Banter Snatch – What do “gamebook” authors say about Netflix’s Bandersnatch?

Two interactive fiction writers walk into a bar…..

So, how many people called you about Bandersnatch?

Deb: More than sent me those weird New Year’s Facebook messenger memes!

James: With the cats?

Deb: Yeah, the creepy cats. People were messaging and even emailing saying, “Black Mirror have done a You Say Which Way! You’ll love it.”

James: Same. With a bit of, “You should get them to do your Click Your Poison series on Netflix!” Aha! Good point, friend. I’m just going to flip the Netflix switch on my books from “disabled” to “ready.”

Deb: And when I searched #Bandersnatch it turned out it wasn’t just geeky interactive fiction writers talking about it. Bandersnatch had millions of viewers talking about endings and story and replay. Which is quite exciting. I’m always a little bit worried people will forget how cool interactive is.

James: Hashtags! #whydidntithinkofthat

Okay, so what did we think about the episode?

Deb: Well, I was worried by the first couple of choices. The random choice of breakfast cereal and then a slightly more preference based choice of music. Sure, it’s good to test viewer can actually choose and to reinforce that choosing is how this story will be experienced – but let’s have some REAL choices soon, please.

James: That was my first instinct as well. But, I’ve since heard that it does make a difference. I’ll have to go back and see if this is true. Replay value! The hallmark of a good gamebook. Already I want to go back and watch it again.

Deb: It got better though. The next choice gave me the true pleasure of interactive fiction. I got to consider two options. And the writers fooled me, I picked ‘wrong’ and got straight to a frustrating ending. I enjoyed that.

James: See, I didn’t like that. I felt like I was being pushed towards a single path, while I wanted to diverge and explore. I wanted to see the format tested to its limits.

Deb: But then there’s clever use of recap to get to the first meaningful choice again. That’s the next big make or break test for a good interactive story – how easy is it to re-enter the adventure and get back to a pivot in the storyline? Here’s where, as an interactive fiction writer, I give Black Mirror’s writers a gold star. Getting back into the story for a different choice is really easy and, you don’t have to go all the way back.

James: Okay, fair enough. That was extremely well done.

Deb: So next time round – about one minute in screen time later – I make another choice and then the deeper layers of the story start to unfold. As a participant I’ve had a bit of subtle training now, so I trust the experience and get into enjoying choices. Okay so ‘enjoy’ might not be the best description. I was often frustrated by two choices that weren’t too different and, sometimes, a bit appalled at the choices. At these times I was reminded that this was Black Mirror. It’s black, it’s dark. It’s not You Say Which Way. Maybe to give us some respite there’s a bit of campy Kill Bill-esque sequence to find.

James: I’ll admit—this bit made me extremely happy. Click Your Poison isn’t meant for the young or faint of heart. There are other series (like yours!) which have covered that ground so well, that many people often default to: interactive fiction is for kids, right? Not necessarily. If you want darker, black choices, head over here to the dark side. We have cookies.

Deb: Mmph mmph these cookies are good! Yeah, you’re right, this is interactive for grown-ups and true to what we’d expect from Black Mirror scriptwriters. The stories don’t divert much at all but there’s just enough variety, shades of noir, sledgehammer to the fourth wall, and surrealism, to keep me exploring.

James: Baby-steps. This is our first mainstream interactive TV show. There weren’t that many choices, and it didn’t seem to change the story drastically, but part of me thinks that might have been the point (in this instance). The whole thing was meant to question the concept of free will.

Let’s talk about that whole breaking the fourth wall thing – what did you think?

James: If there’s a spoiler to avoid, it’s this one. Please, if you haven’t fully explored Bandersnatch, stop now, go watch the show, then go read Deb and my books. Err, I mean, return to this interview.

Deb: But we have to talk about it!

James: Of course! I enjoyed it. [SPOILERS] Bringing Netflix in as a character was brilliant. Icing on the cake? This choice isn’t available during the first play-through. How cool is that?

Deb: There was this sort of voyeur-found-out moment that I really loved. The programmer is on to us. Then his hand is shaking as he tries to resist our choice. Nice work, Black Mirror. There’s also the potential to add more story later – additional ‘episodes’ within Bandersnatch. If I made Black Mirror I’d do that. You could dole out more choices for people to come back to. Netflix is such an ideal medium for interactive storytelling.

James: It’s this type of innovation that will bring interactive fiction its audience. We can do things with story that a traditional show, novel, whatever, can’t do. We have replay value. We have events changing context over time and with repetition.

Deb: ‘The interactive special’ could become a regular feature for popular shows, especially since more people are consuming TV from the web these days. It could be up there with the ubiquitous musical episode and the Christmas special.

Mmmph mmmph 

Deb: You know, there’s a story in that New Year creepy cat meme going around…

James: Once you see the cat meme, you only have seven days to live. Or two months to do your taxes. Whatever’s scariest?

Deb Potter writes and publishes You Say Which Way stories for 10-12 year old readers.

James Schannep is the creator of Click Your Poison, interactive books for teens and adults.

How many edits does a YSWW story need?

The answer is about double a regular book.  Every branch needs to tell a good story and we try to make all our endings interesting and quirky and fulfilling.  So first we edit for story.

Usually an author writes the first thread and a little of a second thread and sends it to the author snake pit. The other YSWW authors look at how interesting the first choice is and the potential for different and exciting threads. We might tighten up the start at this stage and identify issues the writer might encounter.

For instance our first history story (Duel at Dawn) might have had an almost entirely male cast. History tends to be all about what men did and often assumes an all male cast. So Kevin Berry had to think about how he would use female characters. He did a great job and now we are thinking about more historical YSWWs.

When most of the YSWW has been written we do knowledge and tools check. The editor has to track everything a character knows about and the skills and tools they have through each thread. For instance in In the Magicians House you acquire a portable hole in one thread. That hole could get you out of danger in other threads – have you got it or not? Check, check, check…

Then there’s the business of endings. Sometimes you just die. But you can still die in an interesting way – or have something unexpected happen. Eileen Mueller was talking to a reader about her book Mystic Portal and the reader told her that her favourite ending was when you get buried with sand but get rescued to work in an hour glass factory. You have to sign an employment agreement that says you will work there until the sand runs through a big sand timer standing a the end of the factory. After you sign you find out it only drops one grain of sand a day. We wrote that ending very late in the process.

Our readers tell us that these quirky endings are what they love about the stories and that they keep them going back to try new paths.

Another interesting ending that was written in edits happens in Between the Stars. In that ending some passengers finish the journey early when they decide to live on a marginal planet. They do this because they are rescuing a sentient plant and that plant is what might help them to survive. At this stage we’d already published Secrets of Glass Mountain and Blair Polly had a sequel underway.  Glass Mountain is a fascinating world and we suddenly saw a way to connect the two books and gain a rich back story. So when you read Volcano of Fire you’ll find more connections between the books.

If you want to write your own interactive fiction you can check out a book I’ve written about the process. I’ve learned that editing is the best part of writing a book, all you can ever do is make it better and you always know you are nearly done.



Emergency Reading List

What if you’ve read all the You Say Which Way books and you need something new? Here are some of our favorites which you might find on your local library shelves, through Amazon or in good book shops.

In Between the Stars you got to experience being a dolphin. For a great story about a reluctant swap into the body of an animal try  Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones. Or if you’d prefer to see the world from the point of view of a cat or a rat then The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents  by Terry Pratchett is the book for you.

Many You Say Which Way stories involve time travel because IT’S FANTASTIC. Once upon an Island took you right back to meet Captain Cook and Pirate Island took you back hundreds of years to meet, wait for it you’ll never guess, pirates. In Dinosaur Canyon you went backwards AND forwards in time.  If you fancy more antipodean adventures, you might enjoy Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Or try A Wrinkle in Time, a classic time travel story by Madeline L’engle.

If Dragons Realm left you wanting more stories with talking dragons try the Enchanted Forest Chronicles – Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede.

If you liked the unsettling tension of Creepy House we recommend A Monstrous Place by Mathew Stott or The School that Ate Children by Sara General.  Clive Barker writes scary stories for adults but his Abarat series isn’t in the horror genre. It’s fantastical fantasy like Mystic Portal and he’s done all his own illustrations.

You Say Which Way stories are quirky and unpredictable and often twist the everyday into something different. If that’s what you look for in a story, then try Tales from Outer Suburbia by Sean Tan. He is an amazing illustrator too.

If you’d like to sink your teeth into a sci fi series and have already read Stranded Starship then the first of the Island of Fog is free on Amazon  – Keith Robinson has an ever expanding rich world to discover and he’s now publishing  second series about the children of those children of fog. The Nex by Tim Pratt (Parents and YA level readers should also look up his short stories and the thoroughly novel Heirs of Grace)

If you liked the dystopian world in Deadline Delivery try The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Like a bit of mystery with some history? There was plenty of that sort of thing In the Magicians House. For Victorian melodrama and the strong suspicion of a werewolf try The Incorrigible Children of Ashford Place by Maryrose Wood.

You’re going to need an extra set or batteries for your flashlight!

Happy reading.


Writing interactive fiction

Earlier this year somebody asked me for a list of good books to read about writing IF. I had to say there isn’t a lot of it.

It got me thinking though. And making notes. I thought about things I’ve told writers in workshops, critiques and writers panels. I thought about typical problems that come up in editing. I thought about what makes writing interactive fiction difficult and what makes it so fun. I thought about the reader experience and what I’ve learned from reading to kids. It was fun to remember back to when I first got obsessed with IF and read everything I could find, mapping the old-style books and colour coding my responses to story lines.

I wrote it all down and organised it into (hopefully) useful chunks. Next time someone asks me for a book about writing interactive fiction I’ll have something to point them to.

The book is out with beta readers right now. Right now! When I publish you’ll be the first to know 🙂

May your life be full of wonderful choices,

Deb Potter

Dragons Realm wins Best Youth Novel

Fairytale Factory author, Eileen Mueller, wins Sir Julius Vogel Award 2016 for Best Youth Novel with her book Dragons Realm.

Winner SJV 2

The award was announced at the National Science Fiction and Fantasy convention held in Wellington over Queens Birthday weekend.

Dragons Realm is a work of interactive fiction set in a fantasy world. Each thread delivers a different story, allowing the reader to deal with issues of bullying, often with humor.

The award was presented by internationally acclaimed fantasy author, Juliet Marillier.

Eileen Mueller said, “I love Juliet’s books, I was thrilled to learn from her over the weekend and overwhelmed when she presented my award.”

Mueller’s book is part of our You Say Which Way series.

Fairytale Factory director Deb Potter said, “We were honored to have two books nominated for the Vogels this year. Both have great story lines.”

Fairytale Factory’s other nomination was Peter Friend’s Deadline Delivery, where the reader is a courier in a dystopian flooded city.

Reading Fledgling Writers

Kid’s writing is awesome. It’s creative, it’s unexpected, it shows me what excites them, and sometimes it’s a cryptic way to ask for advice. It’s precious. And it’s something else – easy to criticise. So my thinking here is: do not criticise. At all.

Point out all the good stuff.

Point out good description. Congratulate good ideas. Explain how you understand the character because of what they have told the reader about the person. Point out the conflict and the dilemma and wonder about what would happen next. If there are two words sitting nicely together then point them out, how they sound so good. If something is done differently say how original it is. Say what you’d like to know more about.

When you’ve pointed out all the good stuff you can see you can ask what got them inspired to write the piece, what they think about it, if they think they’ll write some more. Offer to read more.

There will be plenty of people in that kid’s life who will see their writing and focus on the spelling and the grammar and the bit that doesn’t make sense. They will chip away at the joy of creating an imagined world. Please don’t worry about the stuff they got wrong.  The kid will go back at some stage and think oh yeah, I spelled that wrong and missed a comma. There will be very few people who celebrate everything that went well for a fledgling writer.

A Christmas visit to the Magician’s house

The Best of Twisty Christmas Tales launches this week and there’s a trip to the Magician’s House tucked inside the pages. I can’t wait to get my copy, it’s full of the work of astonishingly good kid’s writers and I know I’ll be laughing and gasping and possibly hiding behind the couch as I read. I love short stories.

It was like a gift to create a christmas story in the fabulous setting of the Magician’s house. It made me realise that once you’ve strongly imagined a place it’s yours to step back into any time you like. Some mornings, when I was first writing about it, I almost expected the red frog to be sitting there when I woke.

Tomorrow I’m off to the book launch at the Children’s Book Shop in Wellington. I’ll get to meet other children’s authors and I wonder if I’ll pluck up courage to ask them if their imagined worlds sometimes seem to leak into their real life to?

Deb Potter

WE’VE BEEN BUSY and kind of ignored the blog

We have a really good excuse though: There are two new books out. Sliders of Glass Mountain is an all new interactive story that lets you come of age on a far distant planet. You can choose to start your story by being a miner or  slider. Either way you get to explore a new planet, unravel a  few mysteries and find a fun new way to travel (sliding!)

The other new book is a collection of the first four books, together in one edition. With the new ‘kindle unlimited’ method of getting books we know parents are starting to borrow more for their kids. But parents still look for great value and kids have to share the cyber shelf. So we rolled four books into one to make a really good family read. Thanks to everyone who has downloaded the box set to date, and a huge thanks to anyone who reviews them. Now – back to the next book.

Steam Punked

Stephen King has a non-scarey book called ‘On Writing’. It is what I have in large print over the dash board of my cross trainer. Whenever I read a book about writing I feel pretty good because it is almost not procrastinating at all. Reading on a cross trainer feels even better because it isn’t even slothful and as far as I know, nobody has figured out a way to write on a cross trainer.

Most self help books contain 50 – 100 thousand words but you really only take away 100. You just don’t know which 100 until you’ve read the lot. Mr King has some stuff to say about being faithful to yourself as a writer – about telling your own truth. I sort of thought I knew what he meant – he talked about how he grew up writing horror and for him writing horror is his truth. But then I thought about my steam punk project.

First of all I got into steam punk because I love the imagery, and I’m still haunted by the wonderful book The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) which first introduced me to a sci-fi cyber punk community of new-Victorians. But more than that, within this brilliantly imagined post capitalistic world was nestled the stories of little girls. The sub-title of the book is: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. If you haven’t read it you should go out and read the first 90 percent of the book immediately. I think the publisher mistakenly printed the last ten percent however … but as usual I digress.

So for me when I think of Steam Punk I’m not really thinking of an assortment of objectified women in corsets and silks. I’m thinking of kick ass ladies en masse getting the vote and anything else they damn well please.

In a book coming to your cybershelves soon you’ll get to read about some feisty females – and males too – as you join them Between The Stars. (That’s the title)

Invisible, Insipid or Intelligent sidekick: the girl character in modern kid’s literature

I’m reading a fast paced series of kid’s books at the moment. The central character can become a dragon, his best friend becomes an ogre and two others boys become a centaur and a giant lizard. When I started reading the series I was hoping for girl characters with strong exciting creature roles too. I was disappointed when the first girl grew fairy wings and the next became invisible. Later on the fairy managed to successfully shrink. Two other girl characters do better in the creature lottery, but it could be said that these stories are strongly codified to reinforce the idea that girls are weak, that their best defence mechanism is not to be noticed, and that being small and on the side-lines is where girls belong.

As a female reader I’m schooled in putting myself in the place of a boy or imagining myself as the sidekick – the Hermione Granger along in the support role as information analyst to Harry Potter’s adventurer. Publishers know and expect this.

JK Rowling was originally ‘jk’ rather than Joanne because it was felt by publishers that a female author would only attract half of young readers. For the same reason I publish as DM Potter. I don’t want my gender to put off a male reader (or the parent of a male reader) before they get beyond the cover.

Literature has the power to reinforce and/or challenge society’s codes. I’m not saying all female characters have to be adventurous, fierce amazons but I am saying it’s nice to give girls a bit more choice. They shouldn’t have to always side with a male character to get beyond insipid, invisible roles.

Writing in the second person has given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on gendered stereotypes in kid’s literature. Girls react with excitement to a ‘you’ character that could be themselves. Moderated by the fact that just as many boys will be reading as the same character I’m not tempted to stop and preen, add irrational fears or let the character take second place most of the time. I let them take charge of their own destiny. I also let them moderate, advise and support other characters – in other words be fully rounded characters.

What I’ve noticed is that the other characters I surround my kids with tend to be less stereotypical too. That doesn’t mean I have eliminated all gender differences, I think I’ve just been more aware of stereotyping potential and sometimes that awareness has sparked stronger stories. The librarian in In The Magician’s House is a great example. Aware she could have been a fusty old woman I expanded her role to be an active rescuer of a lost soul, able to deal with three menacing pigs and to befriend a big, bad wolf. I also enjoyed writing the character of the young Charles Dickens. So many stories require heroes to go through harrowing experiences that make them stronger. I allowed myself to show a boy who experienced cruelty and abandonment which shaped his non-violent pursuit of social justice.

March 8th is International Women’s day.

(Deb Potter writes interactive fiction for The Fairytale Factory. She has studied education, human development and children’s literature and has a masters in creative writing.)

Kindle vs Tablet for kids? A kindle might be the best choice

Recently I got asked to give my view about buying a kindle or a cheap tablet for a child’s tenth birthday. I found myself saying the usual things from a techy point of view: Tablets have really come down in price and you can do a lot on them, they still tend to have much shorter battery life though whereas Ereaders tend to keep going for days and weeks. Of course we aren’t often away from a power source so maybe recharging shouldn’t be any part of your deliberation. Tablets can be kindles anyway – you just load the kindle app and join to your amazon account. You can have up to eight devices on the one account. But there are some non-technical reasons you might favour a kindle.

A kindle is a dedicated reading device. Pick it up and you won’t be thinking after three pages, “I wonder if I have any new emails?” You won’t get a push notification in the middle of a beautiful moment or a tense scene that ZYBCFDS41 has played their turn in Words with friends and it’s your move. And you won’t be told there is a new version of Angry Birds waiting for you to buy at the app store.

It is important for children to develop a sustained reading ability. After they’ve learned to read the next step is becoming a ‘distance reader’. They do this by entering the world of a story, being gripped by it and excluding everything else. They learn the rewards of reading and their reading stamina increases. A short reading attention span limits future study skills and can be a real liability in the work force.A tablet isn’t likely to develop that sustained reading skill.

Most parents limit computer time but we don’t tend to limit reading time. If you give a child a kindle you won’t be asking them to switch it off after half an hour. Another little known fact about tablets is that they almost work like caffeine on kids. The way they are lit means they stimulate wakefulness. Your tablet might be great to check in bed in the morning to help you wake but chances are it isn’t helping you get all rest you need at night. Give a kid a kindle before bed and they’ll get tired in the same way they would reading a paper book.

Soooooo kindle vs tablet? They are different beasts. The kindle is like vegetables, you can’t really get enough. The tablet is like cake – you need to be aware how much you consume. In an ideal household, with an unlimited budget, I’d make the tablet a treat after chores were done and limit the time on it.

Possum in the headlights

There is nothing better for sharpening your words than reading them out loud. Wait, there is one thing better – reading your words out loud to an audience. Recently I was invited to read Once Upon an Island to a small audience of small people. It’s been a while since I’ve read from OUAI and I found I had obtained a great deal of objective distance from it.

The first time I inflicted this story on a patient audience my pencil never stopped making marks as obvious changes came thick and fast. What I could never have learned, without the help of readers, was the process of choice. Reading OUAI again recently, I found myself relearning about this and I think my latest story will benefit from it.

The great finding however was that after you leave a story for a  long while you can accept it and feel very good about it. It was such a delicious experience sharing the work, enjoying excitement and tension and laughs. About a year ago I read for a  group of kids in front of a reporter who wanted to get ‘a kids experience’ of my first book. I felt like a possum in the headlights and I was very glad when it was all over. Without reporters and photographers the experience of reading is much nicer.

Interactive fiction may be beneficial for developing reading skills and life skills

Interactive fiction is a term for text based stories where the reader participates.  Interactive fiction had a boom in the 80’s under the brands of Choose Your Own Adventure and Pick a Path. Interactive fiction is now evolving in the Ebook environment.

The reading environment of children has changed since computers and tablets became the norm in homes. These devices have presented huge boons to learning but do not tend to encourage sustained reading. After learning to recognise letters and sounds and basic vocab, early readers benefit from extending themselves with longer texts. Children of the digital age can take a little longer to discover the benefits of reading.

Interactive fiction may be a useful genre for reluctant readers.

Well constructed interactive fiction is fun and cognitively rewarding. When Deb Potter was developing her first interactive adventure she visited schools and tried out her stories. “I learned a lot about the choosing process. I’d already read many old style interactive books and I knew some were more satisfying then others, it wasn’t just the dynamic of the stories – it was how choice was presented.”

Deb learned that choices were part of the writer/reader contract.

“If there’s no hint of danger you can’t just have the reader killed by a giant squid because they picked to turn right. There is no pleasure in that. The pleasure lies in safely navigating towards a goal or exploring story. It’s equally satisfying to flout rules and take risks in story, where things can, and often will, go horribly wrong. ”

Deb thinks another benefit of interactive fiction may be experiencing autonomy. “Kids tend to be more sheltered these days but parents know they still need exposure to rational decision making, interactive fiction provides a vicarious experience of action and consequence.”

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to lovers of interactive fiction. We’ve reduced the price of our newest story, Pirate Island, for the week of Christmas. We hope you enjoy the latest addition. This book was written in collaboration with author Blair Polly. Blair has sailed the pacific and explored all over the world. He’s a huge fan of natural history and this shows in a lot of the details in the book. Deb Potter is a geek and she insisted on a spot of time travel. The great thing about interactive stories is you get to choose what YOU want.

Thank you for supporting our writing this year and we wish you all great adventures in 2014.

What is the Fairytale Factory?

Once upon a time Deb Potter wrote a story entitled ‘The Fairytale Factory’. She was very happy with the title but not so happy with the story. She went on to write a lot more stories but she never forgot about that great title with the lame story. When she came to start a business she re purposed the name and it finally got a place in the world.

The Fairytale Factory Ltd is a registered New Zealand business. It produces interactive fiction written by Deb Potter and other writers too.