Today’s post is a transcript from a recent conversation with author Mr. Jay Barnson, which occurred during his visit to my little corner of the etherverse. Barnson is video game designer, up and coming novelist and acquaintance of mine through Xchyler Publishing.
Barnson: What, they’ve got stools here, too? Man. Classy establishment. So much better than the last place I found myself…
J. Aurel: I understand that you have a new work of fiction. Can you tell us a little about your story?
Barnson: I could tell you, but then I’d have to ki… oh, fiction. Right.
I was actually inspired when I was doing research on what was going to be a totally different story, involving telecommunications in the Victorian era. I had some weird idea for steampunk technology, but the more I dug into the actual technology of the era, the more I realized that what I thought would be science fiction in the 1880s was actually science fact. They really did have pretty amazing technology back then. Trans-Atlantic communication, fax machines, “online” romances, telecommunications fraud…Really, all the stuff that we think are unique to the Internet age… maybe back when it was text-based, at least… existed back then, on a smaller scale.
A few months earlier, I’d read an article about a profoundly autistic teenaged girl. Her therapists believed that she was also intellectually disabled. With a great deal of effort, her family taught her to use the keyboard. After a while, she was able to write messages to explain what she was going through. Even her family, who loved her and knew her best, had completely underestimated her. Here was an intelligent young lady with the same emotions as any other girl her age, fully cognizant of how her brain and body were betraying her. Until she used an alternative form of communication, everyone assumed she was incapable of understanding what she was doing.
Between this, and a little study of Savant Syndrome, I thought about how little we know now in the 21st century about these kinds of disabilities. Back in the 19th century, what chance would even a mildly autistic individual have?
These ideas became the seeds for Dots, Dashes, and Deceit. From the high-tech telegraphy industry came Winnie. She’s a young, small-town telegraph operator who has been displaced by advancing technology. She’s frustrated by her love of technology and hope for adventure, and the expectations of society which considers her perilously close to “old maid” status. Then you have Joshua, a mute savant, dismissed by the town as harmless but hopelessly “dumb,” in both senses of the word. However, nobody recognizes that the supposedly nervous habit he has of tapping with his hand is actually Morse code… and that he’s discovered a deadly plot that he has been unable to communicate.
Add to that an eccentric inventor, mechanical men controlled via Morse code, an alternate history where the East India Company was not nationalized after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, long-distance plots from across the world coordinated via coded telegraph messages, and an airship full of thugs… and you have Dots, Dashes, and Deceit, my short story coming soon in Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology.
J. Aurel: Wow that sounds like quite the story! What moved you to become an author?
Barnson: I honestly can’t remember when I didn’t want to be an author. I think I discovered that I had a knack for it in the fourth grade, when we were given some creative writing assignments. Most of my classmates complained about it, but I loved it. They had trouble filling the full page-and-a-half minimum size. I had trouble keeping my stories under eight pages.
At that point, I told my teacher that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. She told me that I couldn’t unless I improved my handwriting. Hah, I thought, I’ll show her! I’ll just type all my manuscripts! That was how I avoided having to improve my handwriting.
I have been writing ever since, but I’d never really tried to get my fiction published. For about half my career, I’ve been developing video games, and in many ways that scratched the creative itch. But I still have a long-standing love of books, and getting my fiction published and read has remained a goal.
I guess like a lot of authors, I finally hit the point where I said, “I’m tired of wishing, let’s do this.” I was frustrated by some of the speculative fiction out there, and inspired by others. I finally decided it was time to really work at it and write the kinds of stories I wanted to read, and develop the skills necessary to make them worth reading. Hopefully, people will enjoy what I’ve done.
J. Aurel: Simply marvelous, I see a great deal of passion behind your words. So, how is it that you came to be published by Xchyler Publishing?
Barnson: Around the same time I felt the urge to get serious about writing fiction, I discovered Xchyler Publishing at a steampunk festival. I was excited about their books, especially the fact that they regularly published anthologies of short stories. That was a story form I used to love as a kid, but has been in decline for a long time.
I really “got” these guys, and the niche they were filling. They aren’t some big, faceless publisher playing the numbers, nor are they a little fly-by-night indie operation that’s really more of a vehicle for some guy’s self-publishing efforts. They are small and nimble, have an excellent team of skilled editors and people who understand the business, and a breakneck publishing schedule. More importantly, they have an emphasis on not just finding talented writers, but nurturing them and really helping them do their best work and get better at their craft.
J. Aurel: Being on the recieving end of Xchyler’s phenomenal services I couldn’t agree more! Do you have any other published works?
Barnson: Not fiction, no. I’ve published non-fiction articles several times, including in The Escapist (see Going Rogue, and Weekend Warrior). There are a number of published games with my name in the credits for the PC and game consoles. But this is my first published fiction, so I’m kind of giddy. Or maybe it’s this grog that’s making me giddy. But I’m going to go with that other thing.
Barnson: That was what intrigued me, too, coming from the other direction. When I finally committed to writing fiction, I tried to educate myself not only on the craft, but on the industry. I discovered that both the video games industry and the publishing industry have been moving in the same direction. It’s nothing like the industry when I was a kid!
When I started in the games biz in the mid 90s, the big publishers ruled everything. Sure, there were some self-published titles – including some very successful ones – at the time in the “shareware” space, but most of the time it was something of a wasteland. The big publishers were the gatekeepers, and you played by their rules.
That was how I got my start – working on console titles for major publishers.
But after I left the biz, there was a quiet (at first) “indie” revolution going on, thanks to people getting widespread Internet access. Suddenly, bypassing the major publisher gatekeepers was a viable option. Instead, you had studios going direct (self-publishing), and small independent publishers really doing great things – with far more speed and agility (and lower budgets) than the big guys. I’ve been involved in the indie side for several years now, and it’s amazing to see how it has grown – especially in the wake of mobile devices.
It’s very similar in the book publishing industry. In fact, I was frantically taking notes figuring out what sort of strategies were working with books in the hopes that I could leverage similar ideas on the video game side of the fence.
As far as the work involved – well, they both require a surprising amount of effort than it seems from the outside! Games of course incorporate art, sound, story, and lots and lots of programming.
Of most interest to me, as a game designer, is the difference between writing for games and writing for traditional media. Games are interactive – and should be. When done correctly, the writing is also interactive, and has to be driven by the player’s actions. You really have to consider your role as a designer and writer to be a partner with a player that you’ve never met in writing the story – and that no matter what the player chooses, his choice is the “correct” one, no matter how you personally feel makes for a better narrative.
In my most recent commercial title, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, I sometimes had as many as five variants of the same dialog to reflect how the circumstances might be different based on the player’s previous choices.
It wasn’t too hard going back to traditional storytelling, as I’m quite familiar with it, but I do sometimes struggle with habits from game development. For example, when writing for a story, you should treat all exposition very objectively, to avoid forcing your own expectations into the player’s head. For example, he or she may be agreeing with the villain just to get the villain to explain his master plan – so you don’t want to suggest that the player is agreeing “wholeheartedly” with the plan.
In traditional storytelling, this is completely inverted. You want to describe the world from the perspective of your point-of-view character, taking their mood, prejudices, everything. So a train might not just leave the station – it “abandons them” at the station. It’s easy for me to slip into game-writing mode where I’m offering “just the facts, ma’am.”
J. Aurel: Can you tell us about some of your most favorite authors?
Barnson: Let’s see… how about Lois McMaster Bujold? Wow. One of the things I love about her is that she doesn’t treat science fiction or fantasy as a style, but as a setting, which is how I think it ought to be. Take The Warrior’s Apprentice – it’s a wild, rollicking space opera of the highest caliber, with fascinating characters and political intrigue in the background, which keeps escalating to not-quite-ridiculous levels. Awesome fun! Then the other books run the gamut in style – mystery, thriller, even a romantic comedy. Her science fiction universe is only a canvas on which she paints any kind of story with all kinds of themes. She’s brilliant.
And going in a completely different direction – I grew up reading a lot of stuff that was pretty ancient even when I was a kid. I was reading Robert Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Lester Dent, stuff like that. I’ve actually taken to hunting down digital versions of some of the old pulp magazines from a hundred years or so ago, and reading some of those stories. A lot of them are pretty terrible, but man, they could be a lot of fun sometimes. I’m sure his stuff receives critical derision today, but Howard’s stories – especially the Conan stories – were formative for me. I haven’t found the opportunity to use the expression “mighty-thewed” in a story yet, but some day…
J. Aurel: I’ll certainly be looking forward to treading such a work! What is it that inspires your writing?
Barnson: What doesn’t? At least for me, a key to creativity is just to cultivate a habit of looking at everything and everyone around you with a “what if?” perspective. You end up drawing weird connections and associations everywhere. If you take them too seriously, you could turn into the world’s most paranoid conspiracy theorist. But if you are a writer, those all just become seeds for potential stories, and you are a reasonable kind of crazy.
J. Aurel: Do you have any words of wisdom for the burgeoning authors collecting their own story seeds?
Barnson: Considering that I’m one of the hopefully burgeoning authors myself, my advice may just be wishful thinking. But they apply in the video game business, and they seem to apply just as well to writing so far:
I guess first off, writers write. Keep writing, keep submitting, keep soliciting feedback, because that’s the best way to get better. I go back over a lot of the old stuff I’ve written, and while there are seeds of decent ideas there, I just think, “Wow, I’m so lucky these were never published!” I can see horrible flaws that I was completely blind to back then, and I expect that one day I’ll look back at what I’m writing now, and just think, “Wow, how did I ever think that was any good?” I hope so. It’ll mean I’m still progressing.
Going back to my example of Bujold – the ‘boxes’ that define a subgenre are for use by marketers, not by authors. Don’t allow yourself to be too constrained by the conventions of the category. Push the boundaries. Nobody’s going to be impressed by yet another cookie-cutter story, no matter how well-written.
And finally, write for your readers, not for the critics. It’s great to get a good review or an award, but what really matters is that you provide something of value to your audience.
J. Aurel: Well put my friend. Now, what is next for you?
Barnson: World domination? A cookie? I honestly don’t know. I just keep writing and submitting, and we’ll see how it goes. I’m too much of a newbie to see too far ahead.
J. Aurel: This has been marvelous Mr. Barnson, simply marvelous. Now at this point I usually ask my guests to compete in a friendly game, however seeing as we nearing dinner, let’s order a dish. The Grog-and-Dart pub serves a surprisingly decent selection of foods including Leonopteryx Omelets, Spice Melange Noodles (there’s only just a touch of the stuff in there really), and my favorite Poutine. Take your pick, this one is on me.
Barnson: While I appreciate your recommendation, the spice must flow!