How long is a net of string?

During the last few days of an unexpectedly home-bound halfterm, I’ve been enjoying building the world of Steam Highwayman III. Juvenile gangs, powerful opponents and dangerous criminal allies have all slotted nicely into place. My graph is showing some tiny growth (after a long, long hiatus) and I’ve been able to share a few passage excerpts on Facebook.

But something also possessed me to reload some of the first pieces of Steam Highwayman I ever wrote. Well, specifically, I reinstalled Twine – the interactive fiction software I’ve used this year to collaborate with a game developer on an as-yet unreleased educational title. My current version was somewhat out of date and had stability issues – it kept crashing – and I expect to have to use it again next year.

The reinstalled program discovered some files I thought I had lost: old, unfinished (of course!) versions of what I have since called ‘Twine Highwayman’. I loaded them up and, though incomplete and missing some of the parts I remembered best (like the ability to rob any passing steam carriage and collect jewelry, or the procedural pub menu system), they still showcase some of the original ideas of the project. Some made it through into book format and others didn’t.

I wrote the programming behind Twine Highwayman in Autumn 2016, creating some really crunchy and idiosyncratic code in formats so inefficient and hard to understand that I have since lost the ability to read them. Nonetheless, the core of the game – for it is a game, not a book – still functions. Take a look, if you like.

Twine Highwayman

It was playing Inkle’s 80 Days – something far beyond my ability to emulate – as well as the excellent Fabled Lands Application (since renamed Java Fabled Lands) that inspired me to give this a try. Considering I had zero previous experience of Twine, I don’t think I did badly. But it was the feature creep (a system for automating the weather… and the phase of the moon… and the mood of antagonists…) that killed the project and convinced me to limit my ambition to a good old, paper gamebook. I’d mimic Fabled Lands, that’s what I’d do. I’d keep it simple and achievable. I wouldn’t attempt to surpass my models, just to match them. I definitely wouldn’t write something 50% longer… Oh, well.

The Gamebook Ecosystem is Growing…

I’ve been spending time finding an illustrator to work on the internal art for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, writing briefs and reference documents and leafing (digitally) through portfolios. It’s a tough job, as I’m having to build new working relationships and plan for a wide range of outcomes to a new Kickstarter. The affordability, quality and deliverability of the illustration is the primary concern of my campaigns, since I do my best to have the book written before hand.

One thing is clear – there are some great illustrators out there, ready and keen to work in gamebooks. Which is great, because the more gamebooks that are being published, of all kinds, then the more exposure the medium will have, and the greater chance of new readers discovering my own project.

And less selfishly, it’s plain to me that a high proportion of readers of choice-based fiction have dabbled in writing it too. Even if it wasn’t at school, like through my Write Your Own Adventure programme (which I used in class last week and will take to a neighbouring yeargroup on Thursday), there’s a good chance of your average reader of gamebooks being a hobbyist writer too.

Over the last few years I’ve met many of the people engaged in independent gamebook writing and publishing, largely based around the Fighting Fantasy fan community. Among them, Steam Highwayman Backer #5, Mark Lain, has today launched his own Kickstarter Campaign to raise £3000 to produce his gamebook, Mistress of Sorrows. Last year I enjoyed the first volume in what he’s called the Destiny’s Role series, and if you’re interested in reading more or in supporting the independent publication of gamebooks, why not head over to the campaign page to take a look? He’s working with some talented artists and seems set to fund in a very short time.

Nethundical Adventures

Duty Vessel by Vadim Voitekhovich

I’ve been writing the Steam Highwayman’s encounters and adventures with His Imperial Majesty’s Nethundical Corps over this weekend: nice to broach an original subject. Steampunk submarines are their own subgenre, chiefly focused around different interpretations of the Nautilus from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, Vadim Voitekhovich’s interpretation of a steampunk sub is much more to my taste than the baroque, pointy sort of thing I often see. Like his airships, Voitekhovich’s subs are weighty, bulbous, and curiously animal. It’s something like this that I imagine moored in rows off Deptford Creek, just along from Greenwich, where moonlit launches carry troops and supplies out under the cover of darkness.

If you haven’t come across Voitekhovich’s work before, do look him up. His particular perspective has crept into Steam Highwayman in all sorts of places: particularly his street scenes, his steam road vehicles and his juxtaposition of old and new. There’s also something reminiscent of Sean Tan’s fantasy cities and technologies, such as drawn in The Arrival, in his work. He’s a sought-after painter as well as a military re-enactor, so no wonder his images have such realism.

But back to my own work: The Reeking Metropolis has been paused for a few weeks while I started a new job (as you can see from this graph) but a combination of deep thinking and reading some other gamebooks has spurred me on to create some new, steamy, and really original content for the book. I’ll be disappointed if I’m essentially just redrawing a Victorian London, so things like the invention of a submarine navy are helping me stay excited about such a long project!

At Fighting Fantasy Fest III (which I attended a few weeks ago, and which still deserves a write-up) I picked up several gamebooks, including Oliver Hulme’s Valley of Bones. I’ll produce a full review sooner or later, but it’s the first of the books from FFF3 I’ve been working through and it’s given me a lot to think about. Like Steam Highwayman, it’s written in homage to Fabled Lands (or to rip it off, as Jamie Thomson joked when he saw us side-by-side) but there are many differences. Reading someone else’s parallel take on an open-world gamebook has really helped me to see what is special about Steam Highwayman, and what I love about it, so thanks to Oliver for that extra burst of semi-competitive enthusiasm!

Fighting Fantasy Fest III

In just under two weeks’ time I’ll be at Fighting Fantasy Fest III, in Ealing, to showcase Steam Highwayman and to meet up with others in the gamebook community. FFF3 is a small convention born out of the international appreciation for the incredible Fighting Fantasy gamebook series – the ones that probably did the most to popularise gamebooks in the UK, and possibly worldwide. People come from all over the world to meet authors and illustrators of the original 54 books, including Jon Green, who organises the event.

But FFF3 isn’t simply backward looking. It’s also the hub for the future of the gamebook renaissance in the UK. Dozens of writers of self-published or amateur gamebooks, of a wide variety of styles, will be attending. Some are members of the Gamebook Authors Guild, a new group for independent writers, and some are simply fans of the original Fighting Fantasy series who are flexing their own muscles. At the previous convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest II in 2016, I met James Schannep, who writes the Click Your Own Poison series of interactive novels, as well as Jon Ingold, narrative director at Inkle. This was also the very first place I publicised Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, and the organisers were good enough to let me flyer recklessly as well as hand out some freebies and sample pages.

I’ll have a stall and Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways will be available for purchase, but I’ll also be publicising the upcoming Steam Highwayman: The Reeking Metropolis Kickstarter campaign. Attendees will be able to see the smoking, shining Ferguson Velosteam by Captain Seekerman in all its 3d-printed glory and even get a glimpse of some limited Kickstarter reward samples…

I’ve also been honoured to be asked to conduct an interview with Chris Achilleos, the legendary fantasy artist who painted the covers for Armies of Death, Temple of Terror and other Fighting Fantasy books, amongst a varied and massive oeuvre. That’ll be at 3pm (15:00) in the Weston Hall.

There are still tickets available online, so if you’re interested in the cutting edge of printed interactive fiction, or in the nostalgic wonder of the Fighting Fantasy Series, why not come along?

A Cover for The Reeking Metropolis

I’m very pleased to share the cover for Steam Highwayman: The Reeking Metropolis. This gorgeous digital painting by Piotr Jamroz takes Ben May’s concept of the Ferguson velosteam and the mysterious, tricorne-wearing hero, and develops it in a darker, more smoky direction, perfectly suiting the atmosphere of the third volume of the adventure.

I discovered Piotr’s online portfolio a short while ago and he expressed a real interest in creating this cover. We spent some time refining the brief and agreeing terms and he set to work with a will. In another post, I’ll write in more detail about the process of editing and refining the cover, but let me say that from Piotr’s very first sketch, I was sure that I had the right artist for the job.

There is a back portion to this cover too, but you’ll have to wait a while before I release the full image…

You’ll probably ask why I have a new artist working on the cover. Sadly, Ben hasn’t had the availability to feel that he could do justice to Steam Highwayman III this year, simply due to his other commitments. Instead of trying to find an artist who might create a perfect style match, I decided that a new look would complement the first two volumes. Piotr’s done that really well.

Three books – one adventure!

I’ll announce dates for the next Kickstarter Campaign soon, when you will be pledge to fund your copy of The Reeking Metropolis, as well as for some other goodies I’ve been preparing. If you’re worried about missing the boat, simply subscribe to my blog here or like the Steam Highwayman page on facebook. So, until then, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

Speed the Revolution

I’ve been working on everything but the stories of Steam Highwayman III recently – other writing contracts, preparations for my next Kickstarter, school work, and learning to change nappies and recognise the different cries of my baby daughter. But at last I’ve been able to spend a steady couple of days with my mind in the world of Steam Highwayman, and the results have been exciting.

When I spend too long at a stretch trying to hack out plot for Steam Highwayman, I can really dry up. The style and structure of gamebook writing means that there is a constant need for new ideas – alternate possibilities, fresh starts, new encounters. But after having a break, I can find that all sorts of ideas have percolated through from my subconscious, creative mind and are ready to type straight up.

I’ve been writing the sequence that might bring the whole Steam Highwayman saga to a close – if you choose it. Revolution is pretty much a one-way street and even for a nimble velosteam rider like yourself, there are events from which there are no going back.

The questions that will face you are challenging ones: do you consider the Compact for Worker’s Equality trustworthy in their intentions and methods? Do you think their preparations are sufficient and their plan likely to succeed? Are you personally ready to put aside the life of the road and put yourself at the service of the people?

Or was your alliance with the Compact only ever cynical and self-serving? Is it time to cash in your chips, take a reward from the Constables and see the whole bunch of these dangerous anarchists locked up?

I love the little, strange options that you encounter riding through the villages. But in the City, you’ll have to face bigger questions with much bigger, more permanent consequences.

Sewing Story Seams

One of the innovations that I – and many others – really respect in the Fabled Lands series is the way in which Morris and Thomson connect narratives across volumes. As a reader, I’ve always found it incredibly satisfying to travel to a new land, a new city and a new volume and find that the events there respond to my choices made hours, days or weeks previously, in a different book, on a different continent and in a different context. Obviously this was also one of the techniques I have chosen to mimic in Steam Highwayman and one I am very proud of getting to work. When I explain how a gamebook works to new readers, they may make impressed noises, but when I explain that choices made in one volume have consequences in other volumes – volumes later, or even earlier in the series – then I see that mindblown look.

I don’t just do it to feel smug. I really consider this one of the most exciting and interesting ways of using interactive narrative, because there’s a lot more to the technique than simply recording progress with a codeword and checking for that codeword in another passage – although that is exactly the mechanism the authors of Fabled Lands and I use. The skill comes in writing just enough linking reference that the reader remembers what sparked the narrative development off – but not too much, giving the reader the mental task of drawing connections and causal links between events. Sometimes the book can make these links explicit, but at other times I prefer to leave them mysterious and tantalising. People rationalise the same information in different ways and I love to hear my readers explaining their understanding of what caused what.

But now to the nitty-gritty. Writing these things is challenging – another reason I use them! For the volume currently under construction, The Reeking Metropolis, I have notes and references for more than forty narratives of different sizes that overflow from the other volumes into this one. All roads seem to lead to London, at the moment. Some of these are short references – characters that you met in Smog and Ambuscade that mentioned they were trying to reach London, where they hoped to make their fortune. A single passage can resolve this story, as you discover whether they really did strike it rich. Others are much larger, multi-plot strands of story that I haven’t even really decided how I want to use, like the Revolution narrative that powers your interaction with the Compact for Workers’ Equality. Then there are the stories that I ran out of space to tell and the mysteries I haven’t thought of answers for yet.

But the fascinating thing is that some of these are the very first pieces of Steam Highwayman that I ever wrote – pieces like the redemption of the workhouse orphan, who ran away from his master to try to reach the big city. I even created a plot within Smog and Ambuscade that could only be reached after beginning a quest in Volume III, which has taken me two years to reach.

As a reader, I know that the more time that passes in the real world between a choice and the consequence, the more mystery and intrigue it holds for me. I can’t wait to hear what my readers think when, on receipt of The Reeking Metropolis, they realise that decisions they may have made two years previously are still limiting their options, or opening doors for them.

The photo above, by the way, is a piece of attractively peeling plywood hoarding along the Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) site a short distance from where I live. I get really excited by the way the process of decay creates textures far more complex, and yet balanced, than any human imagination could achieve.

The Seekerman Velosteam

Something wonderful happened when I handed over design of the Steam Highwayman’s constant mechanical companion to Ben: I lost control. I’ve detailed the process by which Ben and I worked out what the velosteam could, then might, and finally should look like, elsewhere, but for a lone-wolf like myself, this was a massive step forward in my creative process. Typically I’m something of a perfectionist and that prevents me bringing projects to completion. Sharing ownership helped me to break this cycle.

Early velosteam concepts, by Ben May.

The appearance of the machine was always going to be important. It would have been a complete cop-out to publish Smog and Ambuscade without a velosteam on the cover, and although I’m happy to leave a lot to my reader’s imaginations, including the appearance and much of the backstory of the hero of my gamebooks, the intentionally realist steampunk style I chose to borrow from Keith Roberts’ Pavane needed a velosteam design. It didn’t have to be completely plausible, but it did need to be unambiguous, legible and characterful.

Ben’s completed Ferguson Velosteam

Ben put a lot of hard work into that design and his solution of mantling the front portion of the vehicle was an inspired solution: it leaves a lot of the actual workings (including an improbable steering system, power transmission, water tank, boiler and firebox) to the imagination, but clearly communicates that this is a heavy, ironclad, steam-powered bicycle. And when he completed the alternate cover images for Smog and Ambuscade, I realised that the machine itself would become an iconic – perhaps the iconic – image associated with my stories.

Meanwhile, as Ben and I were hammering out the metaphorical boilerplate on the anvils of our imagination, two graphic novelists called Vincenzo Ferriero and Ray Chou were developing Skies of Fire. Like Steam Highwayman, Skies of Fire is a crowdfunded, steampunk (or arguably dieselpunk) publishing project. Whereas Steam Highwayman is of course a gamebook series, Skies of Fire is a compelling and attractive series of graphic novels, with a steadily growing international readership. I’ve been watching their Kickstarters from the sidelines with considerable interest, and if you’re interested in indie publishing, steampunk or graphic novels, I really recommend you do too.

The Seekerman Zephyr

In July 2018, Ray Chou posted a fascinating short article about his project. It included photographs and an account of the modelling of the Zephyr – the starring airship in Skies of Fire. I read this article over and over again, and then decided to do something really out of character: I reached out to the modelmaker who had built their airship and asked him whether he’d be interested in doing something similar for me.

The Steampunk Enigma that is Captain Seekerman

Lo and behold, Captain Seekerman got back to me in a steampunk flash. He immediately recognised the quality of Ben’s designs and so we began discussions of what sort of model I might like, what purpose it might serve, how functional it could be – and the very practical matters of time and money. I had complete confidence in his ability to produce something that would do justice to my story world and the existing illustrations, particularly because of Ray’s blog.

I’ll be posting again about the details of Nate Seekerman’s process in turning the two-dimensional designs into an eighteen inch, three dimensional, smoking, LED-lit model, but for now all I want to do is to honour his professionalism, artistry and craftsmanship. We messaged frequently over a period of several months and just a few days ago I received the completed model. I haven’t been able to stop grinning since. It’s currently standing on my bookshelf here in our living room, quietly biding its time.

First of all, this is a display model, so I really look forward to bringing it with me to future Steampunk Events, conventions and readings, to give existing fans another look at the design and to catch the eyes of potential Highwaymen-to-be. It won’t be living packed away in a box. But the Seekerman velosteam also has a function as an inspiration to me as a writer. It is the physical proof of the quality of one of my own ideas, first transmitted to an artist to draw, and now to a modelmaker to sculpt. To see it riding out of my book and into reality – however small – is a wonderful feeling.

My current plans to exhibit the model do have a few limitations, however! My wife and I are expecting our first child this summer and I’ve turned down several invitations to read and appear at June or July steampunk events. This means that my next appearance for sales (and possibly reading) will be at the gamebook convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest 3, on the 31st August in West London. This may well be the first public unveiling of Nate Seekerman’s work. It’ll be great to see any gamebook readers or enthusiasts there – watch out for a lot more about FFF3 on here soon.

If you want to see more of Nate Seekerman’s work or you’re inspired to see him bring your story to life, have a look at the Seeker Design Group. And if you’re interested in finding out more about this model, where it goes or how it was made, just watch out for my next updates here on the website.

On the Ground, in the Air

This morning I completed a series of passages that allow you to ambush the vehicles of the Atmospheric Union. An early start, kicked off by the glorious sunshine streaming into our flat, meant that I managed to increase my passage count despite it being a busy school day. On Thursdays I travel to Islington for some regular supply work in a Primary School, follow that with an after-school club based on Native American crafts and stories and then often tutor GCSE English in the evening.

So it’s really nice to disrupt the pattern with a few ambushes.

The Union are one of the larger factions in the world of Steam Highwayman. They play quite a large role in Highways and Holloways, in which you can take work aboard one of their craft or rob them in the skies. In The Reeking Metropolis they have a main landing field at Parliament Hill and there’s a good chance of meeting their supply vehicles or passenger transport carriages on the roads around London – particularly if you have a telescope.

Put this all together with my modular event designs and you can stop their carriages using several of your talents, rifle their supplies or rob their passengers, fight their officers and even, if you come prepared, blow up their immobilised engines. Why you might want to do that, I haven’t quite defined yet, but it’s probably something to do with inter-Guild rivalries.

The image heading this post is a rendering by deviantart user awiz that I found some time ago. Airships of the sort that are fun for my narrative are not particularly realistic, but this design has created something relatively original and it certainly appeals to me. The high-class promenade deck and banded funnels resemble something out of 80 Days, although all of their steampunk vehicles are pictured in silhouette.

Another appealing set of airship designs come from the Kickstarted comic series, Skies of Fire.These have a dieselpunk-steampunk look and the writers have spent a huge amount of time on their world-building, which I respect. Although I love a tight, balanced narrative, I suspect I’m really a world-builder at heart, but maybe Steam Highwayman has already told you that!

SH3 Progress

You know I love a graph. Here’s my interactive record of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis as a draft. I have to track which sections are reserved or complete – or partially complete – on my spreadsheet as I go along, so graphing it is a natural development. Maybe it’s procrastination too.

The graph will be live on this post, also on the new SH3 page on this site, which at the moment looks pretty bare.

I’m hoping to finish a draft by the end of the summer. And that will probably be 1500-200 passages in length.

If you’re interested to see what other sorts of things I write, I posted a sci-fi short story earlier, set on the moon. I wrote it a few months ago and I’m pretty pleased with it.