The Epic

Being, at the moment, too distracted by some health issues to tackle any creative work of my own, I thought to fill the idle hours (which is most of them) by reading Tad Williams’s massive series called Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I marched most of the way through the first book, The Dragonbone Chair, a number of years ago, but gave it up without going on to the even longer Stone of Farewell and Toward Green Angel Tower. The third book is more than a thousand pages in a 6×9 trim size, and that’s intimidating enough to explain my reticence, absent any other factors. The three paperbacks have been sitting on my shelf, mocking me, for at least a decade now.

Williams is a fine prose stylist. His prose is better than mine, no shame in admitting that. The story, though — that’s a dragon of a different color. What concerns me about The Dragonbone Chair (I haven’t yet finished it, so I can’t comment on the shape of the epic as a whole) is that it’s so darn predictable.

There are forces of good and forces of evil, and ultimately everybody in the story is aligned with either one side or the other. The evil forces have, of course, some evil magic on their side. The good guys, no magic. Okay, yeah, the wise woman of the forest can turn into an owl, but so far (585 pages out of 760 in the first book) that’s about it.

And then the knights and men-at-arms. Williams has constructed a bog-standard Medieval society, complete with a king and an assortment of dukes, earls, and counts, not to mention a minstrel, a jester, ladies-in-waiting, and a thinly disguised version of Christianity. The vast conflict that is unfolding seems, so far, to be a build-up to a series of battles in which sword will clash against sword and hundreds of valiant good guys will be hacked to bits. Golly, doesn’t that sound like fun?

The hero of the tale, young Simon, is transparently The Chosen One. His parentage is mysterious. He’s raised as a lowly servant in the castle, and as far as he’s aware, he has been swept up in the stupendous conflict by accident. But of course the obscure hints about the identity of his father alert the savvy reader that there’s a lot more to it than that.

While prowling around the castle, he encounters a boy about his age (14 or 15) who before dashing away reveals that his name is Malachias. And then Simon quite accidentally stumbles upon the king’s brother locked up in a secret cell, helps the brother escape, and then the good wizard is killed by the evil wizard and Simon is on the run through the wilderness, hungry and footsore. A few weeks later, still on the run, he and his troll friend rescue two young people who have been treed by bloodthirsty evil hounds, and dang, it’s Malachias. Who is soon revealed as a girl disguised as a boy. She says her name is Marya, and it isn’t until a hundred pages later that it turns out Marya is actually Princess Miriamele.

You saw that coming, didn’t you?

To be fair to Williams, he was writing this story in the late 1980s, when the fading glow of Tolkien still illuminated the far hills. Fantasy today has grown up, at least a tiny bit.

But I think Williams’s greatest sin is that I don’t care about any of the characters. Not even Simon. All of them are one-dimensional at best. As I near the end of the first book, there is indeed a battle — knights on horseback hacking at one another, plus some treachery. Much of the battle is reported from the viewpoint of a minor character named Deornoth, whom I don’t recall seeing anywhere in the narrative up to this point. He’s a blank.

I suspect the characters are one-dimensional because they’re swept up and completely absorbed by the grim events of the story. If any of them was having fun or being whimsical, it would undercut the intensity of the story. But because they’re all either diabolically evil or tangled in a life-or-death struggle with evil, I just don’t want to hang around with them.

If I can get myself back on an even keel, I’d like to resume work on the expanded version of my own fantasy epic. (Those book covers up there at the top of the blog! They’re good! Buy them!) What is, at present, a four-volume story may someday be seven volumes. I have the first few chapters of the prequel drafted. Here’s the thing, though: I really do think my story is better than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. At least, from what I’ve seen of it so far.

Well, I didn’t start working on mine until 2004, and I started out with the conscious intention of not doing a bog-standard Medieval fantasy. There are railroad trains in my story and simple firearms as well as wizards and dragons. Also, I deliberately avoided writing a pitched battle between opposing forces hacking at one another with swords. I just don’t care for that kind of crap. I even included a couple of comic characters. The main events of my story are serious; there’s danger, treachery, and a bit of gruesome death here and there; but my emotional canvas is a whole lot broader than Williams’s.

Beyond that, I inverted a couple of the tropes that Williams used. Yes, my teenage hero is a Chosen One with a mysterious parentage. (Sorry about that.) At least it’s mysterious to her at the outset, but her uncle knows all about it, so it doesn’t stay mysterious for very long. And yes, she soon gets romantically involved with royalty — except, well, not exactly. Her young man is technically the emperor, and knows it, but he’s working in a freight caravan as an ox-tender, and he’s perfectly happy in that role. He has no political ambitions.

Williams’s princess gives Simon a blue scarf as he’s about to set off on the next perilous stage of his quest. Totally Medieval. My unassuming emperor gives his girl his dagger. It’s a simple enough inversion of the trope, as well as being a phallic symbol, but that’s the point. It is an inversion. And at the end of my final volume, or what is at the moment the final volume, she gives up her destiny, because it turns out she has a half-brother, so she’s not the Chosen One after all.

If I live long enough to write the two books that follow, more will be revealed. But while I may want to be influenced by Williams’s wonderful prose style, I’m not proposing to ape his plot. Epic fantasy ain’t what it used to be — and we can all be grateful for that.

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The Tyranny of the Elevator Pitch

Amazon offered me a free 30-day trial of Prime. Save a few bucks on shipping, and lots of free movies! What’s not to like?

Well, the movies, that’s what. I skimmed through a few dozen thumbnail descriptions and had a look at a couple of opening scenes without finding anything that even remotely appealed to me. I write prose fiction, and there are some basic differences between prose fiction and movie/TV/video scripts. Other things that I’m glimpsing are just as jarring.

The actors and actresses are all shockingly beautiful, and that’s an annoyance. In a typical romantic comedy, or for that matter an action thriller with young unattached protagonists with suitable gender identities, we can rely on leaning into what Erica Jong, in her novel Fear of Flying, called a zipless fuck. That is, the sex is going to follow very soon after the attractive young couple meet, it will be spontaneous because they just can’t resist one another, there will be no discussion of birth control or donning of a condom, and the sexual appetites of the participants will be, in the old-fashioned phrase, according to Hoyle, with no awkward discussion of odd turn-ons, turn-offs, or malformed body parts.

But that’s just Hollywood, it’s not a criticism that offers any penetrating insight into fiction technique.

The story premise in most movies is very simple, and the story is likely to be about one lead character (or about two, if they’re about to fall into bed). A movie is better compared, in its length, to a short story than to a novel, and the premise of a short story is best kept simple too, so it’s hard to fault movies on that basis, though we’re bound to concede that a movie makes a poor template for the prospective novelist.

One of the major problems with movie stories is that they rely too heavily on what we might call the Hollywood verities, or mainstream American culture. A movie that takes too muscular a jab at American culture or relies on exotic knowledge about Bali or Nairobi may show up at Sundance or Cannes, but it’s not likely to get funding in Hollywood. Hollywood executives want to make profits, and they do that by catering to a mainstream audience. They make some bedrock assumptions about what most people will and won’t want to watch, and those assumptions build a wall around the screenwriter.

The novelist may encounter something of the same mentality when pitching a manuscript to an agent, because the agent and publisher want to make money too, but on the whole I would guess that the novelist has a bit more leeway, because readers of novels are likely to be somewhat more thoughtful than the people who flock to the cineplex.

After digging our way through this chaff, we get to the wheat of what I wanted to mention. A screenplay has to convey most or all of the plot information in dialog. There it is. Voice-overs in which the lead character does a bit of narration are not unknown, but they always feel a bit artificial, a bit pasted on. And conveying complexity in dialog is just too darn difficult.

If the essence of the story can’t be conveyed entirely in dialog, the story is not going to work well as a script. This is the reason, by the way, why Rex Stout’s marvelous mystery novels about Nero Wolfe were never turned into a successful film or TV franchise, while Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books were a runaway hit. Gardner started his career before television became a prominent entertainment medium, but in essence he was always writing for TV. As a character, Perry Mason is a nonentity. He’s a strong, smart, courageous guy, and that’s all he is. That’s what a good script demands. The interplay between Wolfe and his amanuensis, Archie Goodwin, is complex, because both of the characters are complex and quirky, and because their back-and-forth is reported by Goodwin in a voice that’s wry and off-the-cuff. His narrative voice is what carries the stories, and you could never capture it on the screen.

Even in a story that has a more serious tone, the fiction author can supply essential information to the reader in a sentence or two, dropping an explanation into the middle of a scene that is mostly dialog. You can’t do that in a movie. This, over and above the limited length and the need to appeal to mainstream American movie audiences, is what keeps Hollywood screenplays simple. You just about can’t convey complex information — about a foreign culture, say, or a character’s childhood — in dialog. Simple information that anybody can understand instantly because it already conforms to their expectations, yes, certainly. Complex information that requires the audience to construct some sort of mental framework in which to store the information, no. Not in a movie or a TV show.

The elevator pitch, as every writer knows, is what you need to have on the tip of your tongue should you find yourself (at a convention) in an elevator with a high-powered agent or publisher. You have 30 seconds, no more, in which to pitch the other person on your unpublished manuscript. There’s no room in an elevator pitch for a complex story arc. If you can’t hit the agent’s hot buttons immediately, you won’t make the sale.

A good novel may very likely not have a story suitable for an elevator pitch. Sure, you can concoct something (“A young runaway floats down the Mississippi River on a raft with his friend, an escaped slave”), but the pitch will, of necessity, ignore most of what makes the book worth reading.

That’s why I write prose fiction, not screenplays.

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Changes in UU Article II (TL;DR)

Regular readers of this space (all five of you) will be aware that I’m concerned about some of the changes that have transpired in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) during the last few years. In 2020, the UUA charged a Study Commission to recommend some changes to the UUA Bylaws, specifically to Article II of the Bylaws, which defines both the UUA itself and the nature of Unitarian Universalism.

Somehow I got on a UUA email list. Yesterday I received a download link for a PDF called “Article II Study Report,” in which the Study Commission both explains its working process and provides a final text of its proposed changes. Naturally, I downloaded it and had a read.

To the casual reader, the changes in Article II proposed by the Study Commission may seem to be innocent rewordings with much the same underlying content. But a closer reading makes clear that the proposed changes are transformational. A new and far-reaching definition is being proposed of what it means to be Unitarian-Universalist, and for how the member congregations are to relate to one another and to the parent organization.

And by the way, in case anyone is wondering, what follows are my own personal views, not those of the North American Unitarian Association or any other group.

Got it? Okay, let’s have a look.

In its current form, Article II begins with a statement of the Seven Principles and Six Sources. That is, it begins by defining what UUism is. The Unitarian Universalist Association is then defined in the second section. The proposed changes invert these two sections. The UUA is defined first, and the “values and covenant” (the word “principles” is no longer used) are in the second section. This reordering is merely symbolic, but it reflects the view of the Study Commission. The Study Commission set out to serve and validate the purposes of the UUA as the Commission members understood those purposes. The values that are proposed as definitions of the UU faith are of secondary importance — and not well defined, as we’ll see.

In the current version of Article II, the version that is in force, the word “we” clearly refers to the member congregations of the UUA. The text of Article II begins, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association….” In the proposed revisions, the word “we” is no longer clearly defined. Sometimes it seems to refer to congregations, sometimes to individual UU members, and in one passage to the UUA itself. This is not just sloppy writing, though it is certainly that. The ambiguity reflects an underlying notion of uniformity. We as individuals are to be expected to conform to the practices of our congregations, and the congregations are to be expected to conform to the expectations of the UUA. “We” are all to adhere to the same set of values. This change in the text may not have been a conscious choice made by the Study Commission, but it clearly reflects the prevailing view of the new UUA organization.

In the current version, the aspirations are quite mild. “We [congregations] … covenant to affirm and promote….” The word “promote” is a call to action. In the second section we find, “The primary purpose of the Association is to … extend and strengthen….” This is another call to action. Section 2.3, “Inclusion,” is definitely aspirational: “We pledge to replace such barriers with ever-widening circles of solidarity and mutual respect.” The terms “replace” and “ever-widening” are calls to action.

But that’s about it in the aspiration department. The proposed changes to Article II are aspirational in a much more sweeping way. The calls to action are strident. Here is Section 2.1, the opening of the proposed new text, in full:

The Unitarian Universalist Association will devote its resources to and use its organizational powers for religious, educational, and humanitarian purposes. Its primary purposes are to assist congregations in their vital ministries, support and train leaders both lay and professional, to foster lifelong faith formation, to heal historic injustices, and to advance our Unitarian Universalist values in the world.

“The purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to actively engage its members in the transformation of the world through liberating Love.

Note the words and phrases “vital,” “train,” “foster lifelong,” “heal,” “advance,” “actively engage,” “transformation,” and “liberating.” This is a manifesto.

The UUA Board fed the word “love” to the Study Commission. In the Charge to the Commission, the Board said, “The Board believes that one core theological value, shared widely among UUs, is love.” The proposed changes are full of “love.” The term is not, however, defined. We are not told how to ask whether our own actions or those of our congregations are loving. You may feel this is a non-issue; you may think you know what love is. But we live in a world in which conservative Christian parents can eject a gay or trans teenage child from their home, leaving him or her homeless, in the belief that they’re motivated by God’s love. It would be an awful stretch to suggest that some of the recent actions taken by the UUA Board and the organizations identified in the Report as stakeholders were taken out of love, so we need to be careful not to go flinging the word around without being clear what we mean by it.

“We are accountable to one another for doing the work of living our shared values through the spiritual discipline of Love,” states the text of the proposed changes. I’m a little worried about how love can be a discipline; there’s a hint of B&D in there. You may think I’m nitpicking, but I would suggest that love and discipline are, in some ways, antithetical. As are “love” and “work.” Love is free-flowing, while work is structured. This is one of the places, by the way, where “we” seems to refer to individual UUs, not to congregations.

This sentence is part of the manifesto. It calls UUs to take action. And not only to take action through the discipline of love, but to police one another! That’s what “accountable to one another” means. We’re called upon to keep an eye on our fellow UUs to make sure they’re doing the work.

Accountability has become something of a rallying cry in the new UUA. But what actions or inactions are to be taken into account? What will be the consequences if an individual or congregation is found to have fallen short in doing the work? Will the person or congregation be entitled to have competent representation during the proceedings of the accountants? Will there be an appeal process if the accountants are felt to have made an error?

The proposed changes do not address these questions in any way. A call for accountability that lacks these and other specifics is, frankly, Kafkaesque. You have sinned against love, and there will be consequences. We, the loving, will decide on the consequences.

We’re told that UU is a non-creedal religion. But if individual UUs are to be held accountable, how is a UU covenant any different from a creed? I don’t know.

In the proposed changes, the Seven Principles have been tossed overboard. Some of the phrases from the Principles have been retained, but the Seven Principles are gone. A lot of people are fond of the Seven Principles, and I’m one of them. Here is what the Study Commission said about their feeling that the Seven Principles needed to be revisited:

The principles express a shared ethic and imply a certain theology — one that values the individual, growth, the natural world, and diversity. But it [sic] does not name these values explicitly, nor does it name many other values important to us collectively. It also gives no guidance on how we might approach living out these values in our congregations and the world. It declares itself to be a covenant, but the only actions it asks of congregations are to ‘affirm and promote’ certain concepts. We believe we should expect more from a covenant. For some, the current Principles also serve as a theological statement, a personal code of ethics and a way to evangelize by explaining who we are. For all these reasons, we felt we would be better served by a structure in which we articulate our shared values and then use these values as the ground for aspirational statements of action.

Here again, we see the manifesto mindset. In the Study Commission’s view, it’s not enough to have principles and to be expected to “affirm and promote” those principles. The “shared values” should be “the ground for … action.” Rather than leave it up to the individual UU to decide how to affirm and promote the principles, the Study Commission felt it was important to guide, or perhaps goad, individuals and congregations to take action. This agenda is in direct opposition to the traditional view of liberal religion, which is that each of us is entitled to decide for ourselves how to inject the Principles into our lives.

In place of the Principles, the revised text offers seven “single-word values.” Why? Because they’re “easier to remember and use as touchstones in our conversations, in congregational governance, and in education settings.” That is, the Study Commission has explicitly and by design dumbed down the Principles.

The seven single-word values are interdependence, pluralism, justice, transformation, generosity, equity, and love. It’s hard to argue with those words as stated, though some of us may feel that we’re not in need of transformation, or that the transformation we’re seeking has little to do with Unitarian Universalism.

Let’s take a closer look at the single-word values and how they’re explained in the proposed revision of Article II. Each text block (there are only six; love is not explained) starts with a line of explanation, followed by an additional sentence or two beginning with the phrase “we covenant.” The “we” is not defined here, and that’s a problem. Who is entering into covenant, individuals or congregations? I don’t know.

Interdependence. We honor the interdependent web of all existence.

We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with that, although “all beings” would include invasive species and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I do hope my doctor doesn’t cherish antibiotic-resistant bacteria! I’m more worried about “we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.” The harm caused to the environment by human activity is so massive as to beggar description. Suggesting that “we” (individuals? congregations?) covenant to work to repair some of the harm is noble, but Unitarian Universalism is not a large denomination. Nothing we do is likely to stop the environmental destruction caused by a single large corporation. The kicker, though, is “damaged relationships.” What relationships are being referred to here, and what damage? I have no idea. The word “work” is a call to action, but the nature of the action is undefined.

Pluralism. We celebrate that we are all sacred beings diverse in culture, experience, and theology.

We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.

What does the word “sacred” mean? As an atheist, I have no clue. I know what culture and experience are, and I’m quite certain that the word “theology” refers only to fairy stories, not to anything real. I take it that the idea being groped at in this text is that we’re different from one another, and that it’s okay to be different. At this point, “we” clearly refers to individuals.

The phrase “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” looks shoehorned in, doesn’t it? Do we have to learn from one another in order to do that? Aren’t we allowed to think for ourselves? This is not an idle question, because the thrust of the UUA has been, in recent years, in the direction of group-think. Apparently the Study Commission wanted to use that phrase, but “truth” was a little too alarming or confrontational to be used as one of the Seven Buzzwords.

Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive.

We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression. We support the use of inclusive democratic processes to make decisions.

Here, “we” evidently refers to congregations or other groups, not to individuals. An individual can’t be a community, after all. But what does working to be a multicultural community have to do with justice? I don’t know. I do know that clearly structured identity communities, such as perhaps gay men, ex-felons, Muslims, or even symphony orchestras, have value. I don’t think all communities have to be multicultural — and in fact I’ve heard that there are segregated caucuses at General Assembly, temporary gatherings (that is, communities) that exclude white people. If you’re a white person and try to barge into that room, you’re not going to thrive.

Dismantling racism is a battle-cry of the anti-racists, and getting rid of racism is a fine and noble goal, one that I would never dream of arguing with. But I’m not sure “dismantling” is the right way to look at it. If I had a magic wand with which to address the goal of ending racism, I would start by getting rid of our punitive and antiquated drug laws. I would insist on community policing: Police officers should always be drawn from the communities (and indeed the neighborhoods) that they serve. I would change the basis of education funding, so that K-12 schools in this country were funded at exactly the same dollar value per student whether the school was in a ghetto or an affluent suburb. I would make college education in this country free. I would establish free universal health care and require parental leave with pay, so that poor single mothers could take their children to the doctor. I would create a jobs program for young men and women, so that they had good-paying, meaningful work in their community as an alternative to joining a gang. And probably a few other things too. If you don’t do any of those things, you can natter about “dismantling” all day long, yet you’ll accomplish exactly nothing.

Inclusive democratic processes are a wonderful thing, but it’s important to note that the vote on the revisions to Article II will be taken by the UU General Assembly, which is neither inclusive nor democratic. Attendance at the GA reflects only a tiny minority of Unitarian Universalists. The changes in the Bylaws ought to be voted on by all members, and the vote should be taken only after a free and open debate. I have heard (anecdotally) that some congregations are now screening new members, admitting to membership only those who are on-board with the revisions to Article II. If such congregations are allowed to send delegates to the GA, the process of voting on Article II is by definition not democratic.

Transformation. We adapt to the changing world.

We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Openness to change is fundamental to our Unitarian and Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect.

How exactly can “we” “collectively transform”? I don’t know what that means. The “we” here may be congregations or individual UUs, but if it’s individuals, they’re being asked to give up their individuality in order to transform collectively. In either event, different sorts of transformation might be felt appropriate, necessary, or just plain fun by different individuals or congregations. The term “collectively” seems to suggest that we will be transforming in lockstep with one another, and I don’t care for that. It doesn’t seem very Unitarian to me.

The phrase “never complete and never perfect” is a dangling modifier. What noun do these adjectives modify? Openness? Change? Heritages? No heritage is perfect, certainly, but a heritage is in the past, so by definition it’s complete. It’s what it is.

Reading between the lines, I suspect the point of this passage is to imply that Unitarian Universalism itself needs to change. That may or may not be true, but in any case the nature of the proposed changes would need to be debated in a free and open forum.

Generosity. We cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope.

We covenant to freely and compassionately share our faith, presence, and resources. Our generosity connects us to one another in relationships of interdependence and mutuality.

Is it to be a principle of UU that, as Jesus supposedly admonished, we sell all we have and give to the poor? That’s what “freely … share our … resources” means. I’m not sure how generosity got enshrined as one of the Seven Buzzwords. Also, to paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s hope got to do with it? What do hope and gratitude have to do with generosity? One can hope for all sorts of things without being generous or feeling an ounce of gratitude. This language is just hand-waving. It was crafted by a committee, not by anyone who knows how to write meaningful sentences.

Equity. We declare that every person has the right to flourish with inherent dignity and worthiness.

We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain fully accessible and inclusive communities.

Worthiness? How about “worth”? Simple one-syllable word, means the same thing. On the other hand, what does it mean “to flourish with … worth(iness)”? I have no idea. This is another bit that was written by a committee. The idea toward which the Study Commission was groping here is that every person has inherent dignity and worth, and therefore has the right to flourish. That’s true, but the passage is badly written. Nor am I sure what the word “attention” is doing there.

Full accessibility is of course a necessity; nobody denies that, although I would question whether a small congregation ought to be required to hire an ASL translator if one deaf person joins the congregation. Inclusiveness is a bit trickier. Does “fully inclusive” mean that a congregation is required to include overt racists, people who carry firearms, people who proselytize for Mormonism or Islam, or people who constantly interrupt the sermon by shouting? Probably not. No, the word “inclusive” here is code. It refers to LGBTQ+ people, to the neurodivergent and disabled, and to people of various ethnic groups. I have no problem with this as a concept, but I find the use of code words that don’t say what they mean distasteful.

I’m not sure how money will help include anybody other than the disabled, but the Study Commission was trying to shoehorn a lot of ideas into a narrow space, so we can cut them a little slack. I do think it’s odd that “resources” and “money” come up in an explanation of basic spiritual principles, but maybe I’m just nitpicking.

Section C-2.4, titled “Inclusion,” is basically the same as what we have now, but the words “persons” has been modified by adding “who share our values,” and the words “especially those with historically marginalized identities” have been tacked onto the end. The second addition was not logically necessary; “all persons” covers everybody. The use of logic might also lead us to wonder whether a congregation can be “fully inclusive,” per the value of equity as described, while also being restricted to people who share the stated values. But maybe “fully” only modifies “accessible.” Maybe equity means being fully accessible and only partially inclusive. Some clarification of the text would have been helpful.

The section on “Freedom of Belief” has been significantly edited. In its current form, it guarantees the individual freedom of belief: “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages….” In the proposed revision, we find this: “Congregational freedom and the individual’s right of conscience are central to our Unitarian Universalist heritage.” Yes, you read it right. The individual’s freedom of belief is gone. Instead, congregations have the freedom. (Or do they?) The individual’s right of conscience is deemed “central to our … heritage,” but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been or can’t be abrogated. It’s just part of the heritage. You know, that old dusty stuff we don’t care about anymore. A casual reading might suggest that UU individuals will still enjoy a right of conscience, but that’s not what the document says.

I may have more to say about this later, after I’ve digested some of the nuances. For now, I only want to make it clear that the UUA has an activist agenda, and that agenda has guided the proposed changes in Article II. You may approve of their agenda, or you may not. What’s in the agenda is a subject for another time. But if you think that Unitarian Universalism is pretty much fine the way it is, I hope this analysis will show you that the proposed changes in Article II are not trivial or irrelevant to your religious practice, whatever that happens to be.

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The Dreaded Info-Dump

The opening pages of novels written in the 19th century and before were often quite leisurely. The village where the action takes place might be introduced. The life history of the lead character’s grandfather might be briefly described.

This kind of opening just won’t work today. Authors are well advised to open the story at the latest point possible. If it’s not a moment of grave danger, at least start with the scene where the central conflict is out in the open. Fill in the background, if any filling in is needed, later.

Authors in the 19th century didn’t have to compete with television or movies, much less the Internet. A reader would settle down after supper with nothing better to do than be absorbed by the book for several hours. Today a novel has to compete with other options in personal entertainment.

The action opening, however, poses a narrative problem that 19th century authors didn’t have to contend with. How exactly, and how soon, should the author pause the action in order to make it clear to the reader what’s at stake and how the main character arrived at this harrowing juncture?

The pejorative term for the paragraphs that fill in the details of the story’s background is “info-dump.” Writers are sternly advised not to indulge in the dreaded info-dump. If your story is generic — if the reader can be relied on to make correct inferences about what’s going on, based on his or her knowledge of the genre — then no info-dump may be needed. On the other hand, writers of fantasy and science fiction are well advised not to indulge in a generic setting. Creating a unique and memorable world is important!

To illustrate, let’s consider a made-up example of an opener. Here ’tis:

The car wouldn’t start. Third time this week.

In a mere eight words, we have both an immediate plot problem (which we can guess will soon become a factor in or exacerbate the BIG plot problem) and a clear indication of time, place, and character. The time is 20th or 21st century. The lead character is middle class — he or she has a car, but not enough money or leisure to get the car repaired. The setting may be country or city, but it’s most likely a place that has roads. At a guess, the time of day is morning, and the lead character is on his or her way to work. All of that information is implicit. The author doesn’t need to spell it out.

Now let’s try to rework that opener as the lead of a fantasy story.

The dragon was being uncooperative, as usual.

That’s a perfectly serviceable opener; again, we can guess that the dragon’s inclination not to cooperate will shortly lead us to the big plot problem; but this opener tells us much, much less about the story. We can see that there are dragons in the story, and that some sort of cooperation between the lead character and the dragon is considered normal. But are dragons common or rare? Does everybody have access to a dragon, or only a few select people? What might one want a dragon to do? Is the viewpoint character human, elf, dwarf, or what? Rich? Poor? Why might the dragon be uncooperative? Are we in a castle or a cave? Quite likely, some sort of info-dump is going to be needed, and soon.

I started looking at my info-dump options this morning because I’ve written what I feel is a very serviceable opener for the prequel to my series. A cultural and geopolitical conflict is about to engulf two major powers, and the conflict is encapsulated in the moment on page 1 when a smallish military force approaches an isolated village and discovers the unfortunate nature of the village defenses. We’re not in a combat situation quite yet, and in fact there’s not going to be an actual battle scene, because I hate battle scenes, but the danger is real and the immediate stakes are clear.

This central conflict, which is the subject of the novel, has roots that go back a couple of hundred years, long before my lead character was born. What the village is doing there and why it’s a problem for the people who have deployed the soldiers could perhaps be outlined in a flashback showing how the lead character found himself standing on a hill looking down at the village through a telescope, but the flashback would likely rely on a lot of “as you know, Bob” dialog, which is an absolute taboo. I won’t go there. The alternative is a straight authorial info-dump, but the info-dump would be at least three times longer than the opening scene. I’m not sure an opening scene, no matter how tense, will support such a leisurely delay.

I’ll come up with something serviceable. I just thought I’d take a break from tearing my hair out by sharing the problem with you.

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The Never-Ending Story

More than once, I’ve rewritten a story. Thought it was finished, set it aside for a while, then went back to it and found ways to improve it. Writers who are making a living writing fiction don’t have the luxury of doing this, and the pros will advise you against it. Move on, they’ll tell you. Put your energy into writing something new.

That’s good advice. I’m not good at following it, that’s all. For one thing, I’m not trying to make a living as a writer. Also, as I’ve been aware for many years, I’m not a natural storyteller. A lot of the stories I try to write, when I’m attempting something new, just don’t work. Ideas that seem brilliant turn out, on closer examination, to have deep problems. So if I have a story that I know has the right ingredients, digging deeper into it may actually be, in the long run, a more productive activity.

Four years ago I finished my four-volume epic fantasy about the people whose lives are swept into new and dangerous places by the Leafstone Shield. Hired an editor, hired a cover designer, did the interior page layout, uploaded it to Amazon — done. I promised myself I would never again write anything that huge. Half a million words is enough words!

I did have two or three vague ideas about a sequel. Meery Caitledore falling overboard into the ocean in a storm, and apparently being lost and gone forever. What she would be doing on the ship remained unclear. And, you know, there could be a prequel. In Book 1 Arik tells a story about some dramatic events that his twice-great-grandfather went through. Hmm….

The story in its present form is the result of massive revisions. The original manuscript, written in 2004-05, was pretty awful. A few years later I tore it apart and started over, using the same cast of characters (mostly) and the same basic plot structure, but with an entirely new approach. That rewriting job was a very, very smart decision.

After taking notes for a month or so, I’m now contemplating turning the four-volume series into a seven-volume series. I have a rough outline for the prequel, and I now know what Meery was doing on the ship. The sequel seems to be two separate books. I have related titles for all seven of them. I’m inserting notes to myself in the four existing books where minor edits may be needed.

Scrivener is the ideal software for this, by the way. The whole project is in one massive but well-organized file. Opening up one of the “finished” manuscripts to add a note to it is a one-click process. Backing up my work at the end of the day is, again, one click. I can write scenes, put them in appropriate folders, and never have to waste a moment worrying about where they are.

If I keep at it, maybe in two or three years I’ll have a new, revised Leafstone Shield story for y’all. It’s pretty good in its present form, but there seem to be a couple of dimensions of the drama that will take it into new territory. That’s what makes it worth doing: discovering and exploring those new dimensions. Or maybe I just like hanging out with Kyura and Meery and Alixia. I may even bring back Tierolyn. If you read The Firepearl Chalice, it seems clear that when Tierolyn walks away, he’s offstage and gone. But he may still have a role to play. As does Strudabend, who is not dead. Posthilnueze is not going to pop up again, though. Kyura has killed him twice, and a third time would be redundant.

One way and another, this stuff is much more interesting than playing solitaire and wondering what I’ll have for supper. Bon appetit!

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A New Direction for UU

I know some readers of this blog are aware of the controversy that is currently roiling Unitarian Universalism. I’ve written about it in this space from time to time, when not rambling on about synthesizers or fiction technique.

This week there has been an important development.

A lot of us are disturbed about the direction in which the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is being steered. An alternative organization, the North American Unitarian Association (NAUA), is now being founded. Within a month or two, both congregations and individuals will be able to join the NAUA.

Tonight I joined a Zoom meeting with some people who are helping get the process started. It’s exciting! And if you believe that liberalism has a place in religion, your active support can make a difference.

For a very long time, Unitarianism has been a liberal religion. People were free to believe or not believe whatever they preferred. All were welcome, and the individual conscience was respected. Within the past decade, however, the UUA has begun moving Unitarian Universalism away from liberalism, not subtly but dogmatically. The UUA was founded as a service organization that provided support for autonomous UU congregations. Today, however, it has become an authoritarian, illiberal organization that is working energetically to transform UUism into something quite different. Frankly, into something toxic.

The people who are running the UUA mean well. They’re trying to combat the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on. The problem lies not in their goals, which I’m sure most UU members would endorse, but in their methods. Some of their methods are divisive, hurtful, or simply not supported by logic or facts. And if you disagree with their approach, you’re accused of being “out of covenant.” Essentially, you’re asked to recant your wrong-headed views and get with the program. The program is dictated by the upper echelons of the UUA, and nobody is allowed to debate it. To give just one example, the official magazine of the UUA, UU World, no longer publishes letters to the editor. The magazine is no longer a place for discussion and debate: It has been restructured as a propaganda organ. People who question the UUA’s current direction can be, and are being, kicked out. Excommunicated, as the Catholics would say.

The point of the NAUA is not to cause or carve out a schism, though a philosophical schism is already well under way. Congregations will be free to belong to both the NAUA and the UUA (unless, of course, the UUA ejects those who try it). Our hope is that in time the UUA leadership will come to understand that they’ve taken a wrong turn. But it will be at least ten years before that can happen. In the meantime, it’s vital that liberal religion be actively supported.

The NAUA will offer the kinds of resources for congregations that the UUA offers, but with a liberal approach that emphasizes freedom of thought and our common humanity. Plans are under way to provide congregations who are seeking a new minister with links to ministers who uphold the liberal ideals that have long been a hallmark of Unitarianism. There will be resources for religious education for children and youth from a liberal point of view. There may even be a national print magazine for the NAUA, (Yes, I’ve volunteered to help with that.)

There are still a lot of UUs who know nothing about what’s going on in the UUA. I spoke about it with two members of my local congregation this week; neither of them had heard any of the details. If you’re a UU and you want to know more, I hope you’ll reach out and get involved. You may want to start by watching last week’s sermon by Rev. Todd Eklof.

I can also recommend several books: Used to Be UU (Casper and Kiskel), The Gadfly Papers (Eklof), The Gadfly Affair (Eklof), Against Illiberalism (Cycleback), Woke Racism (McWhorter), The Coddling of the American Mind (Lukianoff and Haidt), The Self-Confessed “White Supremacy Culture” (Anne Schneider), and Cynical Theories (Pluckrose and Lindsay). They’re all on Amazon. Full disclosure: I edited items 1, 3, and 4 in that list.

Too much reading? Maybe I’ll write a blog post in which I try to summarize the topic. But it’s a huge topic, and I’m not the world’s foremost authority.

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Emotion in Fiction

Letting your reader know what your viewpoint character is feeling is usually considered a good idea. On the other hand, there are schools of storytelling in which it isn’t done. If you’re going for an external, camera’s-eye view of the story, you’ll want to let the reader infer characters’ emotions based strictly on visual cues.

Today I’m wondering whether it might be worthwhile to do some fresh editing to my ultra-wonderful fantasy epic (see the book covers above). One of my goals would be to bring the characters’ emotions more to the front. I don’t write strictly from an external point of view; each scene is usually shown from the POV of some specific person. The question, then, is this: When should the emotion be stated openly, and when should it be implied or left ambiguous? How much emotion is too much?

Here’s an example from the middle of Book 2, The Rainbow Tree. My young heroine, Kyura, has been wearing the Leafstone Shield on a slim chain around her neck. It’s tucked into her blouse, out of sight. It’s the most important thing in her life. Some bad guys, one of whom is a demon, have just noticed that she has something under her blouse, and have demanded that she give it to them. She has just seen someone else try to fight them and die horribly, so she knows it’s no use to fight. She unbuttons her blouse and gives it to them. The demon strides away, carrying the Leafstone Shield with him. And then follows this brief paragraph:

Kyura buttoned her blouse again. Her fingers had trouble finding the buttonholes.

This is an example of implicit emotion. The implication is that she’s trembling badly, and she’s trembling because she’s deeply upset. Close to tears, I would guess. But the author (namely, me) never says that. The question I’m asking myself is, would this paragraph be stronger if I wrote something like this:

As Kyura buttoned her blouse, her fingers shook so badly with rage and despair that she nearly couldn’t find the buttonholes.

Or is that too heavy-handed? It seems to me the first version, the one that’s in print, is — well, if you’ll forgive a bit of self-praise, it’s closer to the way Hemingway might have done it. But I wonder whether the modern reader of pop fiction will be able to read the powerful emotion that’s tucked away between the lines.

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The Never-Ending Story

Mark Twain once said, “Stopping smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

Me, I’ve only stopped writing fiction a few dozen times. Done. Finished. No ideas worth writing. Time to play a lot of music and maybe do a little yard work.

The story of the Leafstone Shield (yes, those four book covers up at the top of the blog) first tumbled into my brain in 2004. It was a long novel, rather tongue-in-cheek, and at first I thought it was pretty darn good, but I soon realized it wasn’t.

I set it aside. Did a little brainstorming on it in 2007 and a little more in 2012. In 2015 I picked it up again and started over from scratch. The version you can buy today on Amazon has maybe half a dozen paragraphs from the original version; the rest is entirely new. I removed characters, added new ones, filled in the back-story, made it a lot more serious (though there are still some comic bits), and worked out a host of technical details that I had neglected.

It’s no longer a single 185,000-word novel. It’s now a four-volume epic of about half a million words. I did the interior layout and design, hired a cover artist, and uploaded it all to Amazon KDP. Finally, it was done. I could move on.

Since then I resuscitated and published a historical mystery (While Caesar Sang of Hercules) that I had written in 2001 and then set aside, finished a new fantasy mystery (Woven of Death and Starlight), republished my out-of-print second novel (The Wall at the Edge of the World), and put together a collection of my short stories and novellas (The House of Broken Dolls). I’ve also poked and prodded at two or three ideas for new novels, couldn’t figure out how to make any of them work, and gave up writing entirely (again).

Last night, goaded by some obscure impulse, I opened up the final volume of the Leafstone story and re-read the scene in which the ultimate bad guy is finally killed. It’s a brief scene, no more than 90 seconds if it were filmed, and three or four major characters are vitally involved. I quickly saw that it needed to be at least twice as long. I had missed a lot of the dramatic and emotional potential.

Could that be the only scene in the story that needed to be massaged? Might there be another twenty? Another fifty?

Oh, dear. As saith the poet, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” I always thought that was a line from Yeats, but no, it’s the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz, whom I’ve never even heard of.

Should I rewrite The Leafstone Shield yet again? Redo the interior layout, carefully retaining the same total page count so as not to need new cover art, and upload a new version?

Somewhere along the way I hired a developmental editor. Paid her a lot of money. One of her major points was that I needed to show more of the characters’ feelings. I noticed, however, that she only said that about the female characters, never about the men. So I did add some bits, but I didn’t take those comments too seriously.

Now, looking at that big fight scene, I’m thinking yeah, she was right.

Here’s the trick, though. Writers these days are often advised to use only one viewpoint character in a given scene. If you need to switch to a different viewpoint, we’re told, leave a blank line in the manuscript and start a new passage from the new point of view.

In general, this is good advice. The idea is that the reader will be more immersed in — more gripped by — the story if he or she is riding along behind the eyeballs of a single character, seeing and thinking and feeling whatever that character is experiencing. If the writer switches in mid-scene to a new point of view, the reader is momentarily yanked out of the scene. It’s disorienting. Immersion is good, so switching POV in mid-scene is bad. It’s called head-hopping.

But in a single, seamless 90-second action scene with four important characters, all of whom are feeling rage, fear, contempt, and sparks of courage, leaving a blank space in order to switch to a new viewpoint character would be a hideous interruption of the action. Worse than head-hopping, much worse. To show everyone’s total gut-level involvement in the action while keeping the action seamless, I will have to hop, hop, hop from head to head to head.

And if I’m going to do that, why limit myself with respect to other techniques? Nobody is ever going to read the damn thing anyway. Why not write it the way it needs to be written?

There are already three head-hopping scenes in the story, all of them carefully controlled. There’s also an authorial intrusion in Book 1. There used to be a whole chapter in first person (the rest of the book being solidly in third person), but I deleted it because it didn’t advance the plot. Still, that minor character’s voice is charming, and there’s a meta-fictional reason for having him pop up as a narrator. I’ll bet I still have that chapter in one of my archive files. Should I restore it?

The elf character fades out. He’s important in Book 1 but barely visible in Book 4. Could that be improved? What about Roma’s romance? Might her girlfriend have a role to play that I haven’t yet imagined? Then there’s the abrupt reappearance of Ghirn Hyttop near the end. I think I ought to prepare that by adding an earlier scene.

And what about a sequel? I have some notes for a possible sequel. There’s also a prequel I’ve never written, a free-standing novel about some things that happened a few hundred years before.

Have I really given up writing fiction? (Insert mumbling noises here.)

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Structure and Meaning in Experimental Music

First, a brief stroll through history. When multitrack tape recording became affordable in the late 1970s, it became practical for the first time for musicians who didn’t have a band not only to compose music but to hear what they had written and even overdub to correct mistakes. In fact, “written” isn’t quite the right word. For the first time, you could put together complex pieces of music without writing down a single note, or even knowing how to.

But you did still have to be able to play a guitar, piano, or whatever. When MIDI debuted in 1983, even that requirement was lifted. Equipped with a modest home computer and a couple of MIDI synthesizers, you could plink out arbitrarily complex pieces of music by clicking the mouse. Parts could be copied and pasted, transposed to new keys, made louder or softer, and so on.

At that time I was an editor at Keyboard magazine, and I was right there in the thick of this revolution — testing instruments and software and writing about what I discovered. It’s entirely possible that I had the very first MIDI-equipped home studio in the world, but that’s not actually much of an accomplishment. I was in the right place at the right time, that’s all.

The main market for MIDI software was, and continues to be, pop musicians. So it’s not surprising that this type of software is optimized to do pop songs and related musical structures. Today, these programs — they’re called DAWs (“digital audio workstations”) are beyond amazing. Logic, Ableton, Reason, Bitwig, FL Studio, Cubase, Digital Performer, they all have their own strengths and their own quirks, and you can make great music with any of them.

Alongside the DAWs, another fertile development in music software has sprung up. Starting with Csound and Max, we’ve seen a more anarchic but in some ways more interesting group of programs that are designed not for producing pop music but for experimental composing. Both of those programs are still around. (I wrote a how-to book about Csound, in fact, though the book is somewhat obsolete by now.)

Programs of this type tend to challenge the user. They’re capable of amazing feats, but they’re not necessarily point-and-click or plug-and-play. The assumption is that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and learn stuff. There’s a lot to learn with Reason or FL Studio too, but because a DAW is more a commercial product, the developers will try to make it easier for you. Experimental software, not so much.

Recently I’ve become a big fan of VCV Rack. It’s mostly freeware, though some modules have a modest cost. It’s a modular synthesizer running in software. If you don’t know what a modular synthesizer is, I don’t know if I ought to try to explain it. Let’s just say it’s a great big set of components (modules). You make connections between the modules using virtual patch cords by dragging the mouse from an output jack to an input jack, and then something happens. Not infrequently, what happens is, sound comes out of your computer’s speakers.

And that’s the preamble. Here’s what I want to talk about today.

Composing music with VCV Rack is quite different from composing in a DAW. I’ve done a lot of composing over the years in Cubase, FL Studio, and Reason. (You can find the results at midiguru.bandcamp.com.) Right now I’m thinking it may be worthwhile to do a “CD” of music using VCV Rack, but I’m not quite sure how to approach the music, because the tools in VCV Rack are so different.

At the highest level, music in a DAW is organized in sections and phrases. Music in VCV or a similar program is organized in events and processes. For instance, a process might involve letting a step sequencer iterate through a pattern of notes over and over, while making small changes (randomly or non-randomly) in the pattern.

What kinds of changes? Pretty much anything you can imagine. The pattern could go on for thousands of years without ever repeating. Yet it could easily remain identifiably self-similar the entire time.

Just to be clear, you can make process-oriented modular music in Reason or Ableton, and you could record a three-minute pop tune in VCV Rack. It’s possible, but you’d be using the wrong tool for the job.

In a DAW, there’s a timeline. The music begins at the left end of the timeline (conventionally, bar 1, beat 1) and ends when there’s no more data to be played back. There’s only one timeline; it’s global. Every section and every phrase has a starting time and a length with respect to the timeline. This makes perfect sense for pop music, or for jazz or classical music. It’s exactly how conventional sheet music is organized.

VCV Rack has no timeline. Things can start and stop, but they start and stop at arbitrary points in relation to one another. It’s a bit like the theory of relativity. There are modules with which you can trigger a certain event (the beginning of some new process, let’s say) at a time 2 minutes and 17 seconds after you’ve pressed the Go button to start playback, but it’s up to you to figure out whether you want it at 2:17, 2:19, or some other time. A calculator applet may come in handy. You can build sensible multitrack phrases using this procedure, but it’s much, much more laborious than it would be in a DAW.

Setting up elaborate modulation curves, on the other hand, using a curve generator that will run happily by itself for hours, is a lot easier in VCV than it would be in a DAW. You can mess with the filter cutoff of one sound, the effect mix of a different sound, and the length of your sequencer’s looping pattern all from the same modulation curve. (Multiply that example by about a thousand to get some idea of what you can do just by dragging a few on-screen patch cords around.)

And what does it all mean musically? This is the core of the conundrum.

I know harmony theory. If I’m in the key of A major and I write a chord progression that goes like this — D, Dm, A/C#, Cdim7, Bm7, Bb7b5, Amaj7add9 — it has a sensible structure. I won’t say it has a specific meaning, because it could be used to make happy music or sad music, but it has structural meaning within the context of harmony theory, and most listeners who are familiar with Western music will sense intuitively that it means something. It’s going somewhere. Jumble those chords up in a different order and the meaning will be lost.

But what does it mean for a complex modulation curve to change the decay time of one envelope generator, the pan position of another instrument in the stereo field, and the rate of an LFO that’s modulating something else, all at the same time? The musical meaning, as apprehended by a listener, is entirely undefined.

Because of this, modular music that relies on processes of this sort tends to lack human relevance. You can sit back and experience it, and that’s what people do, but you can’t understand it. You can’t build a sensible mental picture of what’s going on, the way you can when you listen to, let’s say, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. You can’t anticipate. You can perceive that the music is getting busier or more dissonant, but no moment-to-moment meaning-building can occur, because there is no known syntax from which to build meaning.

Or at least, not much syntax. Sure, you can sequence a strong 4-bar bass line that anchors the music in a conventional chord progression, but if you’re going to rely on that as the main foundation on which to create something meaningful, why not write the music in a DAW instead?

A lot more could be said about this topic, and I may get around to it. I’ve recorded a fair amount of music using VCV, so I have some idea what it’s capable of, though there are a lot of fascinating modules that I’ve barely touched. Maybe I just need to do some more experimenting.

But experimenting, while wearing a metaphorical lab coat, may not do much to build meaning for listeners. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite observations:

When Mozart sat down at his fortepiano, all of the jazz harmonies of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk were right there in front of him, laid out across the keyboard. But he couldn’t find any of them! The larger cultural context that would have given those chords meaning didn’t yet exist. When it comes to making music using modular synthesis, I feel we’re in a similar situation. We can make things that sound cool just by throwing our fingers at the machine, but it’s difficult — for me, anyway — to see how to put it all together in a way that conveys any sort of coherent meaning, even in the abstract way that music usually conveys meaning.

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The Act in Interactive

Yesterday this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) drew to a close. Seventy games were entered. My entry (“The Only Possible Prom Dress”) finished at #8. Privately I had been betting on #10, so I have nothing to complain about.

Anybody can be a judge in the competition, but of course the judges are drawn from the tiny online community made up of people who already have some interest in and knowledge of the medium of interactive fiction (IF). The only rules are, you have to rate at least five games for your votes to count, and you can’t rate games that you wrote or beta-tested.

I had started trying out the entries, with the intent of voting, but I quickly grew discouraged. I ended up not filing my ratings. Nor did I comment publicly on what I was encountering. I didn’t want to look like a grouch — and of course a few of the authors might be rating my game, so I didn’t want to be a victim of retribution.

In what follows, you need to bear in mind that I’m biased. Naturally I think my game was the best, but that’s not the bias I’m referring to. In no particular order, my two biases are as follows. First, I’ve written a lot of conventional fiction. I have a pretty clear idea, or at least some well developed opinions, about what makes for a good story, or doesn’t. Second, the games I’ve written (“Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” “Lydia’s Heart,” “April in Paris,” “A Flustered Duck,” “The White Bull,” “Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret,” “Captivity,” and now “The Only Possible Prom Dress”) are parser-based. I like and understand parser-based games, but they’ve fallen somewhat out of favor.

Parser-based IF was, at one time, the totality of interactive fiction, but in recent years it has been overtaken in popularity by what’s known as choice-based IF. The difference, briefly, is that in a parser game the user/reader/player has to type commands in order to move the story forward. You don’t know what commands will work and what don’t, so you have to think. In a choice-based game all you have to do is click on links. A monkey could play a choice-based game. Quite possibly a human player would be more likely than a monkey to reach the story’s happy ending, if there is one, so we can’t say no thought is ever required. But in a choice-based game, if an option is not visible in the browser window as a clickable command, the option does not exist. In a parser game, you’re encouraged to try oddball commands. You have to engage with the scenario and try to imagine what may work.

Of the top ten finishers in the comp, only three were parser-based — numbers 5, 6, and 8. As it happened, none of the top three finishers was among the flock that I had tried during the judging period. So today I had a look at the top three. I felt that due to my poor opinion of the games I tried, I might be giving choice-based games short shrift. The big winners might be brilliant. And if I didn’t feel deep admiration for any of them, I felt it would be interesting to find out what the judges were thrilled by. To be crass about it, maybe next year I can do better if I know what’s rated as high-quality.

All three (“The Grown-Up Detective Agency,” “The Absence of Miriam Lane,” and “A Long Way to the Nearest Star”) are polished. Their user interfaces are attractive, and the prose is error-free. (A post-comp tester has found an embarrassing number of typos in my game, which will be fixed in the post-comp release.) But to my way of thinking, all three games are dull. In all three, I found myself poking around looking for some reason to be engaged with the story, or even some way to move the story forward. In none of the three did clicking on dozens of links lead to more than a tiny pinch of rising action.

I had rather assumed that one of the things judges would respond well to would be fresh scenarios. And indeed, there were detectable bits of freshness in “Grown-Up” and “Absence,” but neither of them swatted the ball out of the park. Grounded out to shortstop? Maybe that’s too negative. Let’s leave the metaphor aside and move on.

Briefly, “Grown-Up Detective Agency” is a private-eye story about a missing man. I have no idea what has happened to him, because I haven’t finished reading (and I may not bother). The science fiction angle is that the detective, a 21-year-old woman, is somehow accompanied by her 12-year-old time-traveling self. The time travel is the interesting element in the story, but not only does the author fail to explain it, the characters themselves don’t seem to be curious about how the girl has jumped forward by nine years. The dialog between these two versions of the same character is fun, and it’s written in the form of a movie script, so it’s snappy and believable — but meanwhile the story goes nowhere.

“Absence of Miriam Lane” is also a mystery with some sort of fantasy or science fiction element. Something seems to have gone wrong with the light. But the action consists of wandering around in a house looking at things — the piano, things tacked to the refrigerator, a gap on a bookshelf where a book has evidently been taken away — none of which provides even a meager clue about what has happened with the light. To add to the boredom, the things in the house are not described in detail. When the reader/player is interacting with objects, one would naturally hope that the objects would be described in loving detail. Alas. Here again, after poking around for half an hour and getting nowhere, I’m disinclined to go on. What would be the point?

“Long Way” is a hackneyed trope of IF: You’re the only living being on an abandoned spaceship. As in the first and second place winners, we’re plunged into a mystery of sorts. What has happened to the crew of the ship? The ship’s AI is available for conversation, and it seems to have something to hide, as it won’t let you into certain of the rooms. But after exploring the available rooms in a fairly exhaustive fashion, I have found no way to move the story forward. The doors to the crew’s quarters are locked, and I have no way to get into any of them. Adrift in deep space with terse descriptions of objects and no clear objective, other than to be polite to the AI on the off-chance that it has killed its own crew — but the implementation is smooth, and the conversations with the AI are rather interesting.

In sum, it seems to me that the judges tend to be impressed by the games’ presentation, not by the content. “Detective Agency” and “Absence” both make good use of graphics, and “Absence” has a very effective music track that I allowed to loop for 20 minutes before it started to annoy me.

What I suspect (I could be wrong) is that none of these authors has written much conventional fiction. They have, in each case, an idea for what could be developed into a good story, but they haven’t grasped the brutal mechanics of how to move the story forward. This is a difficult challenge in any kind of IF (and in conventional fiction, for that matter), but it helps if you give reader/players some fresh goodies on a fairly frequent basis so as to keep them engaged. Richly written text would be a good place to start.

It’s also possible, if we’re to judge by the effusive comments made in the forum by some of the judges, that many of the judges don’t read conventional fiction. The criteria with which they judge may not be fully informed.

Even with good text descriptions, clicking on link buttons is, inevitably, less engaging than typing commands. Also, the choice-based user interface generally pops up a new window of regrettably sparse text each time you click on a link. A parser game scrolls the text up off the screen, so you feel, if only obscurely, that you’re engaged in an ongoing process, not being spoon-fed disconnected bits.

But that’s the fashion. Maybe next year I’ll enter a choice-based game in the competition. Finding a good source of graphics might be tricky, though. For better or worse, I’m a writer.

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