Quest: Writing and Playing Text Adventure and Interactive Fiction

I recently stumbled upon Quest, software created and distributed under an open-source license by Alex Warren for individuals to write and play text adventure games and interactive fiction.  The platform is extremely flexible, allowing reading/playing in either a web browser, downloading to a PC for offline play, and even allowing the option for creating mobile application distributions.

Writing Quest Stories

Quest comes in two varieties for writing your own stories.  You can either download the open-source software for Microsoft Windows OS to create your masterpiece locally on your machine, or you can create a free account on the website to build your story online.  Key features include:

  • No programming skills needed
  • A full tutorial with illustrative examples
  • Write your story in any language
  • Ability to embed pictures, sound, and video
  • Encouragement to share your creation

Here’s an example of the web-editing interface:

Quest-Web-Editor

 

Reading/Playing Quest Stories

The homepage for Quest, http://textadventures.co.uk/, provides over 1,800 available games created by its community of contributors across genres like Sci-Fi, Mystery, Comedy and Romance.  A zero-to-five star rating system helps readers filter down the list of available stories.  A few that caught my attention include:


Survive the Five Year Olds (comedy) You decided to host the party of one of your friends’ kids for a little bit of extra cash. BAD DECISION!!! Can you survive a party of crazy, sugar-hyped five year olds? Play through this game book style choose your own adventure to find out if you can keep them happy until their parents come and take them home.


Mansion (mystery) You have just inherited your great aunt Agatha’s English mansion, Gharston Hall, a rambling monstrosity built in the 17th century. But as you start looking around your new home, a Mr. Brookes lets himself in, claiming that Agatha sold Gharston Hall to Perfidia Properties for the development of a hotel and leisure complex. He also insists that you pack up the last of Agatha’s things and vacate the place by midnight. Something fishy is going on, but what can you do about it?


High School Crush (romance) After a cute girl named Kelly joins Neil’s art class, he falls in love with her. Unknown to him though he’s about to get a lot closer to her…


 

Using Quest in an Educational Setting via ActiveLit

What’s most impressive about Quest to me is the application to an educational setting.  Alex Warren has partnered with Rachel Kelly to make available their ActiveLit service.  There, you have resources available to use Quest in a class our group setting to create and share games in a private sandbox environment.

Happy reading…err…playing!

A little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

Last week a little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal.

I was driving to work down Whitehorse Avenue at seven forty-five in the morning when I came across an injured sparrow in the road.  He was flapping and fluttering his heart out, yet all he accomplished was to tumble and propel himself in circles.  It reminded me of a child wearing swim floats on his arms, splashing wildly while drifting helplessly into the deep end of the pool when his feet no longer touched the bottom.

From twenty meters away, I instinctively positioned myself in the lane so that I would straddle my car over top of the little guy.  As I closed in within ten meters I thought whether it be best to put the little fellow out of his misery, but within five meters decided it wasn’t my place to intervene.  As I passed him I looked in my rear-view mirror and continued to watch him spin in circles.

At thirty-seven years old I suppose I’m middle aged, and I continue to recognize I must be getting soft in my old age.  A few years ago it was recognizing the awww factor of playful kittens, and now, the heart-sinking feeling of watching a painful death to a wildlife species that can fit in my hand.

For the next twenty minutes of my drive to work I contemplated life and death.  Specifically, I tried to understand (unsuccessfully, I might add…) how some men can rationalize that they have the right to end the life of another man through methods like propelling bombs or firing guns.  How can this savageness come from a species who yet can also be touched by a small injured bird?

All this deep thought naturally led me to conclude the value of keeping a journal.

As students we all at one time experienced the assignment of keeping a journal, shrugging the feeling of having nothing important to write nor recognizing the therapeutic value.  As adults, and specifically as adult writers, a journal captures the most important story we can ever hope to write in our own lifetime.

Writing fiction in layers results in more speed and less frustration

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Model Land Company, Everglades Drainage District (Everglades Digital Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week it struck me:  I’ve rarely read an article on how to write fiction—more specifically, how to actually put words down on the page!

When I started writing fiction regularly about eight years ago, I read many books and articles to help me create great plot, make dialog realistic, and strike the right balance between “show” versus “tell”.  I thought I was reading books and articles on how to write.  But instead I was actually reading books and articles on how to create great plot, how to make dialog realistic, and how to strike the right balance between show versus tell.

As a novice writer I’d sit at the keyboard for a couple hours and squeeze out two well-polished paragraphs that read as though they came straight from a book on the shelf of my local bookstore.  But the agonizingly slow pace raised self-doubt, and I’d quickly wind up with an unfinished manuscript of a story that I felt wasn’t worth telling.

Today I have a completely different approach to writing fiction compared to the past. Now I write my story in layers, resulting in a speedier process with overall reduced frustration and self-doubt.

Think for a moment about how a house gets built.  Most people don’t wake up with the idea to build a house and immediately run down to the hardware store to make a huge lumber purchase, or worse yet, buy a brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.  In most cases building a home starts with an idea like desiring a 2-story, 4-bedroom colonial style home, then creating several hastily-drawn sketches, then more formalized measured drawings, then performing the rough framing/plumbing/electrical, then followed by the building shell until finally finishing up with the small details like soft pastel paint colors and finally that brushed-nickel faucet for the powder room.

Writing can be less painful if you write in layers:

Layer 1 – Outline

Start with a high-level outline.  I’m not talking about anything fancy here, so just go ahead and open a word processor and drop some bullet-point sentences on the page.  Re-arrange them.  Delete some.  Add new ones.  Get 10-20 sentences on paper in the right sequence that depicts the story you want to tell.  You can even insert page breaks after each sentence to visually depict the start of a new chapter.

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”

Layer 2 – Fleshing the Story Skeleton

Now go back to your word processor and start building in more bullet points to flesh out the story skeleton.  The objective here is not to write a polished product, but instead you just want words on the page:

  • Primary Lead attends wedding of his love interest to “speak up or forever hold his peace”
    • PL standing on church steps, conflicted whether to go inside
    • PL encounters another friend, Lauren, who challenges him on why he’s there
    • PL reluctantly goes inside, realizing he’s turned into “that guy”
    • PL doesn’t quite know his strategy, but feels this is his last chance for true love
    • Ceremony begins, bride looks beautiful, priest asks the infamous question to guests…

Layer 3 – Rough Carpentry

For me, this stage is where the real work begins.  However the frustration level is usually much lower because I can jump around to different parts of the story on different days, taking a sentence or two and writing a few paragraphs.  Maybe I spend fifteen minutes in one session, or two hours in another session:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.  I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.

“Kevin?” asked Lauren.

“Lauren!  What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself!”

It’s a sloppy mess and it won’t win me any awards, I agree.  But at least now I have something down on paper to react to when I come back to revise in another pass.

Layer 4+ – Revision

I generally find my full-length novel equates to about 20,000 words at this point in time.  What’s that, about 80,000 words shy?  Queue the self-doubt.  But alas, now you can begin seasoning your story and adding bulk.  Writing now gets even easier because you have something to react to:

Saturday morning arrived and I found myself standing on the steps of St. Bart’s Cathedral.  It was nearly six years to the day since I last stepped inside the church for my nephew Evan’s baptism.  But today was much different.  Today I was frozen, having now to decide whether this was really a good idea or not.

I stood on the granite steps for several minutes watching many smiling faces enter the church.  Every time the decorative brass doors opened, I could catch a whiff of the residual incense that burned earlier in the morning for Mr. Covey’s funeral.

I felt a warm hand touch me on the shoulder.  “Kevin?”

I turned to find Lauren with a tear on her cheek, and she immediately embraced me in a loving hug.

“You know, there’s still time to turn back…” she whispered in my ear.  “I’m here to stop you from making a fool of yourself.”

Iterate, iterate, iterate…

I’m skeptical whether there’s value to me in the lather, rinse, repeat directions provided with each bottle of shampoo.  When it comes to writing, however, I’m sold on the iterative approach to building long manuscripts.  For me, it’s invaluable to have something down on the page at each writing session to react to and revise.

Today’s Author articles and writing prompts available in Google Play Newsstand

Our mission here at Today’s Author is to foster a community of creative writers through a healthy and supportive environment which encourages participation via articles, comments, and writing prompts.

To help promote our mission, we’re extending the reach of Today’s Author by making our content available in the popular news reading application, Google Play Newsstand.

With Google Play Newsstand, you can take Today’s Author articles and writing prompts with you—online or offline—on your Android and Apple phones and tablets.

Click here to get started:  http://google.com/newsstand/s/editions/CAownKfNAQ/Today%27s+Author

get_it_on_play_logo_large

How I use Microsoft OneNote as my writer’s notebook

In recent days I started to reap the rewards of a decision I made two years ago to utilize the Microsoft OneNote application as my writer’s notebook.  I use this software application to organize story concepts, manuscript outlines, character descriptions, dialogue snippets, and inspirational photographs for characters and settings.

Think of OneNote as an infinitely-sized, electronic version of a physical three-ring binder that contains one or more smaller-sized binders.  Within these smaller-sized binders you can insert and re-arrange single loose-leaf pages, separating the pages using adhesive section tabs.  Of course, pages and binders can be re-ordered on a whim when the need arises.  Now imagine having this binder with you on your laptop, tablet, mobile phone, or even all three!  In essence, this is the power of OneNote.

Within OneNote I create a new notebook for each new story, in addition to a more generic notebook for more nebulous ideas that pop-up throughout the week but are not yet solidified into an existing story I’m working on.

MS OneNote Notebook Example

Next, I’ll create a few new sections within the notebook, like Plot, Characters, Dialogue Snippets, etc.

MS OneNote Section Example

Lastly, I’ll create pages as needed to further separate content.

MS OneNote Pages Example

The real power of OneNote is in the type of content you can create within each page.  Unlike a word processor, in OneNote you can click anywhere on the page and begin typing, or inserting bulleted/numbered lists, or insert photographs, or insert sound clips, or draw with the mouse, or insert shapes, and so on.

MS OneNote Detailed Page Example

For me, OneNote is an indispensable tool to organize my writing.  What tools do you find useful?  Do you stick with a physical notebook, or do you use software for organizing your thoughts and ideas before writing?

Writing immersive interactive fiction using near field communication (NFC) tags

Talented fiction writers are skilled at drawing upon their readers’ five senses–sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.  But what if a writer had a way to truly immerse their readers into an environment where one could literally smell the zeppoles from the carnival stand or feel the forceful rush of wind from a moving passenger train past the platform?  The technology exists—sort of—in the form of near field communication (NFC) tags paired with mobile smartphone and tablet technology.

NFC tags are a form of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips that cost mere pennies and are often sold in the form of self-adhesive stickers.  Requiring no self-contained power, NFC tags are easily programmed from freely-available software.  And when an NFC tag is physically “tapped” by an NFC-enabled smartphone or tablet, the tag issues commands to the smartphone to take an action like setting an alarm, starting an application, or for the purpose of writing immersive interactive fiction, loading a webpage.

Near Field CommunicationImagine for a moment the creative blogger who writes a web-serial that is set—and targeted to an audience—physically located within a reasonable proximity to them.  Utilizing NFC tags strategically and discretely placed around town/campus, the story unfolds when the reader physically experiences a setting, and then taps their device to an NFC tag which then unlocks a new chapter of the story from the author’s blog.  The sights, sounds, and scents of the story are experienced, and the end of the chapter reveals to the reader the next physical location that unlocks the next chapter of the story.

This Geofiction concept, akin to Geocaching—real-world treasure hunts using GPS technology—probably isn’t for everybody.  It could work well in the city or suburbs, but probably not so well in the sprawling countryside.  The audience is clearly limited.  And, it’s probably more intriguing to a younger crowd of readers.  Though it’s not for me, I admit I’m intrigued by the concept.  What do you think?  Can you see yourself reading Geofiction?

Do creative writers rely on social media for self-validation?

One year ago I canceled my Twitter account, and all it took was a few taps on the keyboard.  Gone were the throngs of “Lit Chicks” from my life who somehow pounded out five novels each afternoon—and still had time to boast about it.

In the months following, I slowly removed myself from the majority of writing communities on Facebook and Google+.  Those abundant “Literary Agents” and “YA Authors” started to quietly fade into the background.  Words like “Thriller” and “Manuscript” etched in my mind’s eye were slowly erased.

It wasn’t long after that I then un-publicized my personal WordPress site—and stopped checking the response count hourly after each new post of a short story for the reply that would come from an agent to pluck me out of obscurity.  In fact, I even went so far as putting my site behind password-protection as to remove its content from the eyes of the general public.

I suspect in retrospect, I was subconsciously using social media to validate myself as a writer.  If I ran with that crowd, I was a writer.  If I was followed by writers, then I was a successful writer.  In reality, it was doing nothing more than hurting my writing by encouraging me to measure my writing achievements against a false yardstick.

Today I mostly keep my online explorations to the Today’s Author community—partly because I helped stand up the site, but mostly because I believe in the mission to foster a community of creative writers.

In childhood, we were forced to measure ourselves by comparison to our peers.  How many of us have thought, I’m a junior in Chemistry class, yet there are three sophomores in this class.  What did I do wrong?  They’re ahead of me!  It wasn’t until I was out of college that I had the epiphany that we’re all on our own journey, at different paces, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And it applies to everything in life, whether education or our passion for creative writing.

For me, canceling Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts was the right decision for the path I wanted to travel.  And largely, it has afforded me the opportunity to write instead of thinking about writing.  Now when I’m stuck on dialogue or want to learn more how to balance exposition in my writing, I’ll search for content when I’m ready to consume it.

By no means am I trying to persuade you to take the same actions I have taken, but I would encourage you to self-evaluate whether, as a result of social media, you’re finding yourself in the middle of a marathon that you didn’t choose to run in.

Silently suffering

WARNING – This post contains material some individuals may find disturbing.  Reader discretion is advised.


Several weeks now I’ve suffered silently with severe bouts of extreme stomach discomfort.

For the first few weeks I expressed little concern for my long-term well-being.  Surely everyone must experience this once or twice in their life, I thought.

Like most experiencing this condition, I’d start my—session—with a tucked newspaper under my arm as I headed to my quiet space.  I’d sit down, roll-up my sleeves, and read a few paragraphs of the daily news before getting down to business.  But I found myself tensing up, which absolutely didn’t help, and I’d find thirty-minutes would pass in a heartbeat without affording any relief to my gut-wrenching discomfort.

Although a few weeks passed, I wasn’t quite ready to seek professional help.  I suppose I was in denial, so instead I decided to try a few home remedies.

I dimmed the lights and played some smooth jazz.  No luck.  I tried some light exercise to no avail.  Finally, I began to exponentially increase my daily caffeine intake; I hear coffee works wonders for people suffering from this awful, uncomfortable condition.

And here we are today; now ten weeks later still suffering from this horrible condition.  But I’m no longer embarrassed, and am here to seek professional help.  I’m suffering from a severe case of writers-block.

coffeecup

It would seem work-life balance is taking a toll on my creative writing.  Maybe it’s the eleven-hour workdays, coupled with other demands like household chores, exercise, and family obligations.  I’m not sure.  Lately, the gut-wrenching stomach discomfort I feel is brought on whenever I realize that I haven’t had the slightest inkling to sit down and put pen to paper.  I don’t think about writing unless it’s watching the deadlines zoom by for my posts due for Today’s Author, and I haven’t logged a single plot or character ideas in my writers’ notebook, which for the past three years has happened at least once weekly.

My mind is a cluttered-mess.  Please tell me this condition will pass?

Some dude’s thoughts on editing and presentation

not-so-famous philosopher

One day, some six years ago, I discussed with a colleague how I felt I wasted two weeks of effort preparing for a brief 10-minute work-related presentation.  Although the presentation was largely successful as I managed to distill the explanation of a somewhat complicated topic down to the bare essentials, I just couldn’t shake the guilt of expending nearly the two preceding weeks crafting and revising just five Microsoft PowerPoint slides as backup material.

My colleague, however, wasn’t surprised and then statedhe once read, “It takes one hour of preparation for each minute of presentation time”.

According to various Internet searches, that quote is attributed to an 18th century American philosopher named Wayne Burgraff, though personally I can’t validate the existence of the gentleman.

Who knows, maybe the guy was just a quick-witted slouch caught loafing on the job?  Perhaps he spouted the statement as a last-ditch effort to save his job?  You never know what fallacies lay in the depths of the Internet.  In any event, I extend my sincere apologies for my naivety to those of you who may revere the philosophies of said Mr. Burgraff.

It wasn’t until this week that I remembered the discussion with my colleague.  It happened when I was in my second hour of editing the draft of a one-paragraph poem, judging myself for how much time I spent near midnight arranging and re-arranging just thirty words.

I then took a step back and thought to myself, Readers don’t care how much time it took you to write a story or poem.  They’re going to judge the final piece.  It’s going to take as long as it will take to get it right.  And I don’t mean grammatically correct… but right.  Edit until you’re happy with the result; there’s no magic formula.

Is there value in maintaining a list of memorable memories?

While out taking a drive and sipping coffee this weekend my thoughts drifted to a writing-related topic I pursue now and again:  Should I maintain a list of memorable-memories of my life?

Just to be clear, I’m not speaking about self-debate whether to begin writing a memoir.  I’m simply speaking of a list of one-sentence bullet points that describe a particular memory, maybe grouped or tagged in some fashion.

As I rounded a soft-bend in the road past a golf course and two horse paddocks, I realized just how amazing the human brain really is when you compare it to modern internet-based search engines.  The lookups are fast, accurate, and extremely detailed, but any form of verbal or written output is painfully slow in comparison.

To me, the value in maintaining a list of memorable-memories is simply to generate content for writing exercises.  Each one of us has hundreds of stories worth telling from the thousands of memories we hold inside.  These memories shape who we are, who we were, and who we’re going to be.

I’m interested to know your thoughts on the topic.  Have you tried this approach?  Has it worked?  Have you stuck with it, or has it fallen by the wayside?