Instant Pulp: Just Add Water


My writing students found out it was my birthday recently and today in class they presented me with a surprise gift: a book they’d made for me called Instant Pulp: Just Add Water. Subtitled “Ideas for a stopped and stalled creative mind.”

I was very touched. I don’t know where they got the idea that I might be stalled creatively (yeah, my daily writing habit has been a bit sluggish lately but how would they know that…?) but anyhow Instant Pulp is a delight. The students had passed a little blank notebook around amongst themselves and filled it with story starters, writing prompts, scenarios, bon mots, and encouragements. There are some really brilliant, juicy ideas in this wee tome, and at least one so far that strikes me as the solution to a long-standing problem I’ve been having with a particular story. An idea I should’ve had myself but didn’t, and now here it is. Fiat lux! This truly is a gift.

I made sure to ask the students if by giving me this book they were giving me the right to use any of this material in my own work. They said yes, that was fine, although one of them added “We kept our really good ideas for ourselves.” They only asked that if any of the ideas in Instant Pulp proved to be the seed of a book that I should thank them in the acknowledgements. Fair enough.

I’ve decided to start by taking a couple of the writing prompts and using them to generate stories for this blog. So that’s what’s coming up soon here on “Notes for the Perilous Realm.”

Since I can’t tell for certain from the handwriting who wrote which prompts, I won’t be able to credit people individually for each idea as I use them on the blog, so I will just say a collective thank you, students of Write 395, 2012-13. And don’t forget to read the story I assigned for next class.

The gentle time machine

I turned fifty today. On the one hand, I can’t believe I got here already. Half a century. When I was a kid fifty seemed like an ancient age for someone to be. But now, big surprise, it doesn’t seem so old. 

I’ve discovered over the years that one’s calendar age isn’t some monolithic truth. That really as you get older you carry all your younger selves around with you. And even when you’re very young, the person you’ll be at fifty, or ninety, is already there. After all, when I was ten I didn’t feel young. I felt I was who I was supposed to be. And it’s the same now.

And besides, I can console myself with the thought that fifty is the age at which both Bilbo and Frodo first set out on their great adventures. In fact fifty seems like a good age to start something new. Maybe something unexpected and uncharacteristic. Looking back on my life so far I realize that one of the things I’m most happy about is that I haven’t lost the desire to play. At least once in a while. I haven’t completely put away childish things, like the world expects me to.

I had a curious dream last night that probably has something to do with the fact that I’ve been thinking more than usual lately about my age. I was at a county fair, and saw a booth advertising “The Gentle Time Machine” of somebody called Doctor Misterius. I went in. The doctor was a tall thin man, and his time machine was nothing more than a small box with a single red button on top.

“Press the button and be miraculously transported into another moment in time,” the doctor said. So I did.

“Some miracle,” I said. “Nothing happened.”

“No?” the doctor asked. “When are you now?”

I thought about it and understood.

“Your time machine is time itself,” I said. “It’s always bringing us gently into the next moment.”

Well, the realization seemed profound when I was dreaming it. 

Is time a miracle? If we don’t take it for granted, maybe it is.

Lucid in the sleep with dreamings

More on the subject of dreams. I rarely have lucid dreams -- that is, dreams in which I become aware that I’m dreaming and then take control of the dream and shape it the way I want, like the director of a film. And even on the rare occasions that I realize I’m dreaming, I’m usually so sleepy and lethargic that I still just go along with the dream as it is, without trying to shape it.

But recently, while thinking about the connection between sleep, dreams and stories, it occurred to me that lucid dreaming represents a wonderful opportunity to practice my craft as a writer and storyteller even while I sleep. So I’ve been reading about lucid dreaming and trying some of the methods that are said to help one achieve it. For example, state checks -- where you get into the habit of asking yourself during the day, “Am I dreaming or is this real?”

The method seems to work. I’ve had some surprising lucid dreams lately. The other night I was dreaming about going with my family on a vacation to the States. It was a very vivid, realistic, detailed dream and I had no suspicion it wasn’t real … until I noticed we had somehow driven across the border without going through customs. In these post-911 times, that really stood out as odd. I began to suspect I was dreaming, but I still wasn’t sure. When we arrived at the lakeshore cabin where we were staying, I noticed more odd shifts in time and space, and finally I said to everyone I was with, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but we’re not really here. This is just a dream I’m having.” Even though I now knew they were fictional people, I still felt bad about telling them they weren’t real and ruining their vacation. So I made sure to add, “Look, I’m just a figment, too. A figment of my own imagination.”

They didn’t believe me. They asked me to prove this was a dream. So I made a drinking glass move across a table just by looking at it. They still didn’t believe me. They thought it was some kind of clever parlor trick.

At that point I remembered I was a writer and I thought, Hey, if you can move glasses, you can do anything. You can tell any story you want. But by then it was too late. I was already waking up, and the dream was fading away. 

[Image from Tarkovsky's film Stalker; from the scene in which the little girl moves a glass across the table just by looking at it.]

Dear Beth Esda

To Beth Esda
From the editors at Storyworks Publishing

Dear Ms Esda,
Thank you for submitting your novel “Skyrim” for our consideration. As a work of fiction it is breathtaking in its scope and ambition. The sheer number of characters alone is truly impressive. We feel, however, that it is simply not publishable in its current form and needs some substantial rewriting before we could even begin to consider offering you a contract.

First of all, the issue of your characters being first identified and then divided so crudely along racial and gender lines. This kind of blatant profiling hasn’t been seen in the novel as a genre for a very long time and frankly it’s embarrassing. As is the fact that every one of your major characters is a peak physical specimen who lives only to hack and slash. Lots of characters, yes. Lots of variety and subtlety in the characters? No.

Secondly, are you acquainted with the cinematic concept of the jump cut? It isn’t really necessary to chronicle every single step of your protagonist’s journey from place to place. You need to condense the action. Skip over the long episodes of getting somewhere. After all, how many hours of their lives do you really expect your readers to devote to this one story? People have other things to do. They want a novel they can take with them to the beach, not a novel that will make beach, vacation, family and life disappear. Even Tolstoy, in a book as enormous as War and Peace, knew when to pass over certain events and summarize stuff that wasn’t essential to his characters.

Thirdly, we're sure you’ve heard the phrase “less is more.” We suggest that in order to be a gripping and successful story, your novel, so rich and teeming with (certain kinds of) details, should actually strive to give a reader less.
What do we mean by that counterintuitive idea? Consider: your protagonist roams about the land, looking for work and gathering the facts and objects he needs to fulfill his various missions in life. Every once in a while he stops to talk to someone who readily provides him with new information. Or he stops and reads a book that’s conveniently lying around and gathers some truly boring backstory about stuff that happened a long time ago. It’s all so linear and plodding and devoid of true drama or tension.

In your query letter you pointed out with obvious pride that your novel is innovative because it is so highly interactive, and in a certain sense we agree. One can immerse oneself in your fictional world in a way that’s not possible with ordinary stories made of mere words on the page. But this immersion isn’t true participation. As readers we’re only compelled to go on by a set of external conflicts and difficulties that need to be overcome. And every time things begin to drag, which is often, the plot throws in yet another dragon. 

You must find a way to allow the reader to truly participate in the lives of your characters, and the best way to do that is through what you don’t give them. You should familiarize yourself with Hemingway’s iceberg principle. The notion that most of what’s going on in a story, most of what really matters, is happening beneath the surface, in what’s not said directly. Subtext. Implication. Hidden motivations. Unspoken desires. 

That’s the territory your novel will need to explore if it’s going to become a gripping and compelling story that will engage a reader’s intellect and heart. Readers want to participate in making meaning, not have it handed to them or search for it in vain if it isn’t there. You must allow them to bring their own wit, imagination and energy to your story. Otherwise they’re just passive absorbers of whatever you hand them, like babies being fed easily-digestible mush. We sincerely doubt there can be many readers out there who are looking for such an infantile experience.

One small point before we finish. Your title: it doesn’t suggest anything. It has no hook. It announces nothing. It doesn’t entice. To bring in Tolstoy again, a reader had a pretty good idea of what to expect from a book called War and Peace.

And that brings us to our final, but perhaps largest concern. What is your novel about? We’re not trying to be disingenuous here. We really don’t know. So many things happen in this novel, so many characters are introduced and then killed. So many hoards and crypts are plundered. So many skills acquired. So many dragons destroyed. And for what? Your protagonist remains the same muscled lump of unreflecting aggression near the end that he was at the beginning (we say near because frankly we couldn't finish your book. It seemed endless and we have many other manuscripts to get to). So we ask: do you have anything to say to readers? Is there an overarching vision here of what the world is, or could be?

            Yours sincerely,
            The editors

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Avatar


“The short story has never had a hero…. Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo…. There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel -- an intense awareness of human loneliness.”                                                                                           -- Frank O’Connor

O’Connor was talking about the short stories of Joyce, Hemingway and others, but his words, written in 1962, eerily conjure up an image of one of the most familiar types of character you get to play in videogames.

Like Skyrim. I played Skyrim for a while when it first came out, and something I discovered that I hadn’t expected was how lonely I felt doing it. How long it took to get from one inhabited place to another, at least in the early stages of the game. How rare it was to meet with another person (well, another NPC), and how distant and unfulfilling the conversation was (I couldn’t express how I was feeling, and anyhow no one seemed to care). There were long stretches of not much happening, and the game often asked me to do things I had absolutely no interest in doing. But at least the scenery was nice to look at. And sometimes being alone on a path somewhere was kind of enjoyable. A bit like really hiking in the mountains and getting away from it all.

I abandoned the game eventually. Partly because I began to realize how huge it was, and how many hours of what life is left to me on this earth I would have to spend to get anywhere in it. But also because the characters bored me.

What do you think of when you think about your favourite stories? For me, the characters are almost always the most memorable. I believe that video games are only at the beginnings of the possibilities of the form, and that they will expand and evolve in ways I can’t even imagine, but it does seem that for many games, the trend is towards becoming more and more like engrossing stories. Eventually these story-like games may branch away from game-like games and become a new genre, a new art form, of their own -- something more like interactive cinema than games. In order to tell really good stories, these sorts of games will have to work on pacing, and on developing rich, surprising and engaging characters.

To do this, games will have to expand the kinds of characters that inhabit them, and the kinds of stories that can happen to those characters. One good start is for games to acknowledge the heterogenous, multicultural world we live in. To get beyond racial and gender typecasting. To imagine characters and tell stories other than those designed to appeal to emotionally-stunted man-boys.

E.M. Forster’s distinction between round and flat characters seems apt here. Flat characters are the stock characters we’re all familiar with. Bad girl. Action hero. Hardboiled detective. Killbot. They’re useful to storytellers because they’re immediately recognizable. The audience knows them from a thousand other stories, and knows what to expect of them. Most videogame stories run on an engine made of the easy, familiar scripts that come attached to flat characters. O’Connor’s outlawed figure on the fringes of society has, in videogames (and action movies) become another of these stock characters, and possibly the most popular of them all.

The essence of the round character is that you can’t anticipate how she’s going to behave. You have to learn about this kind of character as you go along. Round characters have depth and complexity. They surprise us (and often themselves). With the greatest round characters in fiction, you have a sense of someone existing moment by moment, as we do in life, responding to changing circumstances with wit, imagination and will. 

This is the territory that games as stories will have to explore, and if they do, it will take them, and us, to places we've never seen before in a game, and to people we've never imagined meeting there. People like us.

Once upon a game...


From what I’ve seen, and played, the videogame is still in its infancy as Story. I don’t say that to be critical so much as in anticipation of the possibilities that are likely to become fascinating realities in the near future. The videogame is still very much about delivering easy excitement and escape more than it’s about good storytelling. So far. In most game stories the hero is still very much an avatar or surrogate for the player's fantasies, allowing ordinary people like you and me the chance to overcome obstacles and to succeed at monumental tasks.

As Story, then, most videogames are still at a crude “wish fulfillment” stage. They’re all about winning. Like the stories little kids sometimes tell themselves: “… and then I killed all the monsters.” Stories crafted to give a reader/player a vicarious fantasy of accomplishment that they can’t (or would never try to achieve) in real life.

One could also compare this kind of success-based videogame story to popular genres like romance, or fantasy, or the increasingly popular hybrid of teen romance fantasy. Stories about people getting what they want more than anything in this world. Success. Approval. Love. That’s where the video game is at these days, and it isn’t surprising, since that seems to be the best way to sell something. Make the product about the consumer’s deepest desires.

A colleague of mine, Ted Bishop, likens the rise of the videogame as story to the rise of the novel in the 18th century. At that time the novel was thought of as the trash genre of literature. If you were a real writer you wrote in “noble” genres, like epic poetry (which, ironically enough, was often about great warriors, except that in most cases they died at the end). The novel was looked down on as mere hack writing for the masses. And most early novels were pretty bad. But there were a few gems of course which have stood the test of time, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Stories not about gods, kings and warriors, but about ordinary people.

There have already been efforts to do something more groundbreaking and challenging with videogame stories. Writers have already begun to plumb the depth and richness of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and others. But I’m talking more about my hope and expectation that games will simply learn how to tell better stories, and that the videogame will see a branching into all kinds of genres. Much like the way the world of cinema has room not just for action-packed Hollywood blockbusters but films of much greater depth, richness, and strangeness.

In order to develop and grow as storytelling, videogame writing will have to do a number of things much better than it does now. In another post I will talk about some of those elements of Story and how they might transform the videogame in the years to come.



The first television science fiction program ever broadcast was produced by the BBC on this day in 1938. The program was a thirty-five-minute adaptation of part of the 1920 play R.U.R., also known as Rossum’s Universal Robots, by the Czech author Karel Čapek. It was Čapek (or his brother) who coined the term robot to describe the manmade humanoids in the play, from an old Slavic word meaning “work” or “servitude.”

The artificial beings in the play are not really robots in our contemporary sense of mechanical devices that can perform human tasks. They are made of a synthetic protoplasm.

The idea of mechanical servants goes back much further than 1920. There’s a reference in Homer’s Iliad  to female servants made of gold who assist Hephaestus, the god of metalwork: “Handmaids ran to attend their master, all cast in gold but a match for living, breathing girls. Intelligence filled their hearts, voice and strength their frames, from the deathless gods they’ve learned their work of hand.” (Book 18, translation by Robert Fagles).

These days we have robots that vacuum our floors and work as bomb disposal devices. We have artificial intelligences that can beat us at chess. There’s a Murasaki storytelling robot in Japan (the country which has the most robots in the world). The Murasaki is actually just a device that simulates the actions of someone telling a story, while the story itself comes from an MP3 player hidden inside it.

I wrote the story “Machine vs Snot-Monster” after pondering the thought of an artificial intelligence that could really tell stories. It seems to me (though I’m certainly no expert on AI) that a machine could really be called intelligent only when it developed to the stage where it wanted to tell stories, or needed to. When robots reach this stage, and are able to look back at the stories that human beings have been telling about them (since the Iliad or even longer), one has to wonder what kinds of stories they’ll tell about us.

Tales against the dark

Last night we took our dog for a walk at the off-leash park. It was after sunset already and a fine, icy sleet had begun to fall. The park is on the flats alongside the river. There are no streetlamps, and the only light was the dim phosphorescence of the snow itself. There were a couple of other vehicles in the parking lot, but no sign of anyone else or their dogs.

We walked along with our flashlights into that dim, ghostly expanse, and Boo, our dog, bounded on ahead and came loping back. There were no other dogs for her to play with and so she didn’t dash off as far from us as she usually would out here. Or maybe it was the dark itself that kept her close. Distant trees were vague dark shapes that for a moment looked like they might be people. We heard an owl hooting, a sound that was somehow soft, almost secretive, and yet carried far across the wide river flats.

We walked for a while without saying much, with the sleet stinging our eyes, and then my son said, “Let’s tell stories.”

So we did. We told a few creepy stories, and some funny ones, and afterwards I thought about how certain places and times seem to call for a story. Here we were in this eerie twilight world, almost as if we had wandered into some spooky tale ourselves, and the impulse came not just to talk to one another, but to tell each other stories, too. I thought about our distant ancestors, thousands of years ago, before there were any streetlamps, or streets, or cities at all, gathered around their campfires with the mysterious, frightening dark on all sides, where beasts prowled. I felt I understood a little better where the storytelling impulse comes from, and I thought it must still be carried in us, in our genes, the desire to tell tales when darkness falls.

The Molly and Jenny stories

When my daughter Mary was little I used to tell her an ongoing bedtime story about the adventures of two little girls, Molly and Jenny. They lived in the forest with their parents and were always going off on their own to explore, which usually led to them getting into trouble of one kind or another. Fortunately they were good friends with a flying horse who would come rescue whenever they called him with a magic whistle. Usually they would call for their friend the flying horse right about the time that I, the one telling the story, had gotten them into some fix and had no idea how to get them out of it again.

The challenge was to come up with a new adventure for Molly and Jenny every night, and often I’d get a story going and find myself in the middle of it with no idea where things were going to go from here or what to tell next. It was complete story improv. My daughter didn’t seem to notice or care that the plots of the Molly and Jenny stories were contrived and cobbled together from lots of other stories. She loved them, and that was good enough for the both of us. During the telling we entered that timeless time of story. The years have flown by, but Molly and Jenny are still two little girls having adventures.

Mary’s favourite Molly and Jenny story, the one she asked me to tell many times, was about how the girls went to visit their reclusive old grandpa, who lived in a shack on the very top of a mountain peak. The peak was so sharp that the house balanced, teetering, on the very tip of it. The fun of the story was how Molly and Jenny would have to be very careful moving around their Grandpa’s house so it wouldn’t tip too far one way or the other and come crashing down the mountain. I probably got the idea from the Chaplin film The Gold Rush where something similar happens to a trapper’s cabin on the edge of a precipice (a visual gag imitated many times, for example in the Looney Tunes cartoon in which Bugs Bunny accompanies Christopher Columbus and the two of them share a bowl of soup which slides across the table between them with each rise and fall of the waves).

I never wrote down any of the Molly and Jenny stories, and I’m sorry for that. It would have been great fun to have them on paper so we could read them again after all these years.