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What’s this, then?

Last Edited 03 October 2018

Hi there, I’m Jordan. I’m doing my PhD at Bangor University, located in the picturesque North Wales, and this blog is a research aid for said PhD study. It’s easy to forget amazing ideas you have in the early hours of the morning, and I can collect some here. Check the About Me page for more about… me.

I also needed some kind of semi-public forum to put out thoughts on my PhD, to ultimately encourage myself to write something academically productive every so often. This blog was started in September last year, but I had three posts and nothing profound within its digital pages so I am starting again.

What am I researching?

Digital fiction, mostly. In the past year or so, I’ve been introducing more concrete ideas of transmedia narratives to the process, instead of digital fiction as a whole.

I’m coming at this as a practitioner, using a practice-led methodology to analyse the creative process. Almost all of the research I’ve undertaken has been practice-led, or practice-based, I’ll stick with one term eventually, and this has served me well so far.

My basic method is to write in a “born digital” medium, WordPress and Twitter and never having the opportunity to be printed and retain its functionality, and then apply critical theory in a pre- and post-textual analysis of the created text and the creative process.

I’ve engaged with the theory from authors such as Espen Aarseth, Janet Murray, Nick Montfort, and N. Katherine Hayles. These are all strong places to start, and are some of the many authors I’m reading; but it gives you an idea of the critical discourse I’ve entered.

Why Digital Fiction?

Because it’s awesome fun, that’s why! Also, because my interests have lain forever betwixt video games and books, and to drag them together in harmonious unity is pretty fantastic. Except when the code doesn’t work, and then I’m tearing my hair out wondering what I did wrong and whether it’s too late to just write a novel.

But, I like the coding aspect too, actually. It’s great to see something build up from nothing to working code. I’ve made small concept video games, too, and it’s amazing to see it go from *moves left* all the way to *moves in 4/8 directions, picks up items, kills enemies, randomly generates levels, randomly populates with enemies, randomly populates with items, character death, saving, loading… etc.*.

Why Transmedia Narratives?

So this is a new section that needed clarification. I am no longer using the broad term digital fiction solely to refer to my creative practice. Doing so is like saying you study literature, when really you study the texts of Mexican magical realism writers of the 90s. I’m narrowing my field.

Transmedia narratives are stories told through multiple media at the same time. Concurrent representation of the narrative through different media, in fancier language. Most of the transmedia narratives you’ll be familiar with are those that are centred around a really successful franchise.

The Matrix and LOST are two of the bigger ones. No Man’s Sky, a game, is another you may have heard of.

I don’t have the backing of a major games studio, or television executives with bucket loads of money, so I’m looking at this from the point of view of an independent practitioner. How can I create a sprawling transmedia text in a way that is engaging and actually doable? Are there ways that the creative process adapts to the new medium for writing a story? In what ways does the creative process stay the same? What does this mean for writers of transmedia narratives?

These questions, and more, are what I’m interested in.

Alright, I think that’s enough to be getting started with. I’ll be writing irregularly, I’m sure, but this is a research blog for my study as I go through this process.

Watch this space!

Or don’t, I’m not your mother.

 

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Time in Fiction — Short stories versus novels

I was thinking about time the other day and how we writers deal with it was where my thoughts led.

The old adage “Show, don’t tell”, is something that every aspiring writer is told by every writer online, bar none. It’s utterly ubiquitous. Whilst it’s good advice, in some cases, there are places where it is not appropriate.

If we are writing a novel in which our character needs to do some research, it’s not often that you’d sit through pages and pages of showing that research. Writing out every little passage the character finds would be tedious, not to mention unnecessary. So, in those instances we use Telling in order to escape the dullness of a scene.

“You’ll figure it out, anyway,” Mokoya said with a confidence that ended where Akeha began. They nodded to their twin, as silence took up its easy crown for the rest of the walk.

from The Black Tides of Heaven, by Jy Yang

The above quote is from a lovely little fantasy novella by author Jy Yang, and both because I finished reading it last night and the fact that it’s a novella, it happens to coincide with our topic quite well.

Novellas are, obviously, shorter than a novel. You don’t have the word count and pages to expand on every little detail. You show the important parts, the characterisation scenes, the action scenes, the big decisions. You don’t show literally every moment of the character’s thoughts.

So, when in this scene the twins are discussing a major life choice, and one of the twins is unsure how they will continue, they descend into a contemplative silence for the rest of their walk.

By saying “for the rest of the walk”, Jy Yang used Telling in this instance instead of showing; and, critically, it’s important that they did. We don’t need to see the rest of the walk back to know that our protagonist is in deep, troubled thought. They are dealing with something that will affect the rest of their life, and it’s not something that dwelling on in this scene would illustrate further. There are other scenes that do so just as well, without being mired down in a scene of walking from A to B.

I’m not yet a master of this in long-form writing. My novels have numerous moments where I get stuck in the idea that time should flow naturally, chronologically, through the book from start to end. This ends up where I have scenes that, really, shouldn’t be there because a part of me thinks that I should be writing something to fill the gap.

Instead, I should be doing something similar to Jy Yang, and I should wrap up the scene in a nice bow and move on to something different to keep the pace that I had in the previous scene, to keep reader’s interest.

I haven’t ever had this problem with short stories. It’s perhaps obvious why, they’re much shorter. When I tell a story in 1200 words, I know that there are no extra words available, so I make it my mission to remove everything that’s extraneous.

I read an article on Lit Hub this morning that discussed J. G. Ballard’s advice on writing, taken from various interviews and articles. In it, he’s quoted as saying that you should start with short stories before trying a novel. Too many writers, he said, are starting with novels.

In some ways, I agree. Short stories are something that most people who want to write should start with, as a shorter text is easier to complete (for any writer, not just the newbie).

However, writing a short story well is a different skill from writing a novel well.

Just like sprinting versus marathon running, there are two different skill sets that are used when it comes to these two modes of writing. If your ultimate goal is to write a novel, then don’t assume that writing 100 good short stories would then automatically enable you to write a good novel. It doesn’t quite work like that.

Managing the time element of a novel is a vital skill that you pretty much don’t learn in short stories. The time management of a short story is a different beast. Learn, for novels, that each scene is setting the pace for everything around it. Scenes work in concert from one chapter to the next, in a novel. Sometimes, a short story is a single scene. You still manage time through accurate use of Showing versus Telling, but it’s still essentially a single moment in a character’s life.

A novel is a series of moments strung together, like fairy lights. When one goes out, so do the rest of them.

Does that analogy still work, today? Or do they sell fairy lights in parallel circuits instead of series?

Either way, it’s important to use time in ways that allows the reader to flow through your novel with as few sticking points as possible. If you can do this, you can create an exciting and un-put-down-able novel.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, folks!

Character Moods Affecting Process

As with the last post, my friend Kate wrote a post that expanded a little on what we discussed last time; touching further on characters. I thought she made a few good points, so check that out, but I wanted to draw one thought out further.

“Character-first writers are slaves to their character’s moods and emotions to pull them through the story, but this can create depth and feeling to make the events feel important.”

Kate Stuart, see link above.

I feel like this is a really good point. Kate suggests that as a writer who focuses on “listen[ing] to [her] central character” when she’s writing, she has to focus on what she feels like the character themselves would “realistically” do.

On the other hand, I feel like I tend to allow myself more leeway in how a character thinks and feels because I don’t go character first! I get to play more with what the character might evolve into because I haven’t yet fully decided on the character by the time I’m writing.

However, I do think that my approach, which is more event-related, tends to then lack the smooth-sailing that might occur when a writer knows better their characters. For example, I have spent several years planning/writing a novel, project name EXILE, which has gone through a few periods of no writing because I reach points that I feel like I don’t know what would happen next.

The focus on “what happens next”, and planning in a way that would not be remiss in any epic fantasy, isn’t actually something that fits with the type of story that I want to tell for this story/setting/characters. I’m aiming for a more personal and individual story for Cailín, the main character.

When I don’t focus on everything about the character, and instead think in terms of “if this happens, then this must happen”, then I’m making it harder on myself. Really, I’m trying to figure out what the character(s) would do in response to some of these events (being thrown out of her family and people’s lands) but in a way that involves such a non-personal perspective that it would be better for a history book instead of a fiction novel.

So, as per the title, I should probably focus more on character moods. I need to use the personal view. Getting down to their level and see things from how they’d feel in that situation, rather than looking only at the actions they take.

I do genuinely want to write a story that shows emotional states of characters in these situations in ways that other writers in the fantasy genre don’t quite focus on. I want to have a world that feels like an epic fantasy, but shows the individual stories of the people in it.

On Beginnings — Process

A fellow PhD candidate at Bangor recently wrote a blog post about her process when starting writing a narrative. She asked her readers what type of writer they might be, and broke them down into two broad categories:

  • A) Plot-focused; this writer looks at the events of a narrative and takes that physical journey of the characters as the driving force behind their writing decisions.
  • B) Character-focused; this writer takes the character themselves as the launching point.

This came out more along the lines of what we as writers prefer to write, plot (code word for action in this case), or character (showing characterisation, inner thought, etc.). Whilst I won’t say that I dislike writing character, as it’s definitely not true, it’s not something that to me is a starting point. It’s the development of the idea, rather than the seed.

I’m going to take the comment I left on Kate’s blog and expand a little on that here.

I’m definitely more of a plot-first writer, myself. I find that I focus a lot on the development of one or two characters after I see the initial ‘setting the stage’ vision I have of the story.

This visual stage-setting idea is key to those ideas that stick around in my head for longer than a minute. The ideas that I come back to time and again invariably involve a scene or a few scenes that won’t go away.

For example, a young woman from a tribal society that hates magic is discovered to be a mage… Discuss.

A city besieged by the undead has rotted through from within and there’s only one necromancer left to solve the problem, but the locals think she’s making it worse… Discuss.

A young boy plays in the back garden with his friend when one of the wooden swords breaks in half before they’re called in for dinner, the young boy stays outside for a moment so he can mend the break with magic… Discuss.

This is essentially how my brain gives me ideas and I take it from there, that one moment that I see clearly and can describe really well is my starting line.

But, once I have started, I can go back and do a little more digging. From there, I figure out what the character wants, needs, etc. that we all know and love from screenwriting How To’s.

Taking the necromancer as an example, I know that as a child in the southern isles in my fictional world, she was chosen at a young age to go to what is essentially a monastic order of warrior-mage necromancers. Think a cross between The Witcher‘s Geralt of Rivia, and a Dungeons & Dragons paladin.

That backstory is not something that has appeared at the current state of the novella she’s in. Melian is the name the reader will know our protagonist by, but her birth name is Anuli Mazi, and when she boarded the Raven’s Flight with tears in her eyes, she knew that she wouldn’t taste her mother’s baked bali, a spicy fish dish, again for a long, long time. It’s been twenty years, and she hasn’t set foot on nor laid gaze upon the shores of her homeland in that entire time. The guilt at leaving, coupled with the secret fear that they hate her for leaving, means that at some point, Melian will obviously have to return home and it will be a defining moment for her.

But that moment is not the first story I’ll tell of hers.

First, she saves a city that does not want to be saved.

First, she battles the naked fear, suspicion, and downright hostility of those she swore to protect.

First, she hardens herself to a life away from her loved ones, and refuses to get close to anyone else in the meantime. It’s made her hard, a pragmatist except in this one area: going home.

 So, all this to say that I like taking a situation, a scene, or a snapshot and expanding on it. This is what makes long-form projects like Digital Tapestries so difficult, really. Having multiple characters, each with different but interlinked events/actions, and no real strong emotive vision attached to them is difficult, but I also don’t get that image for every character in every story, it only happens to one or two characters in a narrative. Learning to deal with that and get past it is something that will come out of this PhD project.

How digital technology effects differences in creative processes in writers

cutting from method

I’ve started doing something in my academic writing—I’m assuming that it is rather common amongst post-graduates and PhD candidates—which is adding in rather lengthy, and at times biting, parenthetical remarks that are a blend between the research log of a practice-based research project and those little post-it notes you leave yourself on your monitor to remind you to send that email or send so-and-so the document you promised them four weeks ago.

These parenthetical comments are never intended to be a part of the final product, but they’re invaluable drafting tools and I see a remarkable similarity between these and the pre-textual cognitive processes I’m in the middle of reading about.

I don’t necessarily write down what I’m thinking every time I write something, but I do attempt to record my current thoughts as accurately as possible (Evernote is fantastic for this) whenever I do think to record those thoughts.

The purpose of this post is to highlight an idea I had as I was writing the methodology that I, and from the faces my supervisor and fellow researchers were pulling as I talked about it today they all agree, think doesn’t quite fit into the overall research I’m conducting.

So, more about this under the cut.

Continue reading “How digital technology effects differences in creative processes in writers”

The Malleable Nature of Digital Media and Creativity

One of the things I discussed with first year students last semester was the impact digital reproduction has on digital media.

When you have a transmedia text such as the one for this project, you can mould the whole thing to your heart’s content. If I wanted a blog post to have been written in the early 2000s, I can do that. Not sure why I would, but I could.

With the way these platforms and texts work, we can craft the perfect image, the perfect text, the perfect website, all because we can edit and edit and edit, to our heart’s content. It’s like a director of a… I don’t know, a space opera, perhaps, who just won’t stop adding, removing, and changing his film, decades after release.

Now, this function isn’t available on every platform, of course. YouTube wouldn’t allow me to change the upload date, as far as I’m aware, but ignoring that, the video itself can be changed. Only a small portion of viewers would even know something had changed (if they had simply followed a link found in a blog post).

This is probably very interesting to different academics in different ways, but in terms of my own research, there’s one important factor: how it affects the creative process.

I’ve already mentioned, all subtle-like, a traditional media example of when the creator of a text simply cannot let go and allow a work to stand on its own two feet. What happens when there’s no limit to what can be changed, how often it can be changed, and to what it could be changed to?

Normally, in a very broad sense, the writer will take something from their memory, bring it to the forefront of their mind, play with it, and see whether it fits into the current text as it currently stands, before deciding whether or not to keep or lose that idea.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian psychologist, wrote about flow and the nature of creativity. In his appropriately-named book Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention, he asks where creativity is. And mostly we tend to think of creativity as an internal process.

Instead, we should think about how we don’t know if a “thought is new except with reference to some standards”, or whether it is “valuable until it passes social evaluation” (p. 23). These are external processes which we judge our ideas by. But, a writer is the judge, jury, and executor of ideas that don’t pass muster. We are the ones who ‘socially evaluate’ the matter.

If a writer has consumed every sci-fi novel, series, and film in existence, their own sci-fi might reflect that; if the writer has researched the exact manufacturing process of the 1850s clothing, that might be apparent, too. But a good writer must evaluate which ideas the audience will care for, and which they will not.

This subtle change in the Systems Model of Creativity gives the writer the power, until the text is in the public’s hands. Then, the author gives up this control, the power to decide what is and is not relevant. Then, the readers will decide if its cultural capital is great enough to be considered amongst the Greats.

The writer always has an audience in mind. I’d venture a guess that this is why most writers refrain from writing, too. They worry about what that end audience will say. Being a part of the audience, and putting a creative piece into the audience’s hands are both vital components of any creative process.

It’s so easy, even after one publishes a digital text, to change the contents therein. Amazon ebooks can be edited and readers can download new versions, seamlessly. A website can be changed in seconds. A blog (this one, or this one), can be edited via a mobile phone, anywhere there’s signal.

I’m interested in how to bring readers to the table of a digital text which is definitely malleable. Kate Pullinger in her recent published story Breathe actually uses your device’s GPS location in order to change the text. This kind of variable isn’t quite what I had in mind for this piece, but real people are indecisive, why can’t our characters be, too?

P.S. I couldn’t find a relevant image, so how’s about a nice shot of Ogwen Valley with some nice colour in the clouds? Enjoy!

Thoughts on practice-based research and research focus

One thing that every practice-based researcher will deal with at some point in their academic career is wrapping their head around the concept creation stage of our research.

With most research projects, you can define your research question basically however you want. As long as the focus is appropriate to your project length and you’re not asking a simple “yes or no” question, you’re golden.

But, as everyone discussed today in our group dissertation meeting, practice-based research has a tendency to be bogged down by critical reading and theory, to the point where instead of the practice forming a valid and useful role in the research (a cyclical process of research informing practice informing research), the practice is instead done using the conclusions of the research.

There’s nothing wrong with this method per se, it’s simply not practice-based research, but is practice-led.

In an effort to align myself with a new direction in research, transmedia narratives, I’ve been discussing with my supervisor, and peers, the direction I’m moving toward and the ideal research question I can get from that.

More under the cut.

Continue reading “Thoughts on practice-based research and research focus”

Audio recordings and genre

marts eg 1

One aspect of my Masters’ creative text that I wanted to create but never got the chance to was an audio component. I have a section in the creative text which has a character say “They might even be listening now” (Glendenning, 2016, p. 35), and the way it is presented with an image of an audio wave in the background made it appear as if there was a recording.

I never actually made the audio clips because I was working in a purely textual medium. That’s changed, now, and this PhD was already striding straight ahead into the digital realms where multi-media is the norm.

My ideal for the MArts project would have been a mobile app version of the narrative, which would have had audio and hyperlinks and maybe even video.

marts eg 2

And it’s exciting that I am going to be working in this newfound media maelstrom (newfound for me at any rate). It’s most definitely a maelstrom, because if it were benevolent, it wouldn’t be so bloody difficult to wrangle into a cohesive whole.

However, it’s fair to say that the experimentation I was doing with recording this past weekend will turn into something of an interesting component of the creative piece. I’ll be writing a script for, essentially, a radio play or podcast which may or may not require the use of some other voices/actors, but will create an additional component of this narrative arc that I hope will interest those that come across it.

A note on genre

There is a lot a writer can do to suggest certain themes in their writing, and I think it’s very easy to fall into conspiracy theories as a genre because they’re common knowledge, but also esoteric all at once.

A conspiracy story engages everyone because it has elements of the real world embedded in it as a matter of course, but as writers we have to be careful that this fictional thing doesn’t go beyond the realms of fiction and engage the malfunctioning parts of society in a discourse that believes in these types of conspiracies.

I might look at the literature on this at some point in the future, but there’s probably reams of studies that look at how certain aspects of society will form communities around misinformed individuals or ideas, which will later turn out to be pure fiction, but the proponents of the idea or individual will not cease their desire to believe.

Of course, this ties in neatly with science-fiction, speculative fiction, and even some forms of fantasy and folklore. A fellow PhD today told me of a term she had come across in her reading: fakelore. I like it because it invokes ideas of folklore whilst also acknowledging that they are “fake”.

How do we determine what’s “fake” and what’s “truth” when it comes to folklore? How much of the tales we tell do we believe in? When do we cross the line between storyteller and prophet? This is perhaps outside the scope of this research, but there we are.

Blogging and Transmedia narratives

I’m creating two other blogs right now as the platform for the beginnings of this digital narrative… and I can see how this is a very slippery slope towards a transmedia narrative, and not a simply digital narrative.

Using free tools, such as Google Mail and WordPress, I have been able to create a fictional entity to be the author of the fictional digital archive of letters from an anonymous writer in the early-to-mid 1800s.

I like this beginning and I feel that this has a lot of legs, but, and this is a big but, keeping it in a blog format will inevitably change the focus of the research away from games in text and towards transmedia narratives, which the others in the group have much more of a handle on than I do.

I really do want to look at combining game elements and a text narrative, but I also want to bring this creative idea to the forefront. I’ll have to combine them in the end, somehow, but for now I’m having fun creating and I like that.

Prototyping on the web

It’s that time again where I need to start putting some vague ideas of creative ideas down onto the screen (such a strange expression when you switch it up like that, and I wonder if a new idiom will come about when/if we no longer use paper).

I have been toying with the idea that I would be able to use some kind of web-based technology for the creative piece. Some kind of code/platform which I could program to be much more fluid and useful than anything as clunky as what I can do now.

This would require some time investment in learning a new language, which has not been planned for, and could introduce unnecessary delays.

However, I could conceivably use different blogs for the different threads of story, and link to each one on each blog — giving the reader the option to read whichever they like at one time.

I am hesitating, and I’m unsure why exactly. So, what I will do is a small prototype. I think I’ll start with three blogs, three different themes to easily differentiate between them, and then start writing.

This is not to say that the blogs are diegetic, in this case they are likely only the delivery medium and not, as in a transmedia narrative, ‘found texts’. That may become part of it later, but for now it’s only to try out this medium.