Poison Tree,” isolated and with no statement of intent. Though it has one officially intended meaning-- it is just another hint that the estate represents my growing dissatisfaction with one particular community of writers-- this is never made explicit, as these meanings like the rest of my work intend to be erased by dust, leaving only themselves and their imbecilic mystery. The estate itself might also represent that writing platform, with its unsound foundation for attracting the attention of readers that cloisters its community to another forgotten corner of the internet and encourages their creations to only release within that shadow at the back of a sock drawer filled with dead spiders-- findable, but purposefully ejected into forgetfulness-- where no-one hopefully will paw.
     
     * * * *
Works Cited
Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. Columbia University Press: New York 2008.

Hulme, T.E. “Trenches at St. Eloi.” The War Poets Association. Accessed 9 June 2011.

Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror.” DANM 202 Syllabus. Accessed 9 June 2011.

Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Hippocampus Press: New York, NY, 2010.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Selected Letters, Volume III. Arkham House: Sauk City, Wisconsin, 1971.