New Book – Write Your Own Adventure!

Take a look at this front cover, designed for me by Cheryl Adamos Noutch, my talented wife.  What a nice piece of work it is – I can’t wait to see this glossy and printed on the front of my new book, Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.  My files are in process with the printer: I’ll be ordering the first proofs imminently.  Write Your Own Adventure is coming soon – very soon indeed!

If you’d like to see more of Cheryl’s work, have a look at encourageart.co.uk, her website.  You can also find her on instagram, where there’s lots more of her luscious, leaf-patterned calligraphy and textured landscapes.  And she is available for commissions, illustrations, design and school workshops!

 

A Thing in Tring – Gamesfest Report

Tring is one of those little market towns you see on a map – one of hundreds across England – that might never attract a visit in its own right.  A funny name, an old church, a bit of twentieth-century expansion, a victorian satellite railway hamlet with a hotel two miles down the road, a nearby canal.

England.

Steam Highwayman country.

My country.

But Tring also hosts the annual Gamesfest, attracting hobbyists and role-players from London and the Home Counties.  And this year, the Steam Highwayman made an appearance too.

It was a very pleasant day, introducing hardened DnDers to a solo, steampunk roleplaying experience, spending time with some faithful backers, including Colin Oaten, SH2 Backer 12, who lost himself in the proofing version of SH2 for over an hour, preying on the locobuses near Woodcote and failing to smooth-talk his way into Wallingford.  I also met – in the flesh – several members of the gamebook community, including Sam Iacob, author of the Sword of the Bastard Elf and Scott Lloyd of Gamebooks himself.

But perhaps the highlight of the day was when two boys, Sam and his friend Shaun, aged 10 and 13 respectively, wandered in with their step-dad in the misguided hope of finding some X-Box gaming.  Initial disappointment gave way to the enchantment of first-time gamebook experiences.  In they dived, rolling to fight their duels, snatching coins from pleading nobility, upgrading their velosteam.  I guided them in to begin with and them left them playing.  After forty minutes, Sam looked up.  “Can we buy this?” he asked.

It wasn’t the sale that excited me as much as knowing I’d passed something on.  Passing the book over in a bag, I asked them how they’d be spending the rest of the day.  “Reading this,” they both answered.

Where will it lead?  Will they get bored, tired of the mental energy it requires to imagine and read, leaving the book closed in a pile before the week is out?  Or will they press on, pursuing and adventure and gaining an education in choice-based fiction in the process?  Will I hear from you again, Sam and Shaun?

And that wasn’t all.  I also had an unexpected visitor – a distant cousin – another Nou(t)ch who had hunted me down and dropped in to introduce himself, handing me a scroll of part of our family tree just like a quest-giving shady figure in Pirates! Gold.

I’m finalising my other events coming up – it looks like it should be December when I’ll next have the chance to lay out my wares – and busy with Write Your Own Adventure, but I’ll be back in Tring, for sure.

Changing the World

I’ve been busy writing a new book: Write Your Own Adventure – Using Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.  It’s intended to be a teaching resource for educators who want to use the power of choice-based adventure stories to create a strong writing culture in their classes, to engage uninterested writers and to broaden children’s experience of writing.

And to change the world.

Maybe not all at once, but incrementally, in the same way that Dave Lowery changed the world when he taught me and my classmates how to write Choose-Your-Own-Adventures at Lynncroft Primary School in 1995.  Without his work, there would be no Steam Highwayman, no Words and Ideas nor any Mr Noutch in any of the schools I’ve taught in.

Teaching is a strange profession and at times it can be disappointing to see how pedestrian and predictable teachers are in their methods and philosophy.  I think this is essentially due to many of them reproducing their own schooling, which accounts for the inherent conservatism of the educational system as a whole.  But, wild-eyed and visionary though I am to many of my colleagues, I’m only trying to build a tower on a foundation that was laid in my own childhood.

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed?  I think that’s largely to blame for my readiness to accept the responsibility, as a teacher, of changing the world by educating a new generation with a new set of values and interests – not just skills or knowledge.  It’s something I’ve played with exploring in fiction elsewhere in my Teacher on Mars novel – unfinished, obviously, or you’d see a banner atop this website urging you to go buy it online and in your local sci-fi section.

But I wish I heard more stories of teachers unafraid to do something different and to actively shape their students’ futures, rather than satisfy themselves doing a job and fulfilling someone else’s requirements, so I guess that producing this book is another part of that.

Finished date?  I’m aiming to have it done by Christmas.  Buy it for the Literacy Coordinator in your life.

Where next? Gamesfest!

A short while ago I was asked by fellow gamebook enthusiast Lloyd of Gamebooks whether I would be attending Gamesfest or Dragonmeet this year…  And after a little rustling around, it looks like I’ll be at both!  I’m keen to share Steam Highwayman with game enthusiasts as well as steampunk, so friendly and welcoming events like these seem just the place.  I have been organising and hope to perform an interactive reading at Gamesfest, so if you’ll be attending, please let me know so that I can include you!  I’ll also be posting a write-up here in a couple of weeks.

My currently booked event schedule for Steam Highwayman appearances and sales looks like this:

  • 20th October – Gamesfest, Tring
  • 1st December – Dragonmeet, Hammersmith
  • 8-9th December – Steampunkalia, Nottingham

If there’s an event you know of – particularly during November – that you think would be improved by the sudden and terrifying appearance of the Steam Highwayman, please suggest away!

 

A Sort of Magic in Tintagel

Dolphin clocks,
Magic rocks,
Buy them all in Tintagel.
Oe’r your hearth, a
Bust of Arthur
You can buy it here as well.
Cornish ice cream,
What a nice dream,
Can you feel the aura here?
Local bread,
Leave well fed
There’s even magic in the beer.
Someone, sometime cast a spell,
To empty brain and purse as well,
Beware th’enchantment, the gift-shop bell
Should you visit Tintagel.

I haven’t been to Tintagel since 2014, but I enjoyed it when I did.  Visited previously c. 2006 and I think that was when the first couplet of this silly little leonine verse got into my head.  Now I have used it and posted it in the wild – on googlemaps.  There’s not enough feral poetry out there, is there?

A Recipe for a Better Brexit?

Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain?

Authority: 53%; Economy 48%; Goodwill: 66% and Popularity 48%. With final scores like these, it seems as though I negotiated a middle-of-the-road success of my withdrawal from the European Union, although I did have stick my finger in the page when tossing an imaginary coin to decide a nasty last-minute leadership contest. My rival, the utterly unlikeable and deeply eurosceptic Colin Fungale, decided to rejoin the Conservative Party, you see, and my hands-off disregard almost backfired. That was when all my hard work in negotiating looked like it was going to become unstuck… but I figured that I owed it to the authors to see what would have happened if I survived the election.

And that’s pretty much the way this book works. In a playthrough lasting around four hours, my decisions were chiefly about which aspects of the negotiation I would personally oversee and which I could delegate to an unreliable cabinet. In the relationships between Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, press secretary and you as Prime Minister, Thomson and Morris are at their most satiric, maintaining a consistent distaste for the political class, touched with ridicule, pitched somewhere between Private Eye and Yes Minister! Trying to survive their bungling and backstabbing is the lightly comedic and fairly cynical part of the book, while the actual negotiations are heavily factual and purposefully realistic. This means that there are several rounds of briefings available to bring the reader up to speed, more or less useful depending on their political knowledge, but all rather a slog. Reading these tended to push me towards taking a compromised position on most issues, as I think was intended, but I had decreasingly less patience for these rather passive infodumps after the first round and made most of my later decisions by instinct.

And in this process of briefing and decision-making, the authors’ own position becomes clear. This means that the book, while allowing the reader to make choices, does have some recommendations about Brexit. For example, at the end of the whole drawn-out process, you open up your Brexit Deal to a vote in the Commons – a vote which is by no means certain in our own trouserleg of time. Choices presented to the reader are all realistic options, with few flights-of-fancy permitted, meaning that this is a very different type of gamebook to any adventure story. The book closes with brief predictions of the country’s future, tied to your ending scores, but personally I would have been very interested to see the effects of the hard-won policies illustrated in more detail – just as I would have loved to read of more of the national background. The media play a small part, but in general the entire book takes place entirely within the corridors of power, intentionally isolated from everyday experience.

Some readers have noted the cynical tone of the book, particularly in the descriptions and treatment of the electorate, but dismissive attitudes that describe your average voter as wearing ‘George from Asda’ and voting from ignorance are plainly a perspective of the character you are given to inhabit. Thomson and Morris are asking their reader to work with what we have all been given – an entrenched political class, years of international compromise and even the individual character of our current Prime Minister – to represent the odds that are stacked against the Brexit process, and that in itself is their commentary.

The structure of the book depends on periods of intense conversation, interspersed by rather ‘bare-bones’ mechanic passages that check for previous experiences or resolve loops. This complexity means that the reader can pass through three consecutive ‘checker’ passages at points, which breaks up the story significantly. There is little sense of time for most of the book, and suddenly you are told that six months have passed – or only six months remain. Certainly time is a well-marshalled enemy in this book: being forced to choose to engage in only some of the negotiations also intrigues the reader and invites a replay.

That said, this isn’t really a book that demands an adventurer immediately restart and begin again. If anything, I feel the need to breathe after reading this, and to engage with the current political debate to see how accurately I think Morris and Thomson have drawn some of the crucial issues. Can You Brexit is plainly written to engage and educate and, given the right sort of reader, I think it could be quite successful. However, you’ll need one old-school skill at least – a high stamina score – and probably be throwing your five-fingered bookmark into the book constantly. And will you be satisfied with the result? I’ve calculated the ‘best’ scores possible and traced an ‘optimum path’ and it’s bad news – the best outcome still includes massive compromise, the chance of everything tumbling down at the last minute and a disappointing lack of recognition. Who’d go in to politics, then?

Don’t expect this to read like an episode of The West Wing; don’t expect the chance to assassinate frustrating UKIP leaders. Perhaps in another political gamebook… This is all about doing your best with a poor hand – an attitude explored in too few gamebooks, regardless of their setting or story. It may make you smile, grimace or gasp in frustration – powerfully posing the question ‘Is this the best we can expect?’ See if you can beat my scores and, if the results satisfy you, please tell me. But better yet, take your recipe for a better Brexit and tell Mrs May…

Essextraordinaire IV

I had a great day in great company at the Maldon Museum of Power yesterday at the fourth Steampunk Essextraordinaire!  Hosted by Paul Adams and the League of Essextraordinary Gentlemen, I had the privilege of sharing my work alongside other steampunk authors, performing an interactive reading and spreading the legend of the Steam Highwayman even further afield.

This was a special day for me because exactly a year ago I attended the Essextraordinaire III in faith, with Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade still crowdfunding on Kickstarter.  Without any book to hand I was invited onto the writer’s panel alongside Toby Frost and Jon Green and had the chance to tell everyone about the project.  To return with the book itself – and the promise of a second to come – has given a massive boost to my confidence and self-belief.

Another time I’ll give a write-up of Toby’s work, the Space Captain Smith series, but having bought, read and given the first book away last year, I invested some of my hard-earned takings into a full, signed set of Mr Frost’s comic adventures.  If I’m quiet in the next few days, it’s probably because my head is in a steampunk space helmet fighting the Lemming Men…

The event reminded me how much I enjoy reading from Steam Highwayman and how well it influences my sales at any event.  Honestly I’d say that despite the small audience, I gave one of my most engaging performances – but then the bar was very high, with Helen Bruce of Solstice Storytelling telling her steampunk’d traditional tales and Darren Gooding performing his excellent verse and one-man, three-charactered theatrical extracts.

I even bought a new waistcoat for my costume.  The first one had a lovely orangey colour to contrast with my blue coat, but it was always far too small and my hurried alterations have come apart in the last year…

So I’m fairly confident that I’ll be back in Maldon next September – and already looking forward to it.  How many books will I have on the stall by then?

Illustration Poll 1 Complete

I’m really pleased that so many backers have made time to share their preferences regarding the art of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways.  I’ve just finished a phone conversation with Ben, in which we discussed the results of this poll:

You know by now that I love a graph.  Well, out of the eight options I gave backers (and you can see featurettes of the passages below…) there was a clear winner: everyone wants to see a velosteam chase, with constables astride their Imperial road engines.  Ben and I are both really happy about this: it’ll give him the chance to work with some of the other designs for the velosteam that he created last year.  Will an Imperial velosteam include some of those features?  I’m as excited to find out as you are.

We’re also going ahead on a feature of Captain Coke as our second full-page illustration.  He’s been an intriguing character throughout the writing of the book and I’ve enjoyed inventing him.  To see him take on flesh will be even more interesting…

The other options won’t disappear.  They’ll be developed as other options for illustrating the book, but may turn out as quarter or half-pages, depending on how successful the images seem once Ben’s had a go with them.  As soon as I mentioned punt jousting Ben grabbed a pencil and began to laugh, so I’ve certainly got hopes for that one…

The Return of Steam Highwayman FUNDED!

225 backers joined the campaign
£6395 pledged
322 books ordered
5 pieces of custom art commissioned
159% of the funding target reached

So that’s good news!  I’m particularly pleased that in the final day of the project, so many of my previous backers returned to pledge for the sequel to Smog and Ambuscade.  This means that 100 of the 186 backers of my previous campaign have returned – a figure to be proud of – but also that I have reached 125 new backers since then.  Wow!

The total copies of Steam Highwayman gamebooks printed until now number fewer than 300, so by fulfilling these pledges, I’ll be more than doubling the presence of Steam Highwayman on shelves and coffee tables across the world.

We’ve also seen backers from around the world playing a significant part.  Australians made a particularly big contribution this time, with 11 backers pledging – 8 of whom are new to the project.  At this rate I’ll expect to see a dusty Ferguson velosteam cosplayer in the outback any time now.

The campaign may be complete, but the publication process still has a way to go.  My jobs for the next months (Aug-Dec) look like this:

– Complete editing (asap)
– Complete first round proofreading (asap)
– Commission interior illustrations (Friday)
– Contact WANTED CRIMINALs for likenesses
– Plan for backer input into illustration
– Produce edited draft 2
– Distribute draft 2 in sections to volunteer/backer proofreaders
– Complete further edits
– Produce illustrated draft 3
– Order and evaluate proof copy
– Produce final printing edition
– Order copies for worldwide despatch from IngramSpark printing hubs

I’ll also be continuing to be promoting my books in person at Steampunk events through the autumn.  Watch out here to find out what, where and when – and you can even choose to subscribe to my blog if you’d like to be sure you don’t miss out.  Should be something over there on the right on the sidebar.

So I’d like to express my gratitude to all of my backers and supporters.  Your interest, your pledges and your comments all the way through the project make it possible for me to keep going – I’m a words of affirmation sort of person, as my wife will tell you.  So let me encourage you!  If you’re considering publishing a book or crowdfunding a passion project, don’t wait for it to be perfect or finished or even totally ready.  It’s simpler than it looks and once people get an idea of why you’re excited about it, they seem to get behind you.

After all, who is the Steam Highwayman?  YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

Last chance!

One day left in the Return of Steam Highwayman campaign and we’re approaching 150% funding.  Would a sensible stretch goal be helping at this point?  I’ve stayed away from them so far in the project, but I’m starting to think that SH3 might see a whole lot more…

Anyway, there’s been some great interaction over on the campaign in the last few hours, with new backers joining overnight, particularly from the US, Europe and Australia.  I’ve updated a few FAQs – because they’ve been asked once or twice, rather than frequently – and added more keen backers to a provisional proof-reading list.

Thanks to everyone who’s stayed with the campaign – particularly the 90 or so repeat backers who came with me from SH1 and the first-day crowd.  That’s been really encouraging.  I’ve got a busy day ahead of me, but expect an update tomorrow night on KS and here as well.

Who is the Steam Highwayman?  We, er, are the Steam Highway.  Mans.  And womens.  We are them…