Otherworld talk 5

The second half of Chronicles of the Otherworld has begun. You might say it’s all downhill from here, except…well, it’s really not. We haven’t hit the highest notes of this song quite yet. But we have seen a new episode released (The Bonds Between Us), so that’s a good excuse for a new chat about this setting from the man who created it. This time around, I want to take a deeper look at the “local” culture of the Otherworld, the Virissea. Personally, I feel they’re one of my greatest creations. To think, they started off as nothing more than a background element for their language.

The language

That one’s not even an exaggeration. As I’ve said numerous times, the initial seed for the Otherworld series came when Stargate Universe was canceled. Nobody was doing good “exploration” sci-fi anymore, or even exploration fantasy. (Monarchies of God is a great series in that vein, by the way.) Now, that’s not to say I thought I could do better, but I knew I could do better than nothing. Since nothing was what I had, how could I lose?

More importantly, though, the Otherworld setting started out as a kind of language playground. The details of the native tongue (as well as quite a few others in the setting) predate most other notes by months. And the one I called “Virisai” was first on the list.

As languages go, it’s nothing remarkable, and I intended that from the very start. This isn’t an alien language, because these aren’t aliens. That goes hand-in-hand with the “alternate timeline” setup. And yet I didn’t really want a typical Amerind language, because a lot of those are horrendously complex. There’s no way a bunch of college students could become anywhere near fluent in one of those in less than three months. But, I figured, since I had so much “alternative” time to work with, I could plausibly say that this is a whole new language family, as well, one that didn’t follow its brethren in development. In other words, it branched off too early to pick up some of the more convoluted aspects of American indigenous languages.

Beyond that, the language is fairly straightforward. It has a few hangups, a few unexpected complexities, and I’ve found ways to work some of those into the narrative. (Mostly, this comes in Jeff’s chapters, as he’s the linguist, though Amy occasionally notes one.) But I do intend it to be a “natural” constructed language. It’s meant to be spoken, written, read. In fact, I do have a translated Babel Text lying around somewhere, and I’ve considered doing other works when I have the free time.

The culture

The culture of the Virissea, like their language, shares that “same but different” quality. These people may look like your typical Native American, but they are certainly not American. They don’t fit the realities or the stereotypes. They’re there own thing, and most of the culture shock is about dealing with that other thing.

For those in the midst of the story, I’ve intentionally designed the culture to be not outrageously dissimilar from anything on Earth. The local Virissea are monotheistic, for instance, though there’s a strong hint of ancestor worship in there, too, and a fairly complex mythology regarding the otherworldly Altea, who supposedly helped to create the world after their own was destroyed in some previous cataclysm. As they looked different from the Virissea, those members of the expedition who look the most outlandish are seen instead as these mythical people: Jeff, Jenn, Ayla, Sara. Lee and Ramón, by contrast, get treated as some kind of prodigal sons, while Damonte is something else entirely.

Other parts of the culture likewise follow this trend. These people don’t have human sacrifices, but they do have some strange taboos and rituals. They may not play the Mayan ball game, but they’ve got one of their own. Their science isn’t nearly as advanced as ours, so advanced technology is seen as magic instead (following Clarke’s Third Law), but that’s okay, because they already have a mythos full of magic. They just fit computers and solar panels into that, and go on about their day.

That, I think, is my primary goal with this culture. Too often, we assume that modern Americans meeting a more “primitive” people will be treated as either gods or devils because of our technology, attire, beliefs, and general otherness. And to be fair, some members of the expedition get the godly treatment, but they don’t intentionally play to it—with one notable exception.

But there can be a third road, where we’re neither demonized nor canonized. Think about it. If you’ve never seen a tablet computer before, but you get told stories every week of a legendary hero who carried around a magic spellbook, it’s not that great a leap to equate the two. Either one is so far beyond you that it’s almost required by Occam’s Razor. But that doesn’t mean the guy carrying that tablet is a god, not when you’re also taught that there’s only one of those.

In other words, no matter how different the Virissea are, they’re still people. Humans. They have a civilization, a culture, and they’re desperately trying to fit these newcomers into their world without breaking too much. In other words, exactly what I would want to do if presented with a representative of an advanced alien race.

The others

And that makes a good segue into matters of race. For the Otherworld, the subject is a bit tricky. Everyone in it (except for our intrepid heroes) descends from the original inhabitants of the Americas. Yet some of them are…different. I’ll leave the whys for later, because I think the simple idea is enough to get started.

I did intend on having multiple human subspecies in the Otherworld from the start. (That is totally not me ripping off The Dagger and the Coin, except when it is.) And I even made them fit the classic fantasy stereotypes. The Lyssea, who show up again in this episode, are a reinterpretation of elves. The Kaldea beating down Ayla’s door fill the “dwarf” role. Even last episode’s Arassea work, as they started off in my head as vaguely orc-like. That’s not to say these races are their fantasy inspirations. Oh, no. But it’s a perfect excuse for some people—particularly a certain character very drawn to fantasy literature—to see them as such.

All told, there are ten total races in the Otherworld, if you count the Altea. (And if you don’t count the modern Earthlings of the expedition.) Some of them can interbreed; some of them would rather not. Each has its own culture, language, and outlook, and I use that to set up quite a few interesting plotlines. The Arassea slavery angle, for one, or the Kaldea and their cabal-like protection of their technology. On top of that, there are racial tensions, and even some outright racism. Why? Because the Otherworld is not a utopia. It’s imperfect, just like ours, and part of the story’s development is peeling back those layers to find the imperfections.

The upcoming

That’s all for this installment, but the chronicles will keep coming. Next up is Situational Awareness, which is my favorite episode of the first season. I loved writing it, I love reading it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. Until then, have fun in either world, and be sure to look at my other stories.

Otherworld talk 4

At this halfway point in the first Otherworld season, I’d like to take a look at the storylines I’ve created, because some of them are, in my all-too-critical opinion, actually pretty decent.

The first

The main story, of course, is the accidental expedition to the Otherworld. That one hangs over everything, as it will throughout the remainder of the season. And this story brings with it a lot of others. It puts the focus on survival, adaptation, integration. It’s a story not only of exploration, but culture shock and the simple sense that, hey, we’re somewhere else. These characters are farther from home than they ever thought about going, and most of them aren’t exactly ready for something like that.

In a way, the “student dig” setup helps lead into that. For some, even leaving the country of their birth was hard, not to mention leaving the whole planet. Others were used to travel, or they’re used to the outdoors, and so it’s not quite as difficult for them. That creates a bit of friction, especially once you factor in the different personalities involved. Jenn, for instance, is always preaching safety and care (except when she’s involved), while Ryan continuously argues for more freedom and a deeper integration with the alien society. Amy has never really been away from home before—if you count college as “home”—while Lee’s was broken long ago. Everyone gets to cope with the reality of the situation in his or her own way, and the POV sequence, I think, allows a good look at that struggle through most eyes.

Alien life

Once the characters can accept the mess they’re in, mere survival is forgotten. They’ve already succeeded at that, so it’s time to move on. Being curious young men and women, it’s only natural that they immerse themselves in the world they’ve discovered. It’s not like the Spanish, where they deliberately set out in search of gold and glory. No, this was an accident. Some want nothing more than to get home as soon as possible, but the rest are perfectly willing to explore this strange place. Episode 3, for example, is all about that exploration.

But the Otherworld is much, much bigger than a couple of towns and villages. In Episode 4, as readers of the series have now learned, there’s a visit to a larger city in store. That change of scenery brings with it a chance to see a new side of the inhabitants of the world, and we’ll get to return to that a bit later on. As the story progresses (especially once we get past this first season), the Otherworld begins to open up. The characters find themselves in more locations, and each of those locations has its own unique perspective. They all fit into the story in different ways, and that was a very interesting part of the worldbuilding.

Action and suspense

It wouldn’t be a TV-style drama without action sequences and suspense. We see a bit of that in Episode 4, particularly Chapter 6. (No spoilers here, but I’ll gladly admit that the aftermath of that character death always strikes a chord within me. And I wrote it!) Later on, we’ll get a lot more. That’s not because I felt the need to fulfill a quota, so don’t think that. No, it’s just that the story seemed to be going in that direction.

Well, except for the action bits of Episode 7. That one was more because I couldn’t think of anything else to write, and I needed something to fill the last two or three weeks of in-story time.

Coping with reality

Ultimately, all the “side” plots, whether action, study, suspense, or simply learning to live within the strictures of the Otherworld, boil down to one: getting through the day.

For all of the main characters in the expedition, this whole journey ends up being a life-changing experience. Through the eighty days of the Otherworld, they grow, they change, sometimes in ways even they didn’t expect. In some cases, it’s like they become more of what they already were. For others, it’s a more fundamental change in attitude. A couple of them will even do a complete 180 on some of their opinions.

That was one of my goals with this series. I wanted to create a vibrant, living world, but I also wanted to make characters that would fit it. They can’t do that if they’re stuck being the same old people. No, they have to evolve, too. Sometimes, they evolve in ways I never anticipated—Ashley is the main one here, as you’ll see later on. Others (like Alex) mostly follow the trajectories I’d always envisioned. However it works, I’d like to believe that I succeeded in my goal of creating three-dimensional characters that act and react and grow and change like real people.

All along, that was what I wanted most, and there were many times that I asked myself what I would do in a particular situation. Knowing that, I could better guide my writing. As I have grown more comfortable with the characters, however, I find that I don’t need to ask myself that anymore. No, now I can ask what they would do, and I’d call that mission accomplished.

Keep it going

We’re halfway done with Season 1, but that’s nothing. We’ve still got four more of these little chat sessions to go, and then we can start looking at the postseason. Oh, and Season 2. As of this writing (about a month and a half before its posting date), I just finished a draft for the second episode of that. So don’t quit on me now. Unlike TV, this one isn’t getting canceled right as it’s getting good.

Otherworld talk 3

If all goes well (as far in advance as I’m writing this, it may not), the third episode of the Chronicles of the Otherworld should have hit my Patreon page not too long ago, and that means it’s time for another little chat. This time around, I want to talk about my choices of characters.

The expedition

I decided on the full complement of the expedition very early on in my writing, and there was very little that changed in the long period between Episodes I and II. Sure, my scrapping of the original subsequent stories did shift some things around, but almost all of the “core” details of the twenty characters from Earth remained the same.

The idea of the “student dig” was pretty much the seed of the Otherworld saga. I needed a reason for all these college-age kids to be together, to be educated, and to be ready to survive. Thus the team was born, and the eleven who made the interplanetary journey were always going. I’ll admit a bit of convenience in the way that the older adults are absent (the storm in Out of the Past), but I think that’s well within the bounds of artistic license.

These eleven were the team from the start, and the seven POV characters were also chosen essentially before the first word of the series was written. Following my idea of this being a TV-style episodic drama, there are the requisite nods to diversity, though I do despise the often forced style that Hollywood seems to prefer. In this case, I don’t have a problem with it, because the framework of the story practically requires it. This is a university-sponsored archaeological expedition, so of course there will be a mix of men and women. They’re digging in Mexico, so it’s only natural that the party would include a Latino. Yes, the cast is diverse, but every member of the team has a reason to be there. They’re not just shoved in to fill a quota.

The main seven, in particular, have their positions for two reasons. One, I felt they had the best stories to tell, while the four “secondary” members of the party were mostly going to be in the background, largely overshadowed by others in the team. (Admittedly, this decision came about before some of those four went in wildly different directions than initially intended.) Second, though, each one, I feel, reflects a part of my own personality. They’re my own personal rainbow, in a sense.

The optimist

Amy is the first character introduced in the story, and she also has the distinction of being the last of the “main” cast to be the focus of a scene. (Yeah, that’s a spoiler for Long Road’s End. Sorry.) She’s an eternal optimist, something I sometimes wish I could be. I wouldn’t call her aloof or anything like that, though. She’s just one of those naturally happy people. She might be hesitant to try new things, but she’ll give it her all once she accepts them. Sometimes even more than that, as you’ll see in later episodes.

This optimism works as a narrative device, too. It takes a lot to get her upset, so when she finally is, that makes it even more powerful. (Hint: wait until Episodes V and VI.) Writing her chapters always cheers me up, because she has an…innocence about her that borders on childlike, especially when it comes to the wonders of the Otherworld. In a sense, Amy is how I wish I could see myself.

The linguist

Chronicles of the Otherworld, and indeed the whole Otherworld setting, was started as a linguistic playground, so it’s no wonder that I’d have a linguist as one of the main characters. At first, Jeff doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he finds a purpose once it’s clear that somebody has to step up and be the communicator. You might think he’s there for no other reason, but he works as a kind of outsider—he’s not an archaeologist by trade, so he doesn’t really know all the rules. And (spoiler alert) he gets into some pretty hairy situations later in the series.

Jeff illustrates my own fascination with languages, obviously, but his role is more than that. He’s someone who can bear the brunt of the “info dumps” regarding the tongues of the Otherworld. Even better, as he’s the most knowledgable about them, his chapters tend to have fewer untranslated words and phrases. Unless, of course, he’s the one doing the translating.

The wanderer

Jenn has the third chapter in Out of the Past, and the first where the whole “alien artifact” thing is on display. Later on, in the Otherworld, she becomes the de facto leader of the wayward expedition. Now, I’m not a leader. Far from it. And I’m also not religious in the slightest, unlike this particular character. So she may not seem like that much of a reflection of me, but she is. As much as I hate to say it, she echoes my frustration with the world when it fails to live up to my expectations.

More than that, though, Jenn represents my burning desire to make things better. She doesn’t always succeed—I almost never do—but that won’t stop her from trying. When she has the narrative voice, it’s full of her thoughts about doing just that. (Wait till you see Episode VI!) Yes, she gets angry when she fails, but who doesn’t? Finally, Jenn is a challenge, because she’s one case where I’m way out of my comfort zone. By the end of the first season, she’s positively zealous. If I ever get that way, somebody needs to have me locked up.

The manager

Ryan’s fourth on the list, and he is somewhat of a conundrum. Again, he’s another leader type who is pretty much my exact opposite, and he’s also athletic, so even less like me. Still, he’s a character that fits me, because he looks at the world in much the same way I do. He’s a counterpoint to Jenn’s sometimes overbearing leadership style, and he has a certain charisma that leaves me envious.

Most of Ryan’s chapters tend to focus on the big picture, and that’s another way he reflects me. That’s my strategic and managerial thinking coming through, honed through all those years of playing building and strategy games. And he’s a bit of a diplomat, always looking to defuse an argument before it blows up in his face. That’s something I strive for, too.

The joker

Fifth in order of appearance is Lee. Storywise, he exists for one reason: the inhabitants of the Otherworld are descended from the indigenous population of the Americas, and so is he. He’s closer to them than any other member of the team, and I saw that as a great breeding ground for storylines. Then, as I began to flesh out his character, he became the comedian of the team, the kind of comedian whose best jokes are about himself.

Lee is sarcastic, even acerbic, and he has an edge to him that comes from the pivotal moments in his life. He knows he’s intelligent, but he’s not afraid to call himself stupid when things go awry. Out of all the men on the team, he’s probably the most emotional. In other words, he’s just like me, and that’s probably why his chapters tend to have the longest and most frequent thought sequences.

The thinker

Alex, by contrast, is me for a different reason: he’s how I see myself. Out of shape, introverted, he knows his place in society, and he’s grown to make it his own. He takes pleasure in others’ misfortune because he figures that’s the only kind he’s going to get. His internal monologues and narration are a lot like Lee’s, in fact, but with a lot more despair and self-loathing. In a way, he became my release valve for negative emotions, in the same way Amy is my indulgence in the positive.

Besides all the negativity, Alex is the closest thing the expedition has to a scientist, and that makes him more valuable there than he would be here. Lots of interesting character conflict there, although his is usually internal. Naturally, his chapters also tend to focus on the two worlds, the mechanism that sent them to the Otherworld, and how they can go home—later on, he even has to wrestle with the question of whether he wants to go back. And finally, I’ll admit that Alex later becomes a bit of wish-fulfillment on my part, especially once Season 2 gets started. You’ll see what I mean.

The enigma

Ashley is the last of the seven to receive her first chapter, though the second to get another. To start, she’s the “tough girl”, the classic girls-rule feminist who’s always looking for a reason to be offended. As she realizes that the Otherworld isn’t oppressive to women in particular—it oppresses everyone equally, for the most part—she does soften up, though she does have a number of moral constraints that she isn’t afraid to enforce on others. (And she has what she believes is a very dark secret, which comes out later in the season.)

How does she fit in? For the story, she’s the eyes and ears for the cultures of the Otherworld. That’s her specialty, so her chapters are full of such minutiae. She makes her own clothes (and hates every second of it), and she makes friends at the same time. How she connects to me, on the other hand, is a lot harder to say. I’m not friendly, and I’m pretty much the exact opposite of a feminist. But I’m interested in the way things fit together, the way people work, and that’s Ashley’s thing.

The rest

The other four main characters in the expedition don’t get to be the center of attention until the final chapter of Episode VIII. (Three of them get their own stories in A Bridge Between Worlds.) They’re secondary, and it shows. Mostly, they began as filler, so it took me a long time to “find” them.

Ayla began as a foil for Alex, but then I got the idea of her becoming a kind of mad scientist, which plays out later in the season and in her story. Ramón originally had no purpose other than to sprain his ankle in Episode III (in the rewrite, that’s Lee’s job), and Season 1 doesn’t give him a lot to do that doesn’t appear through the lens of Ryan. Sara does very little at all, but she’s a nice counter to Amy’s boundless enthusiasm. And Damonte might seem like the token black guy, but he’s anything but: for one, he knows that’s what he is. (Episode IV, coming next month, gives him a lot of screen time, but…don’t expect too much after that, at least until Bridge.)

The four professors were never intended to be much more than quest-givers, although William’s role has greatly expanded in Season 2. The same is mostly true for the others of the expedition, those five that didn’t go to the Otherworld. You won’t be seeing them again until Episode VIII, and most of them barely serve any purpose until Bridge or Season 2. Antonio, for instance, is basically just an extra, while Tyler becomes a bit of a running joke.

To be continued

Some of the characters might not be that important to the story, but all of them are important to me. As Chronicles slowly morphed into a character drama, the eleven unlucky students, their nine Earthbound companions, and the multitudes they meet in the Otherworld all had to become something more. The top seven, being the faces of the story, all exemplify different parts of me, yet they’re also their own people. The rest are left more to their own devices, but I hope I’ve done a good job of letting them all speak for themselves in their limited opportunity.

Technically, Episode IV (Written in Black and White) comes out this month, on the 29th. However, due to scheduling concerns, I’ll most likely post the fourth Otherworld Talk entry the week after, on or around Labor Day. By then, I might be deep into writing Season 2, or I may have given up. Who knows?

Otherworld talk 2

Last month, I started talking about the Otherworld, one of my most developed and beloved story settings. Well, the second part of the series is out now on my Patreon, so I thought it’d be a good idea to write down a few more thoughts about it.

The world I know

As I said then, the Otherworld is an Earthlike planet. It’s compatible enough in climate, etc., that it could be terraformed by humans and turned into what is essentially an alternate world. The only true difference is that all that terraforming took place before America was colonized by Europeans. Before the Columbian Exchange.

Making that work required a lot of effort on my part. For the first time, I delved into such esoteric topics as anthropology, agriculture, materials science, and so on. Here, I was building a world almost from scratch, and the first thing I had to do was see what tools I had to work with. Those, as you might expect, were fewer in number than if I’d placed the setting on the other side of the Atlantic.

What I took out of all this is simple: the Americas have all the pieces needed for advanced civilization. It was only a quirk of history that prevented the New World from developing ironworking or the wheel. The Otherworld doesn’t have those quirks, and I justified that by placing the point of divergence far, far, into the past. It’s not a case of “oh, a bunch of Indians got sucked into a wormhole”. No, this setting presupposes an almost completely parallel development, one where even our most basic notions about the indigenous population of the Americas may be mistaken.

There are cultural similarities. Working through the lens of the characters I’ve chosen, these are sometimes magnified, and often compared with their Earthly cousins. Some of the natives of the Otherworld are plains nomads. Some built step pyramids like those in Mexico. Yet there are many more differences, and that is the focus of the series as a whole.

Formula one

In a way, I’ve made the individual books of the Otherworld series somewhat formulaic. For the first season, there’s a definite repeating structure: 8 chapters, 7 points of view. One of those is repeated, and it’s a different one each time, usually whichever one has the most impact on the episode’s storyline. For the final installment, Long Road’s End (coming in December), I changed things up a bit. It’s still 8 chapters, but they’re no longer restricted to a single focus. Instead, the first six switch back and forth among those same characters, each one covering a day in the life of the Otherworld. Chapter 7 (Spoiler: that’s when they can come home) has 7 scenes: one for each point of view. And the finale, Chapter 8, is a kind of epilogue to the whole season, containing one scene each for the four non-POV members of the expedition, as well as a character who grew very close to them.

At times, this structure felt a bit constraining. I had a tough time coming up with reasons to focus on some of the characters who weren’t quite front and center. (This is especially true, in my opinion, in Episode V, The Bonds Between Us. I feel that it’s the weakest story by far.) Yet it was also liberating, in a way. By forcing myself to work in this fashion, I was able to naturally build the connections between differing parts of the story; setting up “B” plots and sidetracks was almost automatic.

For the interstitial stories, I went with a slightly different approach. They’re much shorter, for one, weighing in at only about 25-30K words instead of 50-60K. They’re all 5 chapters each, and all but one (the fourth, The Dark Continent) have a matched pair of protagonists. As these were mostly “get over” stories, I thought this more limited setup worked better.

Now that I’m writing Season 2, I’m moving things around again. With the addition of new characters, and the way the story is progressing, I’ve expanded each episode to 10 chapters, each slightly shorter than before. The rotation is a bit “looser”, as well, so some characters might not get a chapter in each episode, and there won’t always be a repeat. As they’re becoming mostly teamed and paired up, this shouldn’t be a problem; there will almost always be another POV character around to pick up the slack.

Heart of the matter

The overarching storyline of the Otherworld series is the world itself. It’s there, and its existence is the single most defining aspect of the story. We see it first by accident. Then, starting with Episode II, it becomes not only integral to the setting, but it’s a source of drama, action, conflict. It’s more than a backdrop, because of the simple fact that it’s so unknown.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is about exploring. Indeed, once the wayward characters come to terms with their situation, true exploration quickly fades into the background—for the time being. With that, the series slowly transitions into a kind of character drama, though I throw in the occasional action sequence for good measure.

Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking with these, but I’m happy with the result. Over the course of 8 episodes, every one of the 11 main characters shows growth, development. They come into their own, and they each follow their own trajectory through the main story. There’s love and loss, there’s good times and bad. They have their arguments, and they often feel lost, homesick. Maybe it’s the length of the series, but I’ve never come out of a work with as good a feel for the characters. Not my own, anyway.

And most of those characters, I hope, come across as real. That’s what I wanted from the Otherworld: verisimilitude, that feeling that this could be a real place, that these things could happen. The characters might be fictional, but I didn’t want them to feel fake. With the Otherworld, I think I succeeded far beyond anything else I’ve ever written.

The road goes on forever

You know, I think I’ll make this a regular thing, because there’s so much I want to say on this subject. So that’s what I’m going to do: every time there’s a new story posted in the Otherworld saga, I’ll post something like this up here. Call it decompression, a postmortem, or whatever have you.

Otherworld talk 1

Over at my Patreon, you may have noticed a recent release, entitled Out of the Past. It’s a short novel (or long novella, whichever you prefer) I originally wrote back in 2013, then updated over the past year or so, and it is the first in what I hope is a long line of stories which take place in the fictional setting I call the Otherworld. By the time this post goes up—assuming nothing bad happens in the weeks since I wrote it—I’ll have written a total of 14 works in this setting: the 8 original novels of Chronicles of the Otherworld and a collection of six side stories, A Bridge Between Worlds. Back here at Prose Poetry Code, I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the inner workings of this particular creation.

Origin story

Begin at the beginning, they say, and the Otherworld began a few years ago, sprouting from a two-headed seed. First, I was a bit upset at the cancellation of Stargate Universe (just as it was getting good), which left no real “exploration” sci-fi on television—there’s still not much there, by the way. Second, I like inventing languages, and I had recently begun looking into the cultures that would speak those languages.

Otherworld brings together both of those ideas. The story itself is pretty unspectacular: a bunch of college kids get sent to a medieval-style world, where they have to find a way to survive until they can come home. I originally built the world as a playground for my conlangs, as well as a chance to write a story involving exploration, first contact, culture shock, and other such notions. The whole thing is about being taken out of your comfort zone, and the Otherworld saga has, over the course of four years and half a million words, evolved greatly from that point. I sincerely hope it’s for the better.

False start

As I said, the first part, Out of the Past, was written in November 2013, although it didn’t have a title back then. I even went on to write two and a half more parts (I call them episodes, as the format is meant to mimic a TV series) after that, but I’ll freely admit that they were awful. Halfway through Episode IV, I gave up. I was bored with the setting, and I wanted to move on. So the Otherworld went back onto the shelf, and I thought little more about it for a year and a half.

In 2014, I wrote Before I Wake, as you may know. After that, I started looking through my notes and ideas for something new. At first, I settled on the beginning of what has become the Linear Cycle, plus the “Miracles” short story I’ve put up here at the site. Then, I digressed into the unfinished work currently titled Lair of the Wizards.

That one was the key, I think. Its setting was almost a mirror image of the Otherworld: a bunch of kids in a medieval world find a cache of advanced technology that they see as magic. A kind of novel-length restatement of Clarke’s Third Law, if you will. But writing that got me thinking of the other way around, of the advanced people going to the primitive world. Well, I already had one of those in the works, so why not?

Back in the saddle

So the end of 2015 saw me heading back into the Otherworld, but things were different now. All along, I’d had the idea that the fictional world was connected to Earth. It had to be, for how else would the characters get there? And if it was connected, then it was always connected, which served as a neat explanation for how the inhabitants could get there. More importantly for story purposes, it was the perfect excuse for how they could be human.

The people of the Otherworld are human. That was an ironclad rule I had when I first devised the setting. They weren’t aliens, even if some of them were a bit…altered. (The idea of different races of genetically modified humans actually came about very early on, partially from the D&D campaign my brother and I have made.) But the humans had to get there somehow, and thus I had to begin filling in the backstory.

Again, I did a lot of this back in 2013. It was then that I worked out the sketch of a timeline for the setting’s prehistory. The timing is just barely within the realm of believability, and it’s even within the margin of error of our current archaeological knowledge. But I had to go back and change a lot of specifics to match my assumptions.

The core assumption, of course, is that the Otherworld is derived from the New World. At no point until the present day of the stories (2019, chosen for no reason other than because I didn’t want to risk a tropical storm name being retired) was it ever so much as visited by anyone of European descent. At some point in 2015, I lost myself in research as I looked for a way to make that work. What do they eat? What can they make? How does their technology compare with their Earthly counterparts? (The last was the hardest, as the diverging point is so far in the past that it’s before civilization even began. Fortunately, that almost gives me a blank slate.)

Reset button

After a bit of editing work on Out of the Past, mostly to make it match my new findings, I started on the second episode, The City and the Hill. According to my notes, I finished the first draft on November 26, 2015. The next three followed in quick succession, then I took two months off in May and June of 2016. (That was for the Linear Cycle and Lair of the Wizards, in case you’re wondering.) The final three parts of “Season 1” took up the summer months, ending on September 25.

Even when I was writing the final words of Episode 8, Long Road’s End, I didn’t think I was done. Oh, no. The Otherworld is more than just these eight stories, and it was like that all along. I’d intended from the start to write a second season, a new set of stories that would build upon the foundation that these laid down. The way I wrote, however, meant that I needed something to bridge the nine-month gap that the stories’ structure required.

Thus came A Bridge Between Worlds. This is a story spoiler, so be warned. Some of the characters do not end Episode 8 on their home planet. The bridge novellas were intended to tell their stories. Well, five of them do. The sixth (actually, the third in sequence) ties up a few loose ends from Season 1 while setting the stage for events in Season 2. And that is coming, if I have anything to say about it. I’d like to start writing it later this year, but we’ll have to see.

Moving on

In the coming months, I’ll talk a lot more about the Otherworld setting. It’s my favorite creation, and there have been times over the past four years where I’ve lost myself completely in it. I’ve thought about it in the shower (where some of my best plots and character moments are born). I’ve dreamed about it. I don’t want to give it up, and I know that the world still has more to give. Some authors have a whole shared universe for their works, but I’m content with a single planet, a single world.

Nocturne: Postmortem

It’s common in the development of video games to do what’s called a postmortem: a kind of developer’s wrap-up of what went into the production from the point of view of those on the inside: the programmers, the directors, the artists, and so on. It’s a chance to look back on both the finished product and its earlier stages, an opportunity to consider every step you took along the way.

That’s what I’d like to do today. Not with a game, but with my latest novel, Nocturne. It came out on Patreon not too long ago, and I’ll be putting it on Amazon’s KDP in the very near future. For the “outsider” perspective, you can look to either of those, where you’ll find all the usual publicity-type stuff. (On Patreon, I’ve even got sample chapters up, so you don’t have to invest anything but your time to get an idea of what I’ve written.)

Here, though, I want to take you into the gritty details. After a work such as this, I need a little bit of closure, a little chance to vent. And I also feel that, with this particular novel, some things need to be said. I putting this post on Prose Poetry Code, not Patreon, because I don’t think this is a “public” piece. This is mostly for my benefit. This is the postmortem for Nocturne.

The seed

Officially, I began writing Nocturne for Nanowrimo 2016. I put the first words down on November 1, I reached the target of 50,000 words before the halfway point of the month, and I finally finished the first draft on December 19. Some days, I wrote an entire chapter. Others, I barely wrote half that. But all in all, those were probably the seven most productive weeks of my writing life, and that productivity carried over even after the draft was done. In fact, I’m writing this at the end of March 2017, and I’m still calling myself slow when I “only” manage about 1500 words a day.

But Nocturne actually started before that. The original seed, as with so many of my stories, was literally a shower thought. I was in the shower one day last summer, and I’d been thinking about the upcoming solar eclipse. My thoughts ran off, as they do, and I came up with the idea of a magic system based on the dichotomy of day and night. And then I asked myself, “In that world, what happens when there’s an eclipse?”

That was the true genesis of Nocturne. It didn’t begin with a story idea, or a scene, or even a line. No, it came about because of a simple what-if. A thought experiment, if you will. At the time, I didn’t think much more of it. I noted it in my list of ideas, and I moved back to the Otherworld, my writing project at the time. When November rolled around, I picked it back up.

The process

I’m not a planner. I don’t chart out my writings in anything other than the vaguest of details. When I sat down on November 1, I didn’t know where the story of Nocturne was going. I didn’t even have names for the characters, save the protagonist, Shade. Then, all I knew was that he was the main character, that the main story would be told through his eyes, in the first person, and that he was special because he was born during a solar eclipse.

Everything flowed from those initial points. I’d like to say I planned everything that happened, the plot twists, the character interactions, and so forth, but that would be a lie. At no point during last November did I think more than a chapter ahead. Now, once I crossed into December, into the final third of the novel, I did start thinking about an ending. I had notes for the high points of the final five chapters, but nothing more than a line or two for each.

I also don’t write out of order. Nocturne was written as it is. The prologue came first, then 30 chapters, then the epilogue. I never skipped ahead to follow up on a storyline. But I never needed to. I was writing so fast that it never occurred to me to try.

The book itself isn’t divided into parts. It’s a single story told from a total of three perspectives. It also uses no scene breaks and no direct internal thoughts, two things I’m used to overdoing. Those were conscious efforts, I’ll admit, a kind of discipline for my mind. Looking back, I think that structure helps the flow of the story.

Prologue and epilogue

Although Shade is the main character of Nocturne (the book is named after his title in the story), he’s not the first one we meet. That was another conscious decision. I didn’t feel right beginning with a first-person perspective, so I came up with the “wrapper”, the bookends of prologue and epilogue. These third-person bits set the stage and take it down, something I thought was absolutely needed. The prologue naturally leads into the first chapter, while the epilogue was my cooldown, and a chance for me to do a bit of story-internal criticism. It also served the function of keeping things open for a sequel, should I choose to write one.

The opening arc

The first four chapters (not counting the prologue) are the same ones you can read for free over at my Patreon. They’re the introductory phase of the story, showing off the world, the protagonist, and the magic system. They set the tone, construct the central conflict, and provide the impetus for characters to begin moving.

Personally, I’m not that big a fan of in medias res. I prefer my stories (those I write, specifically) to begin at the beginning. With Nocturne, that was hard to do, but that’s where the prologue helped matters. Yes, it made the whole story a flashback, but that let me start off the main body of the work without diving into the deep end. The best of both worlds, you might say. I certainly thought so.

The inspector

Chapter 5 introduces the third and final point of view. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to introduce another narrative voice, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t write a complete novel in the first person. I mean, I could, but I’d rather not. Thus entered Kellis.

From a personal perspective, she was hard to write. I’ve got a post on here about characters I hate, and, although she’s not one of them, her chapters were hard. Here was a case where I forced myself out of my comfort zone. Given who I am, I didn’t feel the least bit of reservation writing a social pariah like Shade. But a police officer? That wasn’t easy. There were times where I had to fight my own brain to keep Kellis believable. She is, in a lot of ways, my opposite. But hers was a story that had to be told. Shade couldn’t only be seen from the inside.

The travelogue

About the first half of the book is kind of a travelogue. Shade goes to such-and-such city, meets some people, gets caught up in a rivalry, and moves on. Kellis chases him down, always a step behind, picking up the clues he leaves behind. I’ll freely admit that it gets a bit repetitive, though I like to believe I did a good job portraying each town’s unique situation.

Here, I’d also like to digress into the worldbuilding process I used for Nocturne. Namely, there wasn’t one. In my notes (all written on the spur of the moment, mind you), cities have names, rough sizes, and vague locations. That’s pretty much it. I came up with names on the fly (except Narsa, which is taken from my D&D campaign), and placed them where needed. There’s no glossary of the Velini language, no pronunciation guide for personal and place names, and no cultural notes except for those that directly affect the story.

Maybe that makes for a shallow story. I’ve certainly argued as much on this very site. But I hope I did a good enough job with the travelogue portion of Nocturne that a reader can orient himself in Velin without too much trouble. Yes, there are enormous questions left unanswered. (For example: are there nocturnes and diurnes in other lands?) Yes, a lot of details are left intentionally vague. The novel could have easily been half again as long, but my pacing is already bad enough. Adding in a bunch of “what do they eat?” type questions would only drag it down more.

The conflicts

Nocturne, as I said, was written last November and December. Now, unless you were hiding under a rock the past year and a half, you know what happened then. The novel is not a direct allegory of the events in this country over that time, but it was most certainly influenced by the political climate.

How you choose to interpret the story is up to you. I think I left it open enough that you can see whatever reflections you like in the characters and their beliefs. I will say that the conflict between Shade and Maxon, their battle of words and wills to sway the hearts of their oppressed people, is certainly inspired by the civil rights movement in general, and the Black Lives Matter protests in particular. Aures and the public army are not direct analogues of Donald Trump and his followers (or Bernie Sanders and his), but the echoes are there, and they are intentional.

I do not apologize for this. No book is written in a vacuum, and the events of the past few months have affected everyone in this country, everyone in this world. The only way I could refrain from commenting on them, even in the most oblique sense, was to write nothing at all. And I wasn’t going to do that. My intent was to cast them in a different light, to use our politics to tell a story, while also using the story to talk about politics.

The ending

Note: This section of the post contains spoilers for the ending of Nocturne. Read at your own risk.

After the flurry that was November—over 100,000 words in 22 chapters—I still had to finish the book. I knew about where I was, I knew where I had to get to. What I wasn’t sure about was the in-between. That’s really my biggest flaw as a writer. (Well, apart from all the others.)

This was about where I started plotting things out in greater detail. Chapter 22 was the eruption that had been building since the first time Shade and Maxon met; the fight scene still makes me cringe when I read it. After that comes a bit more building up of the “revolution” storyline, which begins to take center stage. Then I had to start putting the pieces into place, which finally finished around the end of Chapter 26.

From there, it was all downhill. The next two chapters (including the deaths of King Canius, Shade’s lover Raysa, and Inspector Dielle), physically pained me to write. Especially the part where Shade finds Raysa in the bed. I reread that the other day during editing, and I was close to tearing up. That was truly the “All Is Lost” moment of the story, in my opinion, and it triggers the finale.

People do strange things when they’re hurting. I know that all too well. That’s really the reasoning behind everything that happens in chapters 28 and 29. Mirac is a…conflicted individual, told he’s worthy of praise because of his family, but worthy of scorn because of the circumstances of his birth. It’s left him bitter and more than a bit irrational. Shade just found the only woman he’s ever loved dead in her home; once he learns who did it, it’s all he can do to keep from breaking—and he doesn’t entirely succeed.

I’m not completely happy with the ending. I never am. I like to think I hit all the notes I needed (Raysa, Shade finally killing someone, the bloodbath at the palace, enemies making common cause against the greater foe), but stringing them together is the hardest part.

One thing I’m certain I did like about the ending was that I didn’t tell it from Shade’s perspective. That, in my mind, leaves open the possibility that there are some things he doesn’t remember, or that he misremembers. It gives the story a chance to end a little better, since Kellis isn’t on the run. And it lets the epilogue wrap things up without giving too much away.

That’s one of the fatal flaws of first-person storytelling, I think. It’s too hard to have mystery about the protagonist. Either your character knows too much, or he acts like he doesn’t know enough. So, Nocturne ends with the two third-person points of view. That way, you don’t know how badly Shade was affected. You don’t know what he really wants to do next.

The future

Is Nocturne a standalone novel? When I was writing it, I certainly thought so. Now, I’m not so sure. The story is left open intentionally. There could be future novels involving Shade. Should they ever come to fruition, they would answer the questions he left behind.

As for other books, well, I’m working on it. I’ve got a few ideas kicking around, and this coming November will have an all new attempt at a novel. If what I come up with then is anything like last year, I think it’ll be even better.

Programming in 2016: game development

I tried to make a game this year. My body failed me. But I’ve been keeping up with the news in the world of game development, and 2016 has been exciting, if a bit frustrating.

Unity

Unity’s still the big kahuna for indie development. But they’ve gone to that same “rapid release” model that everyone else has, the same one that has all but ruined Firefox, Windows, and so many other projects. On top of that, they switched to a subscription model. Rather, they switched to a subscription-only model.

Yes, that’s right. You can only rent the Unity engine on a monthly basis now. It’s still free for tiny devs, but it actually costs more now for everybody else. Sure, there’s the new Plus tier (something like $40 a month, I think), but it doesn’t give you much over the Free version. By the time you need it, you can probably afford the full subscription.

On the technical side, they’re making progress towards Vulkan support, and there are rumblings about actually upgrading their version of C# to something approaching modern. That’s probably thanks to the .NET Core open-sourcing I mentioned last week, but I don’t care what the reasoning is. Any upgrade is welcome here.

The other rumor is that they might switch to C++. I…don’t know about that one. On the one hand, I have to say, “Yes, please!” Modern C++ is just as good as C# in almost every way. In many, it’s better. However, what does this do to that huge body of C# Unity code? If there’s a compatibility layer, then you’ve got inefficiencies. If they simply include the “old” engine, they’ve only made more work for themselves. And then you have JavaScript, which is still (mostly) a supported language for Unity coding. How would it fit in to a C++ future?

Godot

Godot is still my favorite 2D engine. It’s free, the source is open, and it’s very easy to use. 3D is a known problem, but that doesn’t bother me much; I’m not capable of making a 3D game anyway.

Well, Godot made their big announcement back in the summer, with the release of version 2.1. It’s not really revolutionary, but it sets the stage for greater things. Time will tell if those come to pass, but I think they will. With 2.2, we’re supposed to get a better renderer and possibly C# support. The big 3.0 might even add Vulkan to the mix, not that it helps me. And the Asset Library, well, it can only get bigger, right?

The main problem for Godot has been its documentation, and that’s much improved over this time last year. There’s a growing body of tutorials out there, too. I don’t think the engine has reached critical mass yet, but I also don’t think it has peaked.

Maybe—if I don’t get sick the day after I announce it—I’ll try another “game in a month” thing. If I do, it’ll be in Godot.

Lots of little ones

I didn’t do much in the way of development in 2016. I didn’t look at Unreal in anything other than passing, for example. But I’ve kept an eye on happenings in the game dev world, and here are some quick thoughts on other engines out there:

  • Unreal is, like the C++ it’s written in, solid and relatively unexciting. That’s what makes it exciting.
  • Superpowers might be a nice little JavaScript platform, but it’s got this horrible bug that makes all the dropdown boxes turn solid black. Makes it hard to use, you know?
  • Clickteam Fusion may or may not be getting bigger in 2017. They’re working on their version 3 release, and it might be cross-platform. Stay tuned for more on that front.
  • Amazon put out their Lumberyard (a fork of CryEngine). It’s free, as long as you’re willing to use their cloud services, but the real cost is in the machine you need to run the environment.
  • CryEngine itself is…strange. They’ve put out source code, but it’s not open. In fact, reading the license, t’s almost impossible to find a game you could even make! Maybe they’ll fix that, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
  • The Atomic Game Engine looked like a promising release a few months ago, but it seems to be dead. The developers haven’t put out any news since May, and the forums were shut down in favor of Facebook. Sounds like they don’t want new users to me.
  • Finally, RPG Maker has a new version. It’s finally becoming something other than Windows-only, and the coding part has followed the hipster crowd from Ruby to JavaScript. In my opinion, that can only be a good thing.

I could go on, but I’m running out of year, so I’ll stop. Let’s just say this: 2016 was a good year for an independent game developer. 2017 will be even better. You’ve got a massive selection of engines at your disposal, from solid open-source offerings to AAA beasts. Maybe next year will be when we finally solve the asset problem. We’re getting there, slowly but surely.

Programming in 2016: languages

It’s nearing the end of another year, and that’s the cue for sites the world over to start looking back on the past twelve months. Due to a lack of creative impulse in the code sphere, I’ll be doing the same. So let’s see how the science and art of programming fared in 2016, starting with the advances and changes in programming languages.

JavaScript

JavaScript might not be the biggest language out there, but it’s certainly the one most people have experienced in some form, so it makes sense to start here. And JavaScript has certainly seen some improvements this year. For one thing, it’s got a new version, as the standards guys have moved to the same silly release model that gave us modern Firefox and Chrome. The only things added to ES2016 (what should have been ES7) are an exponent operator and a single new Array method, includes(). Absolutely nothing to get excited over, and the “big” changes, like async, are still in the future…if they’re ever put in at all.

On the other hand, the environment for JavaScript is getting better all the time. You can count on full ES5 support now, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble using ES6 features. Maybe you’ll need a polyfill for those, but that’s a temporary solution. And the one good thing about Windows 10 is Edge, if only because it’s the end of the “old” Internet Explorer and that browser’s awful support for, well, anything.

Outside the browser, Node keeps chugging along. They’ve had some problems there (such as the leftpad debacle), but they’ve got that whole Node/IO.js fork thing worked out. From a political standpoint, it’s not optimal, but the codebase is solid enough. The ecosystem is growing, too, as almost everybody is using some sort of Node/Webkit construction, from Visual Studio Code to Atom to Vivaldi.

As usual, JavaScript’s future looks much brighter than its past. It’s still straining at its own boundaries, but it’s growing. It’s becoming a better language. The two main platforms (browser and Node) have improved by leaps and bounds, and now they’ve become mature. In the next year, they’ll only get better.

C++

C++ had a big year in 2016, but it was all behind the scenes. The real test will come next year, when the C++17 standard comes out, but we already know what it’s going to have in it. What might that be? More of everything, really. I’ve already written about some of the more interesting bits in a three-part series back in August. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

So 2017 looks like it’ll be fun, but what about now? “Modern” C++ is finally getting widespread support, so that’s good. Even those of you stuck on five-year cycles should now be ready for that, and C++14 was an incremental upgrade. On the platform side, it’s C++. The platform is your computer, or your phone, or your refrigerator. It’s the same platform it’s always been. That’s why you would use it over any other language.

C

Microsoft has been doing their schizophrenic love-hate thing with open source for a while now, but 2016 saw the biggest payoff of the “love” side. The open release of .NET Core happened this summer, complete with support for platforms other than Windows. Considering how hard it can be to get MS to even acknowledge such a thing, that’s practically a miracle.

It’s also the beginning of the end for Mono—the third E stands for Extinguish, remember—but that’s not as bad as it sounds. Mono still has its uses, mostly for older .NET code and the things that the MS offering won’t support. Oh, and they also bought Xamarin, whose main reason for existing seemed to be letting you write C# code for mobile devices. But if even some of .NET is open-source, we don’t need that anymore. The community can do it.

C# remains a Microsoft language, though. The MIT license won’t change that. It’ll definitely give non-Windows developers some peace of mind, but you always have to remember who holds the cards here.

Java

Java’s a funny thing. On the one hand, it’s not that bad a platform. On the other, it’s owned by Oracle. They’re still playing the part of Sisyphus, rolling a ball of lawsuits up the hill, only for the courts to send them right back down. But unlike in mythology, there’s the possibility that they might win.

If they do, it’s bad news for everyone, but most of all for Java developers. Who would want to use a language owned by a sue-happy corporation? (And now the C# fanboys can say, “There’s another thing Java ripped off!” Well, okay, at least MS hasn’t sued anybody using C#. Yet.)

But if you can put that out of your mind, Java’s not bad. It’s awful from a security standpoint, and the language sucks, and—well, you get the idea. I still believe it has some upside, though. Scala—or Clojure, if that’s the way you roll—makes using the JVM bearable. Android requires Java coding, even if they desperately want to call it something else.

So Java’s 2016 has been mostly dismal, but look on the bright side: Java 9 is coming soon. And one proposal on the table is “ahead-of-time compilation”. For Java. Just think about that for one second. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but wasn’t that the exact thing Java was designed to prevent?

The rest

Other languages have had an interesting year, but it’s too much work to list them all. Besides, I haven’t used that many of them. But here’s a few of the highlights:

  • Rust is growing. It’s almost to the point of being usable! (The rewrite of Firefox into Rust will come before that point, however.)
  • Go is still bad, but at least Google isn’t trying to push it (or Dart) on Android devs anymore. I’ll call that an improvement.
  • Python really seems to be disappearing. It’s had some minor releases, but nothing amazing. That’s a good thing, but the glaring flaws of Python 3 haven’t gone away.
  • PHP remains the bad joke of the programming world, but maybe PHP 7 can fix that. Because PHP 6 did so well.
  • Perl 6…exists! Technically, that happened last Christmas, but it’s close enough. You can’t complain about a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

We’ll round out the year next week by looking at another area of development: games.

Classifying writing

So we’re getting close to another November, and that means it’s time to get to some serious writing business. Tomorrow, I’ll start, and I hope to reach the magic 50,000 mark once again. This time around, I’ll give a lot more story detail in my daily updates, along with the running word counts.

The novel I’m writing this year has the working title Nocturne, and it’s my first real attempt at book-length fantasy of the “traditional” style. It’ll have magic and mystery and all that stuff. And unlike my Linear Anthology series, it’ll be a “full-length” novel.

But what does that even mean? What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? And where do short stories fit in? Sure, there is significant overlap, and you can say it’s really a continuum; you can have short novels and long novellas. But for an objective metric, a first approximation, we can use the same measurement that every NaNoWriMo participant will be looking at come tomorrow: word count.

Taking the length of one of my works, I divide it into one of three categories: novel, novella, or short story. The numbers I use are pretty simple, and they’re loosely based on the NaNoWriMo “50,000 words” milestone.

  • A novel, for me, is a work that is at least 50,000 words. Preferably, I want it to be 60,000+, but that’s for a very specific reason: I consider my Otherworld series (I’ll start posting those to supporters in the coming months) to be made up of novellas, but some of them run as high as 59,000 words. This is where the stylistic argument comes in. Oh, and there’s no real upper limit, either. The longest work I’ve written weighs in at about 250K, and it’s still a novel. A ponderous tome indeed, but a novel all the same.

  • A novella is shorter, no more than 50-60K. It has to be a minimum of 15,000, though 20,000 is better. (The mathematically inclined reader will notice a pattern here.) By the 20K standard, I don’t actually have any novellas written yet, but I’ll remedy that soon enough.

  • Finally, I consider a short story to be anything under the minimum for a novella. Thus, it can range up to 20,000 words, though anything over 15K is pushing it. (If you prefer a category of “novelette”, then you can slot it in here as 5-15K or 6-20K, with short stories being even shorter than that.) My short stories, however, often have a lot more plot and worldbuilding than you’d expect from something with that name.

So, to sum up, it looks like this:

Type Length (5) Length (6)
Short story < 15,000 < 20,000
Novelette* 5,000-15,000 6,000-20,000
Novella 15,000-50,000 20,000-60,000
Novel > 50,000 > 60,000

Pick which progression you want to follow, and there you go. If you like the novelette category, use its minimum as the maximum for short stories. And don’t neglect the style differences between the different types of work. They’re what led me to make two different classifications in the first place. Novels have more subplots, for example, and I want a novella to be long enough that it has the depth to hook me, but not so long that I can’t read it in one sitting.

Now, it’s onward to November. Can I do this for the fifth straight year? Stay tuned!

Gamification and coding

One of the big trends this decade has been gamification. By turning everyday tasks into games, the theory goes, a person’s natural competitive streak will be triggered, causing that person to put more effort into accomplishing the task, and accomplishing it well. Companies do it with their employees, web forums have begun to implement it for their users and moderators, and so on.

It was only a matter of time before someone brought it to programming. Actually, that happened years ago. Coding competitions have been around a long time, but I saw a link to CodinGame the other day, and that got me thinking.

Games people play

The idea behind gamification isn’t hard to understand. Humans are competitive by nature. We like to win, to be better than the rest. And we really like it when there’s an objective measure of just how much better we are. The Olympics weren’t that long ago, and how many of you remember watching in anticipation, staring at the world records in the corner of the screen? How often were you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the judges’ scores to pop up?

It’s not just sports, though. Most games have some element of scoring, some record of accomplishment. In Monopoly, for example, you’ve got an obvious one: the amount of money in front of you. (Unless you’re playing one of those newer versions with the credit cards, in which case, why?) In video games, tables of high scores have existed for decades, especially in arcade games. And we wanted to set those high scores so bad, because that brought a small measure of fame. Everyone could see that MHP (or whatever) was the best at that game, at least until somebody posted a better score.

Today, when we play over the Internet instead of in public, we have online leaderboards instead, but the principle is the same. It drives us to improve, to reach for that top spot. (Story time: While my brother was working at Amazon a few years ago, I spent about three hours on his XBox, playing Forza 4 and trying to set a record in one of its weekly challenges, a quarter-mile drag race. It was some of the most fun and satisfying gameplay I’ve ever had, even though I never got higher than about 26th.)

Achievements are another popular aspect of modern games, and they work the same way. As Pokemon taught us: you gotta catch ’em all! And that’s how it is with achievements. We see that list, those empty spots, and we have goals. We have something to strive for.

That’s what gamification is. It’s the transfer of that competitive urge, that desire to complete a set or simply win, to mundane work. By adding points and trophies and collectibles, we transform drudgery into entertainment. Whether at school, on the job, or in a social setting, these artificial goals effectively make us believe we’re playing a game. Games are fun, right? So if we make the boring stuff into a game, then it magically becomes fun! Well, maybe. It doesn’t always work, and it’s not for everybody.

Games without frontiers

In theory, almost anything can be gamified, but we’re talking about programming here, so let’s stick to that. How can we make writing computer programs into a game? There are a few obvious answers. One is to make a game about coding, as with else heart.break() or TIS-100. That works, but it’s very much a niche. Another option is adding subtle programming abilities into an otherwise unrelated game. Minecraft has redstone, for example, which allows you to build logic gates, the building blocks of computing, while Final Fantasy XII gave players a bit of power to program their AI-controlled party members. In those cases, however, the programming part is not the focus. It’s an aside, sometimes an unwelcome one.

True gamification of coding, as CodinGame does, is different. It’s more of a series of programming challenges, each with objective measures of success and prowess. Code has to be correct, first and foremost. It has to do what it was designed to do. It’s also good if it’s fast; given two identically correct programs, the faster one is usually considered better. Space is another factor—smaller is generally better—and you can come up with other metrics. (“Lines of code”, by the way, is not a very good one.)

Once you have a way of measuring the “score”, you’re halfway to making a game of it. Post the scores publicly, and watch as coders eagerly train at their craft for no other reason than to move up a spot or two. It’s almost like magic!

Can it work, though? I don’t know. It works for a lot of people, but not everyone. We’re not all the same. Some of us don’t have that competitive streak, or we don’t act on it. For them, gamification is a waste of time. But for the rest of the populace, it can create a reason to learn, a reason to want to learn. That’s something the world could use a lot more of, so I say it’s worth a shot.