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.

Three days to go!

Three days to go on Steam Highwayman II Kickstarter!  The campaign is almost complete and has been a great development from last year’s campaign.  As I wrote previously, the project has now moved on to be mainly supported by readers and would-be-readers of the gamebook.  I still count a few faithful friends and family members amongst the 188 backers to date, but in fact I’m now making new friends through the readers of Steam Highwayman.  Gamebook collectors and enthusiasts like Ben Roberts, who seems to have developed a strange idea that the Steam Highwayman is really a gourmet in search of the perfect pork pie, and Stuart Lloyd, a critic, writer and fellow tutor who always provokes me to think about the boundaries between learning and play.  Then there’s Dave Morris, who twelve months ago was a distant and admired hero, but has now become a faithful supporter of the Steam Highwayman project, and Jon Ingold, whose 80 Days did so much to inspire me to get on and produce a text adventure.  At the Suffolk Steampunk Spectacular, hosted by the Long Shop Museum at Leiston, I was greeted by Dean Allen Jones, already familiar with my work and keen to buy another copy, having given his first away to a hungry nephew.

And that’s not all.  Do you like an occasional graph?  I like an occasional graph, but not too late in the evening as they keep me awake.  This colourful little google-powered histogram shows how the backers of The Return of Steam Highwayman are distributed around the world!  I’m looking forward to the completion so that, once I gather addresses, I can make myself a shaded world map (again, google-powered), but even now I am enthralled by the beauty of distribution.  If you’re canny, you’ll be able to identify your place in one of these bright bars: Ben Roberts, backer #1, you’ll be at the foot of the long blue one…

I did try creating a scattergraph which correlated repeat backer’s SH2 campaign backer number with their SH1 campaign backer number, just to see what sort of result I’d get.  Mark Lain managed to bag spot number 5 both times, which I know tickled us both, but otherwise there was no sort of pattern at all.  But that’s why you whack data into a graph, isn’t it?  To interpret bare facts into something for those visual processors we have.  I’ve always been a thinking-by-drawing sort of person – making maps, plans and designs was my idea of fun from childhood and if I could get away with doing it full time, you bet I would.

Enough rambling.  A big thanks to everyone who has joined the project in the last few weeks – you’re very welcome and I really look forward to getting to know you better as the books keep coming…

 

Steam Highwayman II

I’ve been working on Steam Highwayman II since November 2017, during the first lull presented by the SH1 Kickstarter. However, in the last few weeks I’ve been progressing through my draft of the sequel gamebook and enjoying myself developing new plots, new games and new mechanics.

The blue line is the important part at the moment: the closer it gets to the purple, the happier I’ll be. But will I need to extend the passage-count for SH2? My current estimations make me think that this book, Highways and Holloways, may be 150-160% of the length of SH1: Smog and Ambuscade.  I may be suffering from feature creep or perhaps the map I drafted back in November was simply too ambitious…  Either way, I plan on learning a lot from this process!

I’m hoping that this graph will remain live as I update my master spreadsheet.  Yummy.  So check back in here if you want to know where I am!  Don’t forget that you Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade on Amazon now, too!

The Highwayman Afloat

Why does Steam Highwayman feature a parallel, water-borne adventure?  In Book 1, Smog and Ambuscade, around 150 passages out of the total 1017 are devoted to your options to take to the River Thames and captain your own steam barge, shipping freight and discovering unique adventures.

Because I love narrowboats.  I love everything about them and their history, their lore, the short-lived and much-romaticised ‘traditional’ life of the bargee families.  When I was designing my alternate but plausible steampunk past, I could not see how a Britain dependent upon steam power but lacking large railways (one of my premises) would work without some reference to the canal network at least.  In out timeline, water-borne freight on the Thames has always remained competitive with the railways, and to some extent, the roads.  Boats still lug building materials, hardcore, sewage and waste up and down the old river daily.

One of my regularly re-read books is LTC Rolt’s Narrow Boat.  Essentially, he was the first canal tourist and also responsible for a lot of our modern romanticised view of the canals, but he was also a writer with a real interest in the genuine traditions of the canal people.  I bought this some time back in 2010, I think, on a canal holiday with a good friend and his family.

When I lived in Marlow, between 2008 and 20012, I got to know the reach between Maidenhead and Henley very well.  I had only been afloat on it a handful of times, but I was fascinated by the boathouses and bridges and could see how a highwayman adventuring back and forth across this great boundary would have to interact with its people and way of life.  I had walked the towpath between Marlow and Henley in sun, rain and the dead of night.

Writing a continuation and development of the river into Book 2, Highways and Holloways, I’ve had to make some decisions.  I’m currently trying to smooth out the reader’s journey to include fewer repetitions and more story.  There should still be the opportunity to trade, investing relatively large amounts of capital to make good returns, all in the name of that retirement bank account at Coulters!  After all, trading (and defeating pirates) by sea in Fabled Lands was always the best way to get your hands on a pile of cash.

But I know the reach between Henley and Oxford less well.  So I’ll be depending on the good old OS171, Chris Cove-Smith’s The River Thames Book and lots of googlemaps.  Nothing can replace the insight you gain from the locations themselves however and since a very large part of my pleasure in writing the Steam Highwayman series is to share my love of the parts of these parts of the world, I think I’ve got a good excuse to take an extended walk along the Thames pretty soon.

I still live by the Thames, but much further east and I see the Thames Barrier out of window and enjoy the tides defining the rhythm of the day.  Regular shipments of estuary and Dogger-dredged aggregates are unloaded opposite our tower at Angerstein wharf – the largest gravel and sand unloading wharf of its kind Europe.  The walks along the river here are quite different – and a good subject for another time, or another book.

Two other fluvial reads I’ll recommend here are the hilarious JK Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which furnished me with the minimum of an amusing encounter in Smog and RL Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage.  Three Men has still got plenty to give, so I’ll be mining it in the next fortnight, whereas the Stevenson is much more down-to-earth.  I might borrow some of his cold and damp.

Writing to Music

I’ve been writing for hours at a time again and it can be difficult, some days, to turn my mind and focus on an imaginary world when there are so many things to keep me in the everyday world.  Having a piece of music playing can help.  By filling up my ears, it over-rides part of my consciousness – the ‘internal editor’ that is constantly correcting and improving before I’ve even drafted.  But getting the right album or long track is tricky.

Good writing music is melodic.  Some classical music does this, but film or game soundtrack is more reliable – the themes that repeat and develop are much easier to grasp.  Soundtracks are also explicitly written to create atmosphere, which is the other big reason for writing to music alongside focus.

When I’m writing cyberpunk – or gastropunk – I rely on Vangelis – either the extended Blade Runner soundtrack or his album The City.  Melody a-plenty, but I don’t get too distracted from what I’m writing because I know the pieces so well.

I’ve been focusing on Steam Highwayman II for the last week and so Blade Runner doesn’t match at all.  Following a few comments by Jonathan Green, who also writes to music, I discovered the soundtrack to Skyrim.  I only know the game through watching a few playthrough videos and (mercifully for my schedule) have never had a computer that could run a large CRPG, but I was really impressed both with the composition by Jeremy Soule and the simple arrangement into a long track by TheSagaris2.  This is perfect writing music – no jarring transitions, plenty of atmosphere, loads of melody, easy to get to know.

The sound might feel pretty open and natural, so it doesn’t fit the world of Steam Highwayman too well, but it certainly suits the writing of it.  I mean to post soon about my search for a ‘Steam Highwayman sound’ and what sort of music sounds steampunk to me.  Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that – or listening to a curated list.

150 Facebook Likes!

That’s right!  Earlier today we bust this target at last, due to an influx of Facebook Steampunks hooked over the weekend.  So at last I can legitimately share this: Designing the Velosteam.

 

Kickstarter: 15 Days Gone, 15 to Go!

15 days gone in the Steam Highwayman Kickstarter! We’re currently camped at 166% percent funding – no mean feat – so let me run through a few details to let you know about the workings of the campaign. I’m really excited that in a couple of weeks I’ll have the funds that allow me to complete this project and get the gamebook into your hands. Thankyou.

Kickstarter tracks how backers found the project – in a rough, mechanical way. I’ve added onto this by asking you, particularly if we’ve never met previously, a brief question in my welcome message.

31 of the 128 pledges have come from what Kickstarter calls direct traffic. This is the largest single group of supporters and this is directly due to everybody who has shared a direct link to the project – thankyou!

23 of the pledges have come straight from Facebook. Thanks to everybody who has shared the funding news, the Steam Highwayman page and the information about the project even before it began!

A combination of Kickstarter’s own messaging and publicity materials have attracted 36 pledges. These are some of the most exciting, because they indicate people with whom I have no prior connection, but who have chosen to support the project purely on its own merit.

As you can see from this little graph, we had a strong start, with 26 and 30 supporters pledging in the first two days respectively. The last week has been quiet overall, so I’m planning to do everything I can to see those green bars back up in the second half of the project. If you have any suggestions or ideas for me, please get in contact.

Finally, the Steam Highwayman page on Facebook is approaching the 150 likes target that will allow me to unlock the Velosteam Development log – which I’m really excited to share with you. If you haven’t yet liked the page, please take a couple of clicks to push us on towards the target!

First Social Goal Unlocked – Designing the Steam Highwayman!

Well, it’s been quite a day for the project.  After some excellent publicity and a growing worldwide interest, funding is standing at 113% and 86 backers!  We’ve got supporters from Sweden, Denmark, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the USA, Canada, Germany, France, New Zealand, Australia and the UK.

Not only that, but we reached our first social goal – 100 likes on the Facebook Page!  Facebook has proven to be a really important place to publicise the campaign, with around 30% of backing coming directly from the site – and I’m sure much more coming indirectly.  This means I can release a development log all about how Ben May designed the appearance of the Steam Highwayman.

Designing the Steam Highwayman

Thanks to everyone who has passed on the news of the project’s success: please help me to bring the campaign to as many future readers as we can to unlock more content and to fund even more of Ben’s fantastic art.

Haven 90|60

I’ll be worshipping at Haven 90|60 in Milton Keynes this Saturday and leading a Workshop called Speak Out in Praise, helping believers learn how their passion for spoken word, rap and poetry can be put to the King’s service.

You can access my workshop handout here.