A French Fiction Revolution

When I was a teenager, vending machines in schools were a controversial topic. Everyone and their granny seemed to be obsessing about how they could encourage children to eat healthily, lest the words ‘CLINICALLY OBESE’ should be (figuratively) branded on their foreheads. So one day, I came in to school to discover that the vending machines that had once given out sweets, crisps and fizzy juice had been replaced with these vending machines abominations, which produced healthy snacks and bottled water.

I was appalled.

Perhaps if they had replaced them with the kind of vending machines you can now find in the French city of Grenoble, I wouldn’t have been so disgusted. In October 2015, the small but vibrant French publishing company Short Édition distributed eight ‘Distributeur d’histoires courtes’ (that’s ‘short story distributors’ to you and I)[1] to be trialled in various public locations. These machines come fully equipped with more than 600 short stories, selected by the 142,000 Short Édition readers from among the 60,000 stories on the Short Édition website[2]. With such a wide readership selecting which stories were to be included in the machine from such a rich pool of stories, it’s safe to say the user will probably get a story worth reading. The user has three categories of story to choose from: a one minute story, a three minute story or a five minute story[1][2][3][4]. What they cannot choose is which genre of story they get[2], which could be almost anything- even poetry[3].

They are proving immensely popular, with over 10,000 stories having been dispensed within the first two weeks of the machines’ release, according to Short Édition’s co-founder, Quentin Pleplé[2]. Hardly surprising, since you only have to look (discreetly) at your fellow commuters on any given day to see that the vast majority of them will have their heads buried in a newspaper, a book or (more often than not these days) a smartphone. Clearly, there is a niche in the market for commuter friendly entertainment.

Let’s be honest. People like us, who know that fiction is better than reality, only read newspapers because we know we should, not because we find them half as enjoyable as a good story.

Reading full sized novels on the bus is all well and good of course, but it also has its downsides. For a start, books are usually too large to carry around in your pocket (especially if you enjoy a hefty tome, as I do). I also find myself getting frustrated if my journey ends when I’m halfway through a chapter (call me fussy, but I find the beginning of a new chapter is a very natural place to pause).

I think we all know that we all spend more time than we should staring at mobile phones and other screens as it is. Besides, there’s nothing worse than being rudely interrupted by some ignoramus who thinks it’s acceptable to try and phone you on your smartphone when you’re trying to read some e-book you downloaded.

And of course, live theatre on the bus is just plain dangerous.

Finally, it seems that the French are revolting.

But it’s not just the commuters who are benefiting from this revolution in story distribution. The authors whose stories are included in the distributeur d’histoires courtes earn a whopping 10% of all rents paid to Short Édition from those who have one of the newfangled machines[1]. To give you some context, it costs €500 per month to rent one of these beauties,[1] which means €50 is going straight into the pockets of the authors every month. That’s about £38 sterling, which is not to be sniffed at.

If you want to try out one of these devices for yourself and don’t live anywhere near Grenoble then I’m afraid it’s fromage à pâte dure at the moment. You can’t get them anywhere else. However with a bit of luck, Short Édition will soon expand[2][4] and… who knows? Maybe soon we’ll be seeing similar devices in every train station in the world!

Vive la révolution!

 


Sources:

1.   P. Bock (22/01/2016), ‘How A City in France Got the World’s First Short-Story Vending Machines’, The New Yorker. Accessed 30/01/2016

2.   A. Flood (13/11/2015), ‘Short Story Vending Machines Press French Commutors’ Buttons’, The Guardian. Accessed 30/01/2016

3.   C. Jobson (19/11/2015), ‘Short Edition: A Short Story Vending Machine that Prints Free Stories On-Demand’, Colossal. Accessed 30/01/2016

4.   J. Shepherd (10/11/2015), ‘Short Story “Vending Machines” to be Installed in Grenoble, France’, The Independent. Accessed 30/01/2016

 

Being Ernest

For those who don’t know, Ernest Hemingway was the author behind such classic novels as For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. To say his style of writing has been influential over the years is an understatement. He is renowened for his use of short, clear, easy to read sentences. His philosophy was as simple as his writing style:

‘Write the best story you can and write it as straight as you can.’

(E. Hemingway)

I know that I’ve found that a pretty difficult skill to master. I have commented in the past that I have a penchant for long-windedness. Unfortunately, lengthy or complex sentences can be frustrating to read and easy to misunderstand. That’s a sure way to put your reader right off. That’s where the Hemingway Editor, created by Adam and Ben Long, comes in.

There are, of course, millions of apps out there designed to help writers. There are specialist text editors, plot generators… I even found an app that ‘Rickrolled’ me if I stopped writing! But the Hemingway Editor stands out for me as something quite unique. It will help you improve your writing style by highlighting:

  • Any long or complex sentences
  • Fancy word choice, where something simpler would suffice
  • Adverbs
  • Passive voice

The great thing about Hemingway Editor is it does not fix your writing for you. That would be cheating. It would also be unlikely to work. But like all good teachers, it forces you to improve your style by marking and grading your work. If you have been using fancy words, it will suggest simpler alternatives, a bit like a spell-checker, but that’s where the interference ends. It’s up to you to change (or not change) your style accordingly.

The grading system is simple to understand… if you’re American. It works by telling you what grade of the American school system your reader would need to be in to have a reasonable chance of understanding your work. As I write this now, the Hemingway Editor is telling me that I am writing at a level someone in eighth grade would understand. As a British person, I’ve no idea what that means, since we use a different system but that’s nothing Google can’t help with. Besides, it’s not really necessary to know. The grade is displayed on a simple gauge that even a baboon could understand and is colour-coded to indicate how well you are achieving your goal of simplicity.

For those of you who are interested in the technical details, according to the Editor’s own help document,

‘Hemingway judges the “grade level” of your text using the Automated Readability Index. It’s a reliable algorithm used since the days of electronic typewriters.’

So there you go.

If I had to pick one feature of the Hemingway Editor I don’t like, it would be the spell-checker. To be blunt, it is inferior to most other spell-checkers I have come across. The main problem is that it seems to struggle with identifying what word you were trying to spell. For example, earlier on in this post I misspelt ‘influential’ as ‘influental’ (I should add that this was a typo; I know that’s not how you spell it). Hemingway Editor spotted the error but could offer no suggestions as to what it should have been. OpenOffice, on the other hand, gave me no less than seven possible alternatives for the same error and Scrivener gave me five. Also, if you don’t speak English, you can forget about checking your spelling with Hemingway. The spell-checker only seems to only work for Australian, British, Canadian and US English. While it is possible to disable the spell-checker, I am left wondering if the other features would work any better in different languages.

One other problem: it doesn’t seem to be entirely bug free, as you can see from this screendump. I’m not 100% sure, but I think that bug came about as a result of me copying and pasting text into Hemingway Editor from OpenOffice but I could be wrong.

Additional features of the Hemingway Editor include:

  • Basic text formatting, such as bold, italics, bulleted lists, indentation, etc.
  • Letter, character, word, sentence and paragraph count, as well as an estimation of the time required to read your document.
  • Import and export to and from Microsoft Word.
  • Export as HTML or Markdown.
  • Toggle between ‘write’ and ‘edit’ mode. Using ‘write’ mode allows you to write without the app checking your work for you. When you’re ready to edit, you just toggle to ‘edit’ mode to see it highlighted in a million different places.

The Hemingway Editor is available as a desktop app for Mac and PC. It will set you back $9.99 (that’s £7 on this side of the pond), which isn’t too bad. However, before you get your wallet out, I’d recommend you go to www.hemingwayapp.com. There, you’ll be able to use almost all the app’s features for free, so it’s maybe worth trying it out that way before you fork out your hard earned money for this useful (but not quite perfect) little app.

Ideas from the Everyday

There’s a very old and tired adage that authors should only write about what they know. On the whole, I don’t think this is really the best advice in the world but when you’ve not got any ideas about what to write, it’s often a good place to start.

‘Oh yeah,’ I hear you cry, ‘Well I’ve just got a humdrum run of the mill every day 9-5 sort of life and I don’t know nothing about nothing so how can I write an interesting story?’

I’ve often wondered that myself. I, too, have a very ordinary life which I doubt they’ll ever make a movie about it – and I should add, that I’m very grateful for that! But unless you happen to have experienced something truly remarkable, I find it highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to simply recount your life story and expect it to sell.

That doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are able to start writing. Once you start, you can go anywhere. Even the most boring events in your life can become a wellspring of inspiration. The important thing to remember is this:

Not everything you write needs to be published. Therefore, it’s okay to write rubbish.

For example, a few years ago, on one particularly snowy winter, I got stuck on a bus for fifteen and a half hours on what would have normally been a twenty minute journey. The true story of what happened was pretty boring. I sat there for fifteen and a half hours, trying not to think about toilets and amusing myself by watching people building snowmen on the motorway. When I finally got home (after I had had something to eat and a good night’s sleep) I went about the business of trying to turn it into a work of fiction.

It wasn’t easy. The simple truth is, it was a tedious experience which came slap-bang in the middle of a fairly bog-standard week of studying for my exams and attending my office job. To this day, I’m not satisfied that it was ever really finished. But it was not a wasted effort, not in the slightest. By writing this boring little story based on my boring night on the bus, I created a protagonist I was immensely proud of. His name is Dr. Henry Barrington-Smyth; a reclusive, socially awkward man who has devoted himself to the study of theology and philosophy, with a particular interest in ethics.

When I first created Henry, he was a fairly shy, mild mannered sort of man who developed a friendship with one of his fellow passengers on the bus through their mutual boredom.

I know. Rubbish.

But from that rubbish little story, I was able to expand far beyond what happened on the bus that night and create something new. When I re-wrote this story, I made Henry an altogether more aloof figure. While all the passengers on the bus began to chat and make friends, Henry was deliberately resistant and was downright rude to the woman he had befriended in my previous draft (all the while, reading a scholarly work about what constituted moral goodness).

Still rubbish, but I was starting to like Henry. So I gave him a bad guy to deal with. Someone else on the bus (Dave) was drunk and was behaving in an aggressive manner towards the passengers and the driver. Also the woman he had previously befriended became unwell. None of this happened during my true experience on the bus, but it gave the protagonist something to do. If you remember my previous post about how I like to audition characters, this is very much the same sort of thing. Characters can develop quite naturally if you are willing to test them in various situations, especially crucible situations from which they cannot escape (such as being stuck on a bus).

Since then, I’ve tried Henry out in a whole bunch of different scenarios at different stages of his life, from childhood right through to the death of his wife when Henry was 72. I invented a fictional home-town for him and am now working on a mystery story set in that fictional town which is altogether more interesting than the story I originally came up with based on that one boring experience I once had.

Don’t set out to only write about what you know. Unless you’ve experienced something truly amazing or horrifying, you’ll probably just get bored and/or frustrated.

Don’t set out to only write something especially clever, either. That kind of perfectionism will hinder you from writing that all important rubbish first draft.

Just write about whatever you happen to think of. If all you can think about is your boring day at the office, then write about your boring day at the office. If all you can think about is aliens stealing bananas to power their spaceship, then write about banana stealing aliens. If it’s good, great. If it’s bad, that’s great too. What matters is that you write something. Anything. You can throw out the things you’re not proud of and you can refine anything that’s got rough edges later. What matters is that you start to write and persevere, no matter how many scrunched up paper balls you surround yourself with.

You’ll be amazed at what you can end up with.

The Nightmare After Christmas

SPOILER ALERT:
Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has still not watched the Sherlock New Year special, ‘The Abominable Bride’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

You have been warned.


I really hate dream sequences.

I can count on one thumb the amount of dream sequences I’ve seen or read in any story that I’ve truly enjoyed and felt like they added something to the story1. They’re usually only there as a cheap attempt to make a clever point or as a lame excuse to make the protagonist do something he otherwise would never do. At their worst extreme, they are the primordial slime of deus ex machina. Yes, I know I always say that it is a matter of personal taste what we like and if dream sequences are your thing then… well, I suppose I just have to accept that. But I hate them.

That is what ruined this year’s New Year Special of the BBC drama, Sherlock for me. When Sherlock first started in 2010, I was quite sure I was going to hate it. I had already read and enjoyed most of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and I wasn’t sure if a weird modern spin on it was really going to work (I mean, just look at Elementary. It’s an outrage!).

But I was wrong! I love Sherlock! I’ve got all the DVDs and have watched them often. It was also my first real encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has quickly become one of my favourite actors. Given how long we’ve had to wait since the end of series 3, I was bursting with anticipation about the New Year special, The Abominable Bride (in spite of the fact I was led to believe they were going to give us a purely Victorian one; whatever I may have said about Sherlock already, Jeremy Brett is the real Sherlock Holmes in my opinion).

At first, it seemed promising. The mystery was suitably mysterious for anything that claims to be Sherlock Holmes (a woman shoots herself, is positively identified and declared to be dead and yet she still manages to go about killing people) and it was entertaining enough to watch… That is, until Sherlock wakes up on an aeroplane and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a drug-induced dream state. Then it all goes to pot, if you’ll forgive the expression. Because it’s a dream, anything goes; and (I suspect) because it was co-written by Steven Moffat, pretty much everything does go.

Fan service? You got it. Here, have a random fight scene between Sherlock and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

‘Big exciting uncertainty’ about what is a dream and what is reality? You got it. 

My wife (being something of a Whovian) often quips that if dreams were written by man, Stephen Moffat would probably write some cracking ones, in that his stories are nearly always very entertaining to watch, interesting to look at and feel like they’re making sense at the time but when you think about it rationally later on, you realise they didn’t make a whole lot of sense at all and broke most of the rules of their own fictional universe.

But that’s the trouble with dreams. They don’t need to make sense. In fact, the less sense they make, the more dream-like they are. Fiction doesn’t work that way; it has to make sense. Therefore, the dream sequences have to make sense (like in Spider-Man when Harry Osborne has dreams and hallucinations of his dead father saying ‘Avenge me!’ and he dutifully tries to obey. A dream about his dead father taking a banana out for a walk just wouldn’t have allowed the story to progress in quite the same way).

In some ways, that is one thing that set the dream in ‘The Abdominal Bride’ apart from other dream sequences for me. It was almost believable as a dream, which is what ruined it for me. The plot became too confused and fell apart.

Most dreams, such as in Spider-Man, are completely implausible as dreams because they make so much sense. Worse yet, they tend to dictate the actions of the characters in the waking world far too heavily.

Then, of course, there’s the worst kind of dream. It appears in many different forms, but I think you’ll know the one I’m talking about if I simply refer to it as The Dallas Dream. You know the one: the character suddenly wakes up and realises the last hour/week/year has all been a dream. This is deus ex machina at its very finest. The writer has realised he can write no further unless he comes up with some magical excuse to erase some unchangeable events that have already occurred in the story… so he just decides it was all a dream.

Phe-ew(!).

Don’t do drugs, kids.

Endnotes

1 I did rather enjoy Data’s dream in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Birthright’. The reason I thought this worked was because it served to add a new facet of humanity to the android (who is something of a Pinocchio archetype). The fact he was having dreams at all was what was remarkable. Therefore, the content of the dream could have the suitable blend of random and meaningful elements a good dream needs without becoming a weak catalyst for some reckless action or a ‘thank goodness it was all a dream’ moment. He also has dreams in the episode, ‘Phantasms’, which I was not nearly as keen on because in this instance, the dreams are his subconscious telling him what to do.

The Games It Plays

If there is one medium for story-telling which has been overlooked by society at large, it is computer games. While we might not consider it the primary function of a computer game to tell a story, it is nevertheless a fact that gaming has become an increasingly important medium of story-telling.

As technology has developed and computer games have grown more intricate and complex, it is only natural that the capacity of computer games to tell stories has likewise increased but this idea of using games to tell stories is nothing new. While it is true that no one would ever try to suggest that Pong, Pacman or even more recent offerings such as Candy Crush make any kind of serious contribution to the world of fiction, writers have been using the medium of gaming to tell their stories in an interactive way ever since the text based adventures of the ’70s. The real question is, can a game have a good story and still be worth playing?

Perhaps.

As you might expect, it depends on the game. We should bear in mind, before we judge the stories in games too harshly, that most games are primarily intended to be a challenge to play. That doesn’t diminish their value as games, but it does mean that you will need to do your homework if it’s a captivating story you’re looking for.

The Mortal Kombat series, for example, pretty much sets the standard for all other fighting games (if that’s your bag) but it doesn’t take more than a passing read through the story to see that it is full of holes and makes very little sense, not least of all since characters will frequently die in one game, only to be back for more by the next game. This would be unthinkable if you were writing a film or a novel but it’s essential in a game like Mortal Kombat because the characters of Mortal Kombat are what make it such a unique and recognisable game. Mortal Kombat just wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat if it didn’t have at least a few of the characters from the original game. Besides pretty much everybody dies sooner or later, since it is a fighting game.

There are, of course, plenty of games out there which are heavily plot-driven. The danger of this in gaming, however, is that we can quickly lose interest in the story if there isn’t enough focus on the actual game-play. The Metal Gear Solid series, for instance, is notorious for its long, dialogue-heavy cut-scenes which would perhaps feel more at home in a movie than in a computer game. The story is certainly well written but the sheer length and number of cut-scenes gets a bit tiresome after a while when all you really want to do is run about shooting folk from underneath your cardboard box.

As a rule of thumb, what makes a good story in print or on film will generally make a good story in game as well, provided that there is enough stuff for the player to actually do. That’s the hard part. Writing a quality story which is also challenging to play. This is where the point-and-click style adventure game comes into its own. One of my favourite games for story-telling is the Monkey Island series by LucasArts. It follows the adventures of wannabe pirate, Guybrush Threepwood and has all the necessary ingredients for a good story, such as a logical (if occasionally surreal) plot, humour by the bucket-load and a strong cast of memorable characters. Because the player is generally in control of what Guybrush says, there are very few lengthy cut-scenes to interrupt the game-play, thus creating a story which is truly interactive, rather than one which is simply interspersed through-out the game. There are plenty more games out there that follow this pattern (especially LucasArts games!) but the problem is, unless you happen to enjoy a retro game (like me!), you’re going to have a hard time finding any new ones to play. They pretty much had their day in the ’90s, I’m sorry to say.

Other types of gaming, such as role-playing games, often have very good stories, but like all stories, they also have the potential to be overwritten. The Final Fantasy series, for example, has been known to produce stories which can be a little confusing and melodramatic. The Fable series is a little bit better in that regard but because it has such a heavy focus on the player’s choice in almost everything that happens, it does make for a rather loose-fitting story which tends to take the form of a generic hero fighting something that will probably destroy the world, before the hero is finally faced with a big old moral dilemma.

Ultimately, I think the jury is still out on whether or not computer games can seriously stand shoulder to shoulder with film, theatre and literature as a means of story-telling without sacrificing the element of fun and challenge that makes a game worth playing. As technology continues to develop, I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to say that the potential of games to tell stories will develop also, however we must remember that the power of stories does not ultimately rest in technology. It may be argued, therefore, that a simple text-based adventure or a point-and-click adventure such as Monkey Island might actually have greater potential to tell us a story in a way which is fun and interactive than a game such as Metal Gear Solid, which has to interrupt the game-play every time it needs to move the story along. As with most other forms of story-telling, it really depends what you’re looking for. I’ve always been a believer that all mediums of story-telling have their pros and cons and what we like is ultimately a matter of personal preference. I suspect the same is true for gaming.