Stories Untold

I don't normally do two blog posts in one day but I just finished playing an impressively creepy and original PC game and - because I have a lot of announcements coming up - I didn't want to put off telling you about it.

Stories Untold

[Note: there are probably no spoilers below but if you enjoy creepy stories and games I'd fully recommend just buying Stories Untold rather than reading anything about it. You'll find links here. The less you know, the more fun you'll have. I've embedded the trailer in case that helps!]

A game that is made up of four "episodes", or stories. Each of them is different. Until a certain point this reminded me less of a game and more of a collection of creepy short stories. I liked the range of ideas and settings - creepy houses, scientific experiments, arctic research stations. All of them begin with almost normality, then have a gradual increase in tension and mystery, which works well over four stories. My love of this kind of variety was one of the reasons I wrote my own creepy short story collection (They Move Below) - a chance to try out various classic settings. As a portmanteau for games it works well.

In Stories Untold there is no need for reflexes, just some thought and experimentation, taking your time to acclimatise to what it expects of you, and what you can do. Yet the game still managed to surprise and impress me on a few occasions. It's never quite what you think.

The sound design deserves special praise - exemplary effects and voice work, much more than just boo jumps. Subtly-appropriate effects and music really pull you in. I played with headphones on, and that added to the impact.

What I noticed was how immersive the stories felt, especially in the ones where you switch between screens in different parts of the room. I really felt part of it, interested and immersed, as if I was there. It shows how unscary a lot of other games are - for example Untold Stories is a great contrast to a game I was playing last night, FEAR 2. FEAR 2 is supposed to be scary but actually it is more of an action game, and very predictable - I was just playing FEAR 2 on autopilot, and never felt like I was there. I would much rather have a short, surprising, immersive experience like Stories Untold any day. Stories Untold was an enjoyable time. I may not return to it but each of the stories has stuck in my mind.

My only quibble, that stopped me giving full marks, was the text parser for two of the episodes. It frequently rejected words that were the correct response, but which weren't the words the game expected (e.g. "get out" versus "exit" versus "leave" versus "go out" etc.). It seems an oversight that could have been easily fixed - either by building in more variety to the synonyms and concepts accepted, or just add a "help" command that listed acceptable verbs. This wasn't a big problem but was enough to steal a bit of enjoyment from the first and fourth story, and it is telling that those were the only times I had to seek help online when I got stuck.

My favourite story was the third. It really captured some kind of cross between films like The Thing and Pontypool, and I could easily have played an extended version of this as a full game, perhaps expanding on elements along the lines of the Penumbra games. The third episode was worth the price of admission alone to me. The rest was just a bonus.

Buy it DRM-free here (and other places). If you enjoy creepy stories and games you deserve to treat yourself to this.


If That Looking Glass Gets Broken

One of the stories from They Move Below is now available for free as a taster. If you haven't read it before, I hope you enjoy If That Looking Glass Gets Broken.

An old couple, alone in the house.

Or are they?


Vocabulary, Dictionaries, And Reading Levels

Image CC0 Public Domain by Greyerbaby on Pixabay

Should Vocabulary Be Dumbed Down In Fiction?

I saw this question in an author group recently: "Since most writers have above-average vocabularies, do you write at your natural level or do you 'dumb it down' to meet the national average of 6th grade readers?"

It's a good question, and made me think. I know some readers like it when they don't recognise a word in a book, and so they check it in a dictionary (or get the e-reader to display a definition), learning a new word in the process.

Other readers hate that, and claim they will give up on a book if it has too many words they don't know. "The writer is showing off," "I don't want to look at a dictionary," and so on.

So what's a writer to do?

Language Level Should Be Appropriate

I think the most important rule is that language should always be appropriate to the character and the scene. If you have a super genius discussing his proposal, then he'd better sound like a super genius discussing his proposal (in which case it's expected that the reader won't understand it all - as long as they believe it). And if you have a normal ten-year-old, make them sound like a normal ten-year-old, not a retired librarian.

This guide - that language should be appropriate to the character and scene - takes precedence over others.

I also think having a diversity of characters is vital, not just for the reader, but for the writer. If I felt all the characters in one of my works were too similar, I'd get bored writing it (plus it would be harder to keep the details and differences clear in my head). The same as a reader. It's why we ended up with the "unlikely coupling" trope. Though as with any writing rule - it can be broken if the end result works.

It's Okay If The Reader Doesn't Know Every Word

Even if you use a word that a reader doesn't understand, what does it matter? They can look it up and learn in one go. Or they can ignore it and read on anyway - the sense is usually apparent, and that's often how we gradually learn what words mean, from context.

The way to learn new words and expand your vocabulary is to read them. If authors avoid certain words then those words will eventually die, and we end up without the finesse to make subtle distinctions. I'd rather use the dictionary by my bed than end up with an impoverished word-hoard. Words are the building blocks of communication, and communication is the foundation of civilisation.

I think my prose is fairly readable. If someone disagrees then I have no problem with that - they are probably right, my prose isn't so readable for them. Fine. People seek out writers they get on with, and avoid those they don't. It's normal. It's probably not a good idea to keep simplifying things, or your style will get diluted too.

How It Affects Our Writing

I don't mind learning new words. I love it. I keep a dictionary by the bed, and often read a page or two just for fun.

What I do mind is monotonous and repetitious prose. One of the faults of amateur writing is over-repetition of the same words. I see this when I edit for other authors sometimes. The only way to avoid that is to have a wider vocabulary.

Repetition is also a problem with the first drafts of any writer. I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. That can be fixed easily, but rewriting is still a lot quicker if I don't need to keep checking a thesaurus.

Of course, all books include some repetition of words. But there's repetition, and there's repetition. I'm talking about repetition that draws attention to itself as lazy writing.

It's About The Audience Too

Language level and vocabulary will partly be determined by your target audience (maybe at a very broad level - e.g. school children, teenagers, professors of magical academies). You can go broader and reach more, or be more discerning, but have a smaller audience.

Don't worry too much about writing a book for everyone. It isn't possible. Swing towards over-simplified prose and you may put off readers who like to be encouraged.

Always write as best as you can, always appropriately for the story; then find the readers who like it, and don't generally worry about those who won't. They're not your audience, they're someone else's. Leave them alone.

And if it does bother you, here's a tip. If you're not sure about including a word, because you think it's the right word for the place, but worry it may seem too complex to some readers, then just make sure contextual clues make it clear what it means. Even then, you only need to do that for words that have some real significance, not those used for subtle flavour.

That's Enough Of Me

Time to open it out: am I wrong? Readers: do you like it when you learn new words, or hate it? Or is there some tipping point? Writers: do you base vocabulary and level on character, or on your target audience, or both?


An Interview With Chloe Hammond - Darkly Dreaming

Tonight I am talking to the author Chloe Hammond in Plumereau Square, the heart of the old town of Tours, in France's Loire Valley. It looks magical with lights strung between ancient buildings and across the Square. The central space is packed with rows of benches and tables, covered with white cotton tablecloths, jars of candles and scented jasmine. Music plays in the background, chilled-out Blues classics wafting through the gentle spring air. "Summertime ..." croons Billie, softly. Staff from the different bars around the edges of the square bustle back and forth, taking orders and delivering drinks, wearing white shirts, black trousers and the very French long aprons that come to the ankle.

It makes a nice change from West Wales.

Townspeople and tourists, students and farmers are happily seated together drinking, eating, and smoking. Arms are waved, shoulders shrugged and there are lots of Gallic “Ehs”, “Boufs” and “Biens” mixing with raucous laughter, which gets louder as the evening progresses. Chloe and I sit in a corner, lit by candle light as the shadows lengthen. She said she doesn't like bright sunlight. I'm not sure why. And now the sun is clinging to the roofs of the buildings as if resisting being dragged down, and the shadows spread a chill over everyone. But conversation continues. Some don't notice the encroaching dark. Maybe wine and brandy help.

Hi Chloe, thanks for inviting me to such a cool place. It was quite a trek from Aberystwyth, but I have my means.

My pleasure. I'd heard you liked cafes and Europe.

Very true. And you wanted to talk about your book, Darkly Dreaming. Is it a standalone, or part of a planned series?

It's a trilogy. I'm just over halfway through book 2, but book 3 is all in my head ready - I just need time and energy to get it all done!

I know the feeling. Oh, yes waiter, du vin, s'il vous plait. Merci. What's your book about, Chloe? I see you have a copy there.

It's about vampires.

Ah. And you're from Wales?

Yes, I grew up there.

You see, I know a fair few Welsh authors and readers, and there seems to be a fascination with vampires among them. Is that a general thing due to vampires' cultural resurgence globally (books and films), or is it something about Wales? I just wondered if they suited a Welsh mentality, or had shadows of Welsh legends, or if it is just chance.

Do you know, I have no idea! Maybe we are dreamers, and love a bit of escapism?

I like that. Though my suspicion was to do with slate-grey skies reminding us of eternal death. And I've just realised that by saying that, my Welsh friends will tell me off for criticising the tywydd Cymraeg.

Heh heh, good old Welsh drizzle. That inspired one character's move to France.

Welsh weather is actually no worse than Manchester's.

Don't bet on it. How's the wine?

Lovely. Though I have to admit, all wine tastes the same to me. I don't even know what colour it is unless I look at the glass. I hadn't noticed this was red. Back to your book. Vampires may be a subject matter but what genre is your book? Or what mood does it create? Vampires seem like they fit into horror, thriller, young adult, comedy, romance, wherever.

I would say I write contemporary fiction, or literary fiction, with a vampire twist. The people who seem to enjoy my book the most are people who don't usually enjoy vampire novels.

That suggests it's something other than the vampires they enjoy, such as the mood or detail. I'm just always interested in how different people take the same element - a monster, a plot, a joke - and use it in different ways.

People consistently comment on Rae & Layla's relationship. In that way it is literature, because their struggles with who they are, and retaining their humanity - these are what the novel is about, as much as the actual vampire adventure.

Hey, I think there's someone spying on us. Look, over there ... oh. They've gone. I'd swear someone was stood in the shadows.

Too much imagination, Karl.

Mmm. Okay: your interpretation of vampires. Similarities or differences from the canon. Go.

My vampires are infected with a virus that triggers DNA mutations right along the evolutionary strands, so my vampires may awaken from their transformation with a gift that you would normally associate with a frog. They are immortal in the same way lobsters are: they don't die of old age, but they can be killed by separating head and heart. They don't like garlic - too stinky for super powerful noses - but all the old legends are just put about by vampires to distract from reality. The High Council employs teams to do the 'false news'.

I could believe in the High Council.

You should.

All this stuff about vampires ... do you have any thoughts about lesser-used supernatural beings? I've seen lots of zombies, vampires and were-creatures in recent books and films. What other fascinating beings are there? Any that you might want to write about?

I have a plan for stories about a medical student haunted by his cadaver, and an angel who argues with God and gets sent to Earth as a human in punishment. I'm also just finishing a short story for a competition which is about zombies, caused by an extraterrestial life form.

I think in one of Romero's early zombie films (Night or Dawn or both) there was a hint of something from space maybe being the cause, but he never explored it - more just an idea on the radio, one of many possible explanations for the zombie uprising. Though there was a film called Lifeforce that went full "space zombie/space vampire" many years ago. I think it had lots of nudity and exploding bodies, which makes it sound more awesome than it was.

Ha ha, sounds great. I only had 5,000 words, so I could only touch the surface. I may well expand it in future though - my trusty criticals enjoyed it.

Short stories are often the ones with greatest impact. It's one of my favourite formats to read or write.

Yes. So little space for extraneous.

Talking of naked bodies and explosions, I'm not shocked by anything except for electricity, so wasn't phased by your book beginning with a bang (well, a blowjob) - in fact, I think it's always good to set the tone at the start. If the book's world isn't one of sparkles and romance then it's handy to know right away, to adjust reader expectations so they can expect a bit of grit. Is that why you began the book like that, or was there another reason?

Yes - I wrote the book, and realised the original first couple of chapters were more about the friends as humans, and could mislead people. (My poor mother - I'd forgotten to warn her about the vampires, being so bothered about her reading the rude bits, and so the vampires were a real shock and even gave her nightmares. Several people have reported nightmares.) So I added the prologue afterwards as a flash of foresight into what's to come.

Bdum'tsh! I liked the opening scene and it made me laugh, because it was unexpected, and seemed apt to resonate with the idea of vampires sucking the life out of you, and in some variants of the myth it can be a pleasurable thing.

But Suzannah, that character, is an absolute bitch - and does not improve in vampire form!

I think that's one of the pulls of extreme situations (including becoming immortal) - what it does, how it changes you, how the many new experiences and sensations change you (or don't!)

Absolutely - I've really enjoyed exploring that with my characters.

Suzannah is totally fictional, or a composite? No need to answer that.

Suzannah is a composite of several people.

The best characters are. Legally safest too.

Heh heh. Yes. But don't change the subject. I'd been warned you had a zombie obsession, and you've mentioned them a few times. Back to vampires!

One fictional monster is as good as another.


Okay, vampires. Do you want to live forever? Would it be good?

Hmmm. In some ways, yes. As a vampire you wouldn't have to worry about money and pensions, and all that stuff, and you'd be physically perfect forever, so then yes. There's so much to do and see in the world, even if as a vampire I'd have to see it at night to avoid being seen.

It is getting quite dark now. Not much lighting in this corner of the piazza. Anyway, I reckon it might be one of the enduring fantasies humans have always had - living forever - maybe that's one of the reasons they're so popular. Downsides?

The main one is, of course, the loss of all your loved ones. Unless you turned them?

Ethical dilemma! Would you be doing them a favour, or cursing them? Mmm, depends on what the take on vampires is. (Goodies, baddies, neutrals).

You could ask the loved ones, I suppose - email them a theoretical quiz and those who would want to could be turned. Or ask them in a cafe ...

And pretend it is "just a quiz, no real import". That makes me want to start sending weird and random quizzes to my friends and family ... Though I do worry that I'd become immortal then see the world go to shit and be stuck in it, rather than some dreamy endless Venice or something more romantic.

In terms of watching the world go to shit - you could do something about it. Just wait for book 3.

True! I could be the eternal activist.

In fact, that was a motivator for writing Darkly Dreaming. I work with vulnerable teens and part of that is having to meet some horribly abusive adults, or at least hear about them. I took great pleasure in writing Rae's hunting scene, and it's one that impacts on a lot of my readers.

And it always adds heart when fictional events come from real concerns.

What about you? Have you written about vampires?

Well, the final traditional story of They Move Below is Bleeding Sunset, Dancing Snowflakes (I felt it was appropriate to end the collection with sunset, in more than one meaning of the term - which then segues into the end of the book, about endless night). It's the nearest I've come to writing about vampires. I suspect it was subliminally inspired by One for the Road by Stephen King, since I always loved Night Shift (my first Stephen King book). Okay, change of subject: the last two books you enjoyed?

Always changing the topic ... and I'm crap at remembering titles!

I've had that. "It was about a guy ... he had a jetpack ... I think it was set in a treehouse ..."

Well, of the books I've read recently: The Wishing Game, by Patrick Redmond. I was pleasantly surprised by this book - I thought it would be a straightforward thriller, I like well-written thrillers for when I'm in work, as they're quite easy to dip in and out of on quiet nights. However, this was actually a rather sinister ghost story which was a lovely surprise. I do love a bit of magic realism. Also there's the book I've just finished - Lionel Shriver's Big Brother. Family politics come under her unflinching magnifying glass again, and although this novel didn't blow me away like We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is still a better book than most people can ever hope to write. When she describes the difference between the feeling of being herself and the shock of seeing a photo of herself I wanted to shout "Yes!", she had described it so perfectly.

Two more for my list, which grows faster than a zombie epidemic.

Or a vampire infestation.

[Then Chloe blew out the candle flame and leaned closer, speaking in a whisper only I could hear. Over her shoulder I noticed that the shadows seemed to be moving of their own accord.]

There's a party going on nearby. Wanna go? I know some people who are dying to meet you.
Undying, more like. I would - I love parties in France - but I told my cat I'd be home in time to make her a hot water bottle. Plus my helicopter pilot's been waiting patiently. One of the perks of being an international author.

Shapes and ghostly pale faces faded in and out of the shadows beyond the table. They seemed disappointed.

Living forever could be fun. But my cat ... I guess I'll just have to live forever through my words. I learnt my lesson from Highlander.

You can buy Chloe's book Darkly Dreaming and follow Chloe on her website or Twitter. Chloe is planning a celebratory giveaway - check her Facebook page for details.


Dodgy Ratings


Writers work with words (including alliteration), yet we also look at numbers a lot - sales, ROI on advertising, ratings and so on. All authors know how much pain Amazon's review system can be, with legitimate reviews being deleted, threats to the authors that Amazon will close our accounts and not telling us why, while obviously-fake reviews stay there forever (even when the review is random text put together by a bot, or the book review says "the book did not arrive"!)

Goodreads suffers a lot of this too. Pros - Goodreads don't delete reviews often. Cons - Goodreads don't delete things which are probably fake, either! A number of authors have experienced fake ratings on Goodreads recently - "reader" accounts which only seem to post 1* ratings on certain books, with no comment or review.

I've seen other authors suffer this, and recently got in touch with Goodreads about one of my books, just to see what they did with accounts that don't seem to be real, or really reviewing books. The answer is - nothing! Sigh. Best not to look at the reviews and ratings sometimes! (Also: Goodreads is owned by Amazon, but their 5* rating systems mean different things.)

Just for information, this is an email I sent Goodreads recently:

Summary: Potential abuse of the ratings system


In the past I have encountered one (or more) people who seem to have targeted books and abused rating systems. I've seen this on Amazon and other sites, and it always has the same pattern:

- Minimal profile set up. No image, or a fake stock image, that may not even match the profile details.
- The only interaction with the site is to leave a 1* review of one of my books (or another author's) in order to bring the average score down.
- There is never a review attached, or anything to justify the score, or show that these are opinions of different people.
- The review is never a verified purchase (where these systems are used, such as Amazon) - and the name is never anyone I sent an ARC to.
- The profile is then just abandoned with that one rating left affecting overall scores.

Some time later another account is set up which follows the same pattern, though may use a different location, name, sex, and interests.

Past investigations from vendors/sites with access to activity reports have suggested they weren't real accounts used by individuals, but were spoof ones created purely with the intention of manipulating scores on another book. I was told it could be an account set up with random ratings, just to look real so it can be used for some other scam. Or even that it might be an author who writes in the same genre and wants to abuse rating systems to lower scores for books seen as competition, as possibly happened here (I really hate to imagine this is true - all the authors I know support each other). Chances are it is not a real person who has read the book in question, it is all just about rating system abuse.

I recently noted two accounts on Goodreads that seemed to match the warning criteria above. Goodreads can check the access and determine if these are real accounts or spoof accounts, and I'd be grateful if you could do that. 
Only one rating, no review, targeting on of my books.
Presumably a false profile image.
Only one rating, no review, targeting on of my books.
No profile image.

I could be wrong, but preliminary evidence makes these look suspicious, so I'd appreciate it if you could investigate and take any appropriate actions. Real accounts, and real opinions, are fine. I have no problem with that. But spoof accounts created purely to abuse rating systems are another matter entirely.

Yours faithfully,
Karl Drinkwater

Goodreads' reply:

Thank you for contacting us about this, though we sincerely apologize for the delayed response.  We looked carefully at the accounts you mentioned on the admin side, but they didn't raise any of our standard red flags for illegitimacy.  It also doesn't look like these members are breaking any of our rules.  Given this, we won't be able to remove the accounts from the site, as we're only able to take action when a member has violated our Terms of Use in some way.

However, if you see any further suspicious activity from these members, please feel free to email and we'll be happy to look into the accounts again.

The Goodreads Team

To which I added:

Okay, thanks for checking anyway. I would have at least thought the first account broke the rule “You agree that any User Content that you post does not and will not violate third-party rights of any kind, including without limitation any Intellectual Property Rights” – his photo is even watermarked as copyright to a photographer, and is obviously just the results of a Google image search. If he’d bought rights to the image the watermark would have been removed, so that’s infringing content.
Best wishes,
Most people can spot a fake review

I'd also reported a bot/software account to them, and am not surprised to see it is still active, despite Goodreads saying they had investigated it:

Dear Goodreads, this is possibly a bot account - the reviews posted by "Stability Test Account" are all garbled random strings of text, for example this one says "P,9[k opp aww5'q see; ttyl8fr wgww Ed m g bx+ xxou :) t ,wwwl.p..z c1(".
I'm sure you'll agree that is not a proper review. This usually occurs when a bot is being used to create an account (random ratings and reviews, many friend requests sent out so some get accepted etc)

Oh well!

Readers: I'll just keep writing the books and being intensely grateful to everyone that takes time to rate my books on Goodreads. I don't care what the rating is as long as it is real (even better when there are a few words to show the person actually read the book!) By the way, if you read my work and have a Goodreads account, please do pop along to my profile and add a rating to any of my books that you've read - you can do it all from one screen. You don't have to write anything (unlike Amazon), though you are welcome to add comments. Thank You!

Authors: do any of you get these weird accounts dropping a score bomb then sitting their forever, inert? Any good examples of score trolling or manipulation? Ideas on why it occurs?


Look After Yourself - Health And Sitting

This is not the recommended sitting position

We all know that sitting too much is bad for us:
This applies to any desk job. And for writers, that's most of our time.

Some people turn to standing desks as an alternative (you can read about it here and here).

This was a "standing desk" setup I made in my old workplace (when I was working for an organisation). I was the only person stood up in a huge open-plan office. But it was comfortable and fun, and I could display my trophies for being an awesome librarian. Note the use of the mouse in my left hand, to prevent a recurrence of RSI in my right.

Even without a standing desk, there's lots you can do if you are a writer. Are you dictating a scene? Are you proofing your audio book and listening to the chapters sent back by your narrator? Are you listening to MP3s of a computer voice reading out your draft chapters as part of your editing process? For all of those, and more: do it standing, or (even better) walk around slowly.

After all, standing permanently is not ideal. Standing all the time is bad. Sitting all the time is bad. It's balance we need. That's why I stood in my employer's workplace, but worked sat down at home, rather than standing all the time.

Also - make sure you get up regularly for a stretch, a walk, a glass of water, a run; take a cup of tea into the garden and smell the flowers; do a few sit-ups or press-ups before going back to your desk. It all helps. But please avoid sitting still in one position for hours every day. The damage from a sedentary lifestyle is slow and long-term. Don't let it creep up on you.


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