Interactive Novel: Game or Book?

I shared a couple of weeks ago that I’ve recently discovered Interactive Fiction, also known as text-based games. I’ve been learning a lot about this exciting medium and I’m hoping to start making use of that knowledge soon. Right now, though, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how the tools of IF can be applied to enhance more traditional novels. Basically, I’m trying to define what I think would make a good interactive novel.

I use the term interactive novel to distinguish what I’m talking about from text-based, interactive games. I want to create something that is still a book at heart. Something the reader picks up and reads without concern for solving the puzzles or avoiding the dead ends that are staples of text-based games. I want it to be a book, not a game. Just a highly interactive book.

I’m not alone in my quest for the interactive novel, either. There are a handful of attempts to define this medium, mostly in the form of mobile applications for the iOS and Android platforms. The one I’m most excited by is Arcadia by Iain Pears. The story contains 10 POV characters with stories that intertwine across 3 worlds. You pick a character and start reading and when your character’s plot intersects with that of another character, you have the option of switching over to the perspective of that other character and continuing with his story. It’s a fascinating concept and it seems to be done very well (I’ve only just started reading it).

There’s a lot about Pears’ project that I want to emulate in my own work, though I’m not sure he gets quite to the point of an interactive novel, at least not as I envision it. I’d call Arcadia more of a customizable novel for the way it allows the reader to read the stories in whatever order she chooses. But the only interaction is in switching perspectives and the reader cannot actually influence the story, only choose how she reads it. A bold idea, to be sure, but not exactly what I have in mind.

However, Pears makes an excellent point in this Q&A that resonates with me, saying his goal “was to get something that people would read, rather than play with.” That’s exactly what I want and his approach is prompting me to ask whether the concept simmering in my head utilizes so much interaction that it crosses the line from book to game. I’m searching for that perfect balance that will give the reader a satisfying level of interaction with the story while maintaining the smooth narrative flow of a good novel. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think I’ve got a working concept that has the potential of achieving that goal. I’ll share more as there’s more to share.

In the meantime, what do you think? Does the idea of an interactive novel excite you or does it sound too much like a video game? How much interaction is possible before the work stops being a novel and becomes a game?


Interactive Fiction

In between ghostwriting for clients, working on my novel, and playing with a few short stories, I’ve been trying to think of a better way to tell stories. Not just to tell them but to suck the reader into them. Lots of ideas have bounced around my head, most of them not very well-formed or promising.

One of the first was audio fiction with full voice-acting, sound effects, and musical score. Not just an audio book, but a story designed for an audio format. But that’s really been done before and it lacks the level of immersion I’m looking for.

Another was story-driven video games with simple graphics but compelling narratives. Even better, video games with the capacity for emergent narrative where the player can discover his own stories as he goes. That’s been done as well with varying degrees of success. But it would be a goal far off in the future since my coding skills are sub-novice and my graphics skills are sub-existent.

Dancing around somewhere in my head was a notion similar to those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books but brought into digital format. And hopefully with an added layer of complexity and interaction. But I didn’t have a firm concept of what that would look like or how to even begin implementing it.

Then, this week I stumbled across text-based video games. Also know as Interactive Fiction. I knew right away this was what I had been looking for and the more I’ve read, the more I’m convinced of that. I’ve since played through a couple of short interactive fiction (IF) games and I’m hooked, for sure. I’m already starting to grasp to structure of them and I can’t wait to dive in deeper and see what I can create myself.

This medium, while not new by any means, is immensely exciting to me. I think this, and things like it, is going to be the future of storytelling. The potential seems endless and despite the fact that it’s been around for a while, I’m sure there are new things to be done with it. So give me some time to learn one of the languages used in programming these games and the basics down, then be on the look out for my contributions.

How To Use OneNote to Plan Your Novel


This blog is no longer active but this post has been republished at In addition there is now a FREE 7-day course that takes this idea much deeper than a single blog post. If you enjoy this post, the course is for you! Sign up for my email list to receive it now!

If you’re serious about writing, you need Scrivener. The $40 investment will be money very well spent. But, as many times as I may say that, I know that some people just aren’t going to pay for it. Or don’t want to learn a new, and admittedly complex, software. If you’re one of those people, or you have some other reason for not buying and using Scrivener, I don’t hate you and I’m not giving up on you. There are other tools out there and today I want to share one of them with you.

Even if you’ve never used it, there’s a good chance you already have Microsoft OneNote. It’s pre-installed on most new Windows 8 computers and you may have access to it with your Office 365 subscription or Office software suite. If you’re a Mac user (like me) you can download it for free in the App Store and it’s on iOS as well.

Before I found Scrivener, I used OneNote to plan my writing. In fact, I wrote an entire novel (ghostwrote, actually, so I can’t tell you what novel it was) using this system. All the planning in OneNote and all 80,000 words in Microsoft Word. Though I would never recommend writing that much in Word, I can still say that planning in OneNote was a positive experience. The thing that makes OneNote work great for planning a novel is its ability to hold multiple documents in a single file, much like Scrivener. Though it’s not necessarily designed with creative fiction writers in mind, we can set it up to work to our advantage. Here’s how:

When  you first open a new OneNote notebook, it will look like this:

New OneNote

The first thing you want to do is create four sections: Ideas, Characters, Plot, and Scenes. Once you’ve done that, your notebook will look like this:

OneNote Sections

The Ideas Section

You can use this one however you want. I use it as a dumping ground for any random ideas I might have during the planning process. Plot twists, new characters, world details, anything that doesn’t fit well into one of the other categories can go here. You can also use this section as a place to start your whole planning process, before you have a real plot or specific characters in mind.

The Characters Section

The characters section is where you keep character information. Make a page for each character and fill it with all the relevant details. Not just physical descriptions and personality, but character-based summaries, motivations, goals, conflicts, everything. I like to set up my character section like this:

OneNote Character

For each character I, at minimum, write a 1-sentence summary, a description of his internal “motivation,” his external “goal,” the conflict he faces in reaching that goal, and the epiphany he will discover along the way. In addition, I create a subpage for a 1-paragraph summary that goes all the way through the plot of the novel from the given character’s perspective.

The Plot Section

You’ll have a lot of plot information in your character section of course, but this is the place to focus on plot exclusively. I use at least three pages here:

OneNote Plot


The 1-sentence summary might be the “seed” of your story. A brief description that sums up the whole thing. This is how would answer the question, “What is your book about?” The 1-page summary is for more detail, but not too much. Just capture the broad strokes of your plot in a couple of paragraphs. You’ll probably do this as you create characters and expand the plot from that initial seed. Then the detailed synopsis is as long and detailed as you need it to be to fully describe the plot of your book.

The Scene Section

After  you’ve filled the character and plot sections up, you’re ready to plan out the individual scenes of your novel. This is where sub-pages in OneNote really come in handy because you can make a page for each chapter, then sub-pages for each scene in that chapter. Make it look something like this:

OneNote Scene

On the chapter page, you can include a brief summary of what needs to happen in that chapter. Then, on each scene page, you’ll want to include the POV character, setting, and a synopsis of the scene. You can add more if you want, like a list of characters and their goals relevant to the scene, but I don’t usually do that. You could also write each scene here, too, but OneNote doesn’t offer a good way to throw all of those individual scenes into a single document at the end, so I wouldn’t recommend it. From here, it’ll be best to switch over to a more traditional word-processer like Word, Pages, or Open Office.

Or just go buy Scrivener.

How to Backup Your Writing

The technological tools we have for writing today should not be casually passed over by any writer. There is an overabundance of tools available to help us with our craft (I’ve listed a few that I use here and here). But it can be a little intimidating. Even worse, we all know that technology is not 100% reliable. Computers crash, hard drives fail, even the almighty cloud isn’t impervious to data loss. And we don’t even want to imagine what it would feel like to have the first 40,000 words of our masterpiece vanish into cyberspace.

So, what should we do? Are the risks of losing everything in a flash worth the benefits of writing technology?

I answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!” But it’s also a qualified, “yes.” Use the tech, but use it smart.

That means MAKE BACKUPS!!!

Just in case you’re not clear about the ins and outs of online etiquette, yes, I did just yell at you. If you use a computer (or smartphone or tablet) for anything of any importance you need to have a well thought out backup system. Not doing so is just asking for disaster. But at the same time, coming up with a good backup procedure can be time consuming and easily put off. That’s where I want to help you. I can’t set up the whole system for you and I certainly can’t make you use it, but I can give you a nudge in the right direction.

My basic backup procedure is two-fold, and therefore, twice as reliable.

First, I keep daily backups of projects that I’m currently working on. That means every time I close the project, it gets backed up and I always have a recent version available if something goes wrong. Since this is something you’ll be doing quite often, it helps to have backup be automated. I use Scrivener for all of my writing, which makes it quite easy to manage backups since the developers understand the importance of the habit. Just open Preferences for Scrivener and go to the Backup tab. Once you’re there, make sure Automatic Backups are turned on, decide when you want the backups to occur (I use “Backup on project close”), and select a location.  You can do a backup to a different folder on your hard drive, but that won’t help you much if you loose your whole drive. So I recommend using a cloud service for this. If you don’t have any cloud storage, you can sign up with Dropbox and get 2 GB of storage for free — plenty of room for backups.

If you don’t use Scrivener, just save your Word document, or whatever type of file, to a cloud service. You might already be doing this via OneDrive if you use Windows and have an Office 365 subscription. This will ensure that you always have a local copy on your hard drive and a backup saved online that you can access anywhere.

Second, I do weekly backups of my whole system. Some people recommend backing up your whole computer more often, even daily, but I don’t find that necessary. With my open projects backed up online, once a week is plenty for my whole system. For these backups, I just use Time Machine and an external hard drive. Plug in the drive, hit backup now, and it’s done in a few minutes. You’ll have to use a different backup client if you’re on Windows, of course, but the principle is the same.

These very simple backup procedures will make sure that you never lose a word of your precious writing. And, best of all, implementing them won’t eat into your precious writing time.

Do you have any other backup practices that you like to use to keep  your work safe?

My Writing Process – Part Two

Editing – Textilus 

Now we’re at the stage of a finished rough draft. Time for editing.

When it comes to editing, it’s usually advised that you put the manuscript in a different format than your primary word processor. You need to look at it differently in order to see it differently. For this, I use an iPad and Textilus. I’m getting more platform specific now, but again, this is me. I’ll be sure to provide some broader recommendations later.

I export a PDF of my first draft from Scrivener, load it into Textilus using Dropbox, and start marking it up with a stylus and typed annotations. At this point, I’m looking for spelling and grammar issues, places where the wording could be more clear, naturalness of dialogue. I cross stuff out, draw arrows, and type in small ideas but, because I’m looking at a PDF, I don’t make any actual changes to the manuscript yet. That comes at the next step.

Revising – Air Display

Once I’ve got my marked up PDF, I upload it back to Dropbox and import it into Scrivener. Now I need to implement all the changes I’ve noted on my iPad. I do this by looking at the annotated PDF and my manuscript in Scrivener at the same time. My primary computer is a 13″ MacBook Pro so there’s not a ton of screen space to display both edited draft and manuscript together. I get around this with Air Display.

Air Display is an application that allows you to use an iPad as an external monitor. The connection is over Wi-Fi rather than a cable so it’s not quite as smooth as a traditionally external monitor, but it gets the job done. This job, anyway.

I just move the PDF over to the iPad screen where I can see it and easily scroll through pages and make the changes I’ve noted on the manuscript. This process also gives me another read through where I occasionally catch another mistake or two.

Feedback – Scribophile

Getting feedback on your writing is extremely important. You can also get so far before you need another set of eyes. Having non-writer friends read your work is good, but don’t underestimate the value of having an experienced writer (or three) comment on your story. Maybe you have an experienced writer friend (or three) you can count on, but many of us don’t.

That’s where Scribophile comes in. It’s an online writer’s group where you can get feedback on your work from other writers. There’s no cost to join (though there is a Premium Membership available), but you do have to critique what other members write if you want to post your own work. It’s a good system and I highly recommend using it whether you have real-life writer friends or not.

After I’ve gotten some feedback on Scribophile, I cycle back through these editing steps as many times as necessary. Don’t get too carried away, though. No matter how perfect your manuscript is, someone on Scribophile will always find some way to recommend improvement. So decide when you’re satisfied and stop there.

There you have it. That’s an overview of my writing process and the tools I use to get it all done. I’d love to hear from you about what kind of process you work with and any new and exciting software that makes it possible!

My Writing Process – Part One

I can’t even begin to imagine the task of writing an entire novel by hand. I can hardly fathom writing a novel in Microsoft Word (though I have done that — once).

Fortunately, I don’t have to imagine either of those things because there are far better tools available to help us write our novels. In this category, I’ll be sharing with you the tools that I use and, occasionally, other tools that I’ve heard of. The tools are mostly technological because I’m assuming you’re not working with a pen and paper.

For now, I want to give you an overview of my writing process and the tools I use at each stage. My process has changed over the course of working on several different novels as a ghostwriter, but this is what I use right now.

Ideas – OneNote

OneNote is just about the only Microsoft product that I don’t utterly despise. I use it as my primary digital notebook and, as such, it’s the place where my ideas first get recorded. If you don’t know. OneNote allows you to create different notebooks. Within those notebooks, you have sections, and within those sections, you have pages. I love this hierarchical structure. It works far better for me than the more flexible format of services like Evernote.

I have one notebook called “Creative,” where I keep various things related music and writing. One section in that notebook is for new story ideas. That’s where the “seeds” of my stories get stored. Whether it’s an interesting science fact that has the potential to make science fiction, a stray idea, a character, anything that can lead to a story. Those seeds will typically grow and develop a bit in OneNote before moving on to the next, and biggest, tool.

Planning and Writing – Scrivener

If you’re serious about your writing, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t pay the $40 required to download Scrivener and put in the time to learn the software. It’s a word processor designed for large writing projects that allows you to outline your story, move around scenes and chapters, maintain character descriptions, and setting details all in one place. I can’t possibly say enough good things about Scrivener.

Once I’m ready to take one of those seeds from OneNote and make it into a story, I move over to Scrivener. I write out a synopsis, start working on character profiles, add detail to the synopsis, add more characters, describe places, write backstory, and, eventually, outline the novel. Then I write it from that outline. Obviously, that’s a huge process that I just crammed into a few sentences, but this about broad strokes. I’ll give you more detail about using Scrivener in future posts.

Next week, we’ll pick up at editing and revision to see how I wrap up the process of writing a book.