Would You Read It?

From Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, an exchange between protagonist Gil Pender (an unpublished writer) and Ernest Hemingway:


PENDER: Would you read it?

HEMINGWAY: Your novel?

PENDER: Yeah, it's about 400 pages long, and I'm just looking for an opinion.

HEMINGWAY: My opinion is I hate it.

PENDER: Well, you haven't even read it yet.

HEMINGWAY: If it's bad, I'll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it's good, I'll be envious and hate all the more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.

Or

I've been mainlining news headlines / topics of the 2000s lately, for a freelance creative project. I'm reminded again and again by how violent and dangerous this world is, and how rotten people can be to one another.

I am so very grateful to live in a country where I can type this update onto a magic sheet of glass that talks to the sky (which you can then read on your own magic sheet of glass that talks to the sky), and not have to worry about being a victim of a car bomb. Or a famine. Or toxic water. Or radiation. Or mutilation. Or enslavement. Or...

Anticipating Curiosity

Ross Floate sez: "When we build things for people, I always ask, 'How could someone screw this up for shits and giggles?' People tend to think I’m joking, but I’m deadly serious because if your site, network, or product becomes a playground for a bunch of jerks, it turns off the people whose time and attention you’re really trying to obtain."

When I've worked on transmedia experiences that have interactive/user-gen content touchpoints (such as Byzantium and Deja View), our creative teams have always asked Floate's question, and then built systems to proactively address the behavior of such curious users.

I want to characterize these users as mischievous imps or destructive trolls, but that's usually an unfair assessment. Whenever people are invited to participate in a thing that has a formalized system—a thing with rules—there's a subculture of folks who'll naturally want to stretch the boundaries of its design, if only to see how elastic (or static) those boundaries are.

These are the same people who command their Mario to run to the "left" side of the screen in a Super Mario Bros. game, to see if the screen scrolls in that direction—even though every environmental cue tells players to run "right."

Truthfully, I admire that kind of creative, unexpected thinking—and when I embrace that impish curiosity as a user/player on my own and test the boundaries of others' systems, I grin when I discover my curious behavior was anticipated by the designers.

 

The House of Now

I just finished reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a finely-researched and -written book about the rise of The House of Ideas, and its fall, and its rise again, and its fall again, and its rise again, again. I suppose if you're already deeply knowledgeable about comics history, or have closely followed Marvel throughout the years, not much in its pages will surprise you. For a reader like me, however, it was a wonderful and revelatory ride. I recommend it.

The comics industry has experienced countless creative and business challenges, and encountered (and sometimes outright ignored) important matters regarding the ethical treatment of creators, their creations, and compensation for the merchandising and adaptation of those creations in other media. The decades-ago outspoken criticism of Marvel by industry icons like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby remain some of the best-known examples, as does the en masse 1992 departure of superstar Marvel artists McFarlane, Lee, Liefeld and others to form the creator-owned Image Comics.

As a fierce advocate of creator rights, I'm deeply sympathetic to the plight of folks like Ditko and Kirby, and often agree with the scathing critiques creators like Frank Miller have leveled against mainstream comics publishers. But as a guy who's gotta eat and writes transmedia stories set in the worlds of existing fictional universes—including the X-Men cinematic universe—I'm also sympathetic to the media companies' position: It's work for hire, bub. You can't always own what you write.

For creators like me, that's just fine.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story suggests that few, if any, creators were thinking much about royalties and reprint revenue and profit-sharing and merch and on-and-on, way back when Marvel (and other new comics publishers) were forging brand-new frontiers in the medium. Back in those days, comics weren't Comics. They were funny books, man. It was practically one big sweatshop. There were crushing artistic workloads to address and punishing deadlines to meet. The vibe one gets while reading The Untold Story is that the Merry Marvel Bullpen was in a state of perpetual "present tense"—now, now, now, get it done now, we've got fires to put out, fellas, move your asses, go go go.

Of course, this state of ever-present Now (and publishers' business practices of the era) discouraged long-term thinking about creator rights, adaptations, contracts, that sort of stuff. That led to a whole shitpile of problems down the road, problems that needed to—and continually need to—be discussed frankly, openly and fairly.

As I read about those effervescent times, however, I couldn't help but wonder if that ever-present state of Now also generated some unusually crazy-good stories, characters and experiences simply because creators were solely focused on creation. Is it possible that such a collective and concerted creative effort, with little regard given to "big picture" stuff like franchise development and cinematic adaptation (as undeniably important and necessary as that stuff was, and is), freed these creators' minds in ways they might not otherwise have been?

It's a romantic and deeply naive notion, I'm all but certain. But when I look back on my own career, and examine when I was at my most unabashedly energized, enthusiastic and optimistic about storytelling, my mind always turns to those early days of podcast fiction, from around 2006 to 2008, when a small collective of creators helped invent, iterate and innovate something that felt entirely new. There wasn't much, if any, money to be made—not yet, anyway. It was a fever-dream of like-minded artists and audiences merging into something organic, untamed, and certainly not fully understandable.

Taking cues from successful media that came before them, some podcast novelists shared characters amongst each other, crafted "crossover moments" between fictional universes, and more. Among some creators, there was even very-fleeting secret talk of creating a Crisis On Infinite Earths-like podcast experience in which numerous authors' characters teamed up to combat an impossible threat that feasted on Fiction itself.

I look back and marvel (ha!) at all that infectious energy, relentless creativity and good humor. The sources for some of this stuff hail from being young and hungry and industry outsiders, absolutely. But I also believe a great deal of it was fueled by a willful disregard for revenue, rights, profits, ROI. That stuff would come later, we supposed. And for many of us, it did.

When our once podcast-exclusive stories found homes in more static (and profitable) media, some of us had to untangle the threads between our works. Sadly, the tiny connections between the Siglerverse and the 7th Son universe and the Heaven universe (and others) had to be removed or revised. We did this because our works had to stand on their own, and make sense for new mainstream readers. We also did this because book/media contracts are weird things. We wanted to remove any doubt regarding "who" owned "what." We wanted to ensure everyone had proper ownership of their IP. It was a necessary, but strangely bittersweet, thing to do. At least for me.

I'm rambling now, I know that. But my point, as amorphous as it is, is that there was an unbridled energy and creativity in those adventurous early days that seemed to operate in a realm just beyond (or perhaps more appropriately, just before) contracts and film options and merch and all the things I now think about when I create stories. I can't speak for other podcast novelists from that time, but I regard those few years as the most unapologetically fun of my career. We were our own House of Ideas, in our own state of perpetual Now. Go, man, go go go.

Which brings me back to Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The book's worth reading, if only to have a clearer understanding of how the most influential company in the comics business helped define, and damage, and redeem the medium's reputation. It's a wild story, filled with hundreds of remarkable—and remarkably creative—people. Like Grant Morrison's Supergods (which I also read recently and highly recommend), The Untold Story has me thinking about superhero comics, and the kind of stories they tell best, and the remarkable impact they've had on our culture ... and how creators (and their creations) should be valued and treated.

The Stanley

My ladyfriend and I visited the Stanley Hotel recently, the historic Colorado resort that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining all those decades ago. It was a lovely place. In two wonderfully-conflicting stories from two different Stanley tour guides, King's one-night stay in the hotel was retold, as were the creepy experiences he had while roaming its halls.

King famously hated Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining. His criticisms aren't unfair: Jack Torrence's descent into madness and murder is a slow, insidious burn in the book. His conflict about his alcoholism is also more pronounced, intense and sympathetic. His wife Wendy is sharper and more empowered in the novel, too. And the ending is different. The victim of many a lousy film adaptation, King has said, "Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They're both deeelicious, but taste completely different." Nevertheless, he loathed Kubrick's take on The Shining.

Our tour guides insisted that, back in the day, King wanted Kubrick to film The Shining at the Stanley Hotel—the very site that inspired his story. Kubrick pointed out that the hotel's location wasn't especially remote in real life, and certainly didn't appear remote in wide shots. Further, its (at the time) yellow interior decoration made the place look like "a birthday cake." It just wasn't scary enough.

Instead, Kubrick shot exteriors of the Timberline Lodge hotel in Oregon, and interiors on a soundstage.

Eventually, the film rights reverted to King. Determined to see a more faithful adaption happen, he personally wrote the teleplay for a three-part TV miniseries. He also exercised his influence as creator and Executive Producer to have the production film on location at the Stanley Hotel. Exteriors and interiors, the works. The story had finally come home—and that's a pretty cool thing, because it so rarely happens.

Upon returning from our trip to the Stanley, we rented the 1997 The Shining miniseries. We finished watching it last night. It was fun to see the hotel on-screen. We even got to see our very room's windows in exterior shots. Once the character dives into full-bore crazy, actor Steven Weber (from Wings) does a pretty great job of playing an unhinged Jack Torrence.

But.

Filmmaking is a difficult business, fraught with challenges the audience never knows about, or sees. I don't know if any of those challenges plagued the miniseries' production, but there's lots of problematic stuff in the six-hour experience. Ultimately, it's a too-long, could've-been-better-written, flatly-directed, low-budget snoozer. And the hotel didn't look scary. Or especially remote.

Kubrick had been right. Of course Kubrick had been right. And his is a way better movie.

But boy, the Stanley sure is a pretty—and pretty inspirational—place to stay.

Secret

Here's a secret I've never shared with anybody. This isn't a big deal, so I don't mind spilling it. I just realized I've never articulated it to anyone other than myself.

The primary reason I so thoroughly embraced fast-paced blip-blip-blip social media instead of blogging is because I've convinced myself I'm not especially insightful, and don't think I have anything interesting to share with others. In my mind, a blog is a place for thoughtful communication—where Interesting Things are shared. Twitter and Facebook is for hang-wringing and absurdity. It's easy to make silly noises with your mouth when everyone else is. It's also kind of lonesome and unfulfilling, making silly noises with your mouth.

I also think the reptilian part of my brain is thoroughly addicted to these sites' engaging, gamified systems. Between the retweets, stars and red notifications badges, there's always something scratching your pleasure zone (validation!), and providing a perpetual reason for going back to those sites. Over the years, my brain has happily rewired itself to associate those notifications as personal triumphs—proof of self-worth, or cleverness, or something else. That's effed up.

Anyways, I'm making an effort to unconvince myself of some things, and embrace more thoughtfulness and quiet in my life. I think that would make a positive impact on my perception of the world, and of people.

Help Kickstart Storium, the New Online Storytelling Game

I think a lot about creative writing, guys. I love and live the craft, and want others to, too. The world needs great storytellers. The world is a better place when diverse perspectives are shared through story.

The trouble is, it's hard work.

There's so many challenges: It's tough for most folks to get into a persistent writing groove, invent and explore a cool fictional world, and tell great stories with memorable characters and plot twists. Some writers say this stuff is easy. Know this: These guys are no-good liars.

But here's the intriguing thing. Telling stories is actually super-easy in our everyday lives. When you answer the question How was your day at work?, you're telling a story. When you play make-believe with your child, you're telling stories. When you gab with your pals over drinks, you're telling stories. Storytelling is like Star Wars' the Force: It surrounds us and binds us. It hides in plain sight.

I'm convinced some of the world's best writers also hide in plain sight. They aren't yet writers. These folks simply don't have enough incentive or gumption or time to embrace the craft. I understand this all too well. Like I said, it ain't easy.

But what if there was a safe environment that actually could make it easy? An experience that made written storytelling fun and engaging — and fostered good habits of persistence, which lead to that all-important writing groove?

Storium might do that very thing. I'm very proud to say I've had a small hand in creating it.

Storium is an online storytelling platform. It merges the very best elements of storytelling with writing, and makes it a game you play with friends. It's an actual honest-to-goodness-fun-to-play experience. It presents folks with a safe, judgment-free environment that embraces fellowship, conversation, collaborative play and spontaneity. It works with any story genre, and it's for players of all ages, backgrounds and level of experience.

At its heart, Storium is a game, and all games have rules. But Storium's stay out of your way. They're there only to provide the ingredients for fun, creative, story-driven play.

It's the easiest way I know for you and your friends to tell a story together online. No joke.

Storium's been in the works for more than a year. I'm a proud advisor for Protagonist Labs (the startup company behind Storium), and have been gabbing with Protagonist Labs co-founder Stephen Hood for a year now. He, co-founder Josh Whiting and lead game designer Will Hindmarch — yes, THAT Will Hindmarch, of Vampire: The Requiem, the Dragon Age RPG and Lord of the Rings Online fame — have been building and iterating an online multiplayer experience that's easy to learn and effortless to play.

Hundreds of people have played the Storium system as Alpha testers. They love it. And so Protagonist Labs is going to push for a real-deal public launch later this year. The company debuted a Kickstarter today to help fund the remaining costs of developing the Storium platform, and they've brought me — and more than 40 other novelists, game designers, game writers and transmedia storytellers — along for the ride.

We're creating playable worlds for Storium, see — fictional settings where you and your friends can tell your own adventures. These worlds provide just enough info to get your juices flowing, so you can create incredible collaborative story-game experiences, together.

If we achieve our fundraising goal, you'll get to play in the world of THE 33, my new supernatural/sci-fi/action thriller series. You'll join a secret team of badass misfits tasked with protecting humanity from ruthless ultra-criminals, malicious technologies and hostile supernatural beings. You won't be saving the world — you'll be saving my world. That'll be cool for both of us.

You'll also get to play in super-imaginative worlds created by profoundly-talented creators like Delilah S. Dawson (author of Wicked As They Come), Stephen Blackmoore (Dead Things), Mark Diaz Truman (lead developer of the Firefly RPG), Jason Morningstar (designer of the groundbreaking story game Fiasco (!!!)), and many more. We've got settings from the Harlem Renaissance to 1980s Soviet Invasion alt-history, and gobs of stuff in between. I'm absolutely honored to be in these folks' company.

And we've got dozens of other ultracreative storytellers waiting in the wings to create worlds, if stretch goals are met. Folks like podcaster & author Mur Lafferty (you'll get to play in her Afterlife storyworld, where Heaven was set), and brilliant fantasy novelist Saladin Ahmed, and award-winning transmedia writer Andrea Phillips, and Leonard Balsera (lead developer of the Fate RPG system (!!!)), and more. Like, more than 20 more. New York Times bestsellers. Multi-award winners. Rock-star names in game design and RPG writing. They want to create worlds for Storium, and they can, with your help.

Watch the video above. Learn more about Storium and the Kickstarter, and consider becoming a backer. If you've ever wanted to write stories but couldn't find the time or gumption ... or if you miss the days when you and your pals got together to play games, but now can't because of time and distance ... or if you're keen to monetarily support an entirely new way, and fun, way to tell stories, please kick in.

This is a game that gets out of your way, that wants you to have fun. It puts story and players first. It works for every genre, for players of all backgrounds and levels of experience.

It's the easiest way I know for you and your friends to tell a story together online. No joke. Take a peek. Become a backer. We'd love your support.

Get A Sneak Peek: John Swords III

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John Swords III, field commander for THE 33, is kind of a badass. He's got some badass combat duds, too. You'll see 'em in Episode 2, on sale Feb. 28.

Aw, hell. Why wait until Feb. 28? I asked award-winning artist and costume designer Jared Axelrod to draw and paint Swords in his combat gear, based on my written descriptions from Episode 2. Jared has. The piece looks GREAT — and I want YOU to see it well before the story goes live.

It's a The 33 Newsletter exclusive. Just mosey on over to my The 33 page and sign up for the newsletter. You'll get the awesome in a few days. And a few days after that, you'll get another newsletter-exclusive treat. Pretty spiffy.

(And hey. If you're new to the newsletter, you'll also snag a 33% off coupon for Episode 1. Mmmm, tasty savings.)

The World Has The 33

I'm delighted to announce that the premiere episode of The 33 — Pramantha, Part 1 — is now out in the wild, and ready to be consumed by your eyes and ears. Oh, happy day!

This represents a gale-force exhale for me. I've been thinking about, and creating, The 33 in one form or another since 2008. That's a helluva long walk, friends. But the project is finally here, and I'm proud of its first episode.

What is The 33? It's the A-Team meets The X-Files, a weird present-day world where science and sorcery coexist — along with gods, monsters, rogue AIs and anything else you could throw into the bizarre blender that is my brain. It's about thirty-three men and women — misfits, every one — who've been hired to protect the world from a cabal of baddies intent on jumpstarting armageddon.

In many ways, The 33 is my salute to 1980s TV adventure shows and comic books. It's my quirky take on team-based, save-the-world stories. It's also my spin on ebook publishing. The 33 isn't a novel. It's a series of short stories, told in season-long arcs — just like TV. Some adventures are multi-parters. Others are one-shots. Just like comics.

Episodes will be released monthly.

If you're diggin' what I'm transmittin', head over to The 33's page. There, you'll learn a little more about the The 33's cast of unusual (and ever-changing) characters, and find links to purchase the first episode at my site, Amazon and other marketplaces. (Ebook episodes are available at several stores, but The 33's audiobooks are sold exclusively here.)

And hey. While you're over at The 33's page, take three seconds to sign up for The 33's newsletter. Do that, and you'll snag a free excerpt of Episode 1 in text and audiobook formats. You'll also get a coupon for 33% off your purchase of Episode 1. Freebies and deals. Not bad.

Unlike my past digital fiction projects, The 33 isn't free. I hope you're cool with that. I am, 'cause I gotta eat. But I've made sure the prices are fair for you, and for me.

I hope you'll check out the first episode of The 33 … and if you like it, I hope you'll tell a friend or two. Or two dozen!

As always, if you have any questions or feedback — or if you're a blogger/podcaster/reporter who'd like to learn more about The 33 — don't hesitate to drop a line. Thanks so much … and remember: The world needs The 33.

—J.C.

Next-Gen Console Reviews from Polygon

Polygon isn't a perfect online publication, but it's often thoughtful and deliberate in its coverage of video games entertainment. Story for story, it's become my go-to site for well-written, timely coverage of video gaming news. Its long form features are especially good.

The Polygon team recently reviewed the next generation consoles, the PlayStation 4 and  XBox One. While the site's long form text reviews (XBox One's is here; PS4's is here) are insightful and well worth reading, Polygon's video reviews of both products, seen below, represent some of the best the site has to offer.

If you follow video games journalism for any length of time, you soon discover that so much of it is ill-written, hyperbolic and downright bad journalism. That's because most of it isn't journalism at all, but attitude- and personality-driven punditry. Blech. Polygon strives to transcend that, and often succeeds.

I'm a PlayStation guy, so I'll eventually pick up a PS4. (My PS3 games backlog, right here on my bookshelf, is still too big for me to justify a PS4 purchase at present.) Polygon gave the XBox One an "8" in its review; the PS4 received a "7.5." For invested console gamers, those scores are interesting — and perhaps even underwhelming. But Polygon is examining the big picture, confident both consoles will improve in time, as new games, UI improvements and software patches are rolled in for both consoles.

These are terrific text and video reviews. They show us what great games journalism looks like.