Before there were any Verses, there were only writers. Writers ready to take on the challenge of writing not just one world, but six different universes, each containing their own stories creating the narrative tapestry of Verses.
It’s the narrative team that makes all of this possible. Three writers, Jody, Eleanore, and Michael have devoted themselves full-time to making and stewarding Verses stories and lore.
Now it’s time to get to know them better.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I love world building, it may be my favorite part of the writing experience and I feel very lucky to be working in a setting like Verses that offers both a rich foundation to build upon and an immense amount of flexibility to create the worlds and tell the stories that inspire me. I’ve particularly enjoyed the process we’ve used to generate the individual CYOA stories for this project. It’s both inspiring and challenging to try to base an entire world on a single image and then convey its flavor to the reader in something like 1,100 words, but it’s really satisfying.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> The world building in Verses started with Jody creating the framework and working with Alex to describe these six unique spaces for imaging and creating stories. I wasn’t yet part of the company and when I came on it was such a luxury to have that coherent and elegant structure to start from.
The idea was to keep the vision of each Verse broad and loose enough to be inclusive of a huge range of stories, but planned well enough to get the benefits of the constraints that come from having specific physics that shape reality. We jumped into writing with things still in a fluid state, where the world was somewhat moldable and we explored the possibilities as we went along.
I’ve done world building for tabletop RPG settings, but this was different and more immersive. I created many different characters and had to imagine their lives, motivations, and be in the world with them more deeply. There were Verses I felt I only vaguely understood, and I think we all felt intimidated by Commedia.
After we finished our first round of stories and NFTs, we did a Writers’ Workshop where we as a team got to collaboratively refine the worlds of the Verses setting, which was amazing. One of the many things I love about the framework Jody created is how much room there is to be free in one’s imagination, but also enough logical design to have support. It turned out we all collaborated excellently together, and by the end we each commented on how we felt we could write for any Verse because we understood them so much better.
Some people balk at the idea of rules and structure, because they think it crushes creativity, but I find the opposite is true here. By knowing how things work, I can play more easily, because I don’t have to think about every detail as I go and reinvent the wheel. Also, having a logic behind the reality of the world allows me to make it feel believable when I break the rules intentionally, because both the reader and I have an understanding of them.
I love my team, the diversity of writing voices, and the creative leadership that Jody has provided. This has been a privilege, as well as hard work and fun.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> It’s pretty humbling to be trusted with, honestly.
My story of getting involved with Many Hands is that I randomly saw my old friend Dan Burdick post that his company was looking for people, and I had been out of work for some time because of how the pandemic affected the hospitality business. So I sent him a DM, and said “you should hire me.” Luckily, it just sort of turned out that my qualifications and chops were accurate to a couple of needs that the company wanted fulfilled, and I guess, over time, the stuff that I have produced has proven to be of a high enough quality that they decided to keep me around. I still get the occasional technical writing assignment, too, you know, so it isn’t all fun and games. A lot of it is fun and games, though.
As for the mechanical elements, it was pretty clear from the beginning, working from the art repository, that there was a LOT of different stuff, and so in order to take advantage of this huge quantity of incredible pieces, that the setting was going to have to go wide. Also, at that time, the prototypical concept for the game was rather different than what we are working on now, more of a classic hard TCG model, and so the big question, looking at like 300 pieces of art that range from landscapes and watercolors to highly figurative spaceships, dragons, talking mice, etc, is “What kind of imaginary place, what world, lets all these, and by extension, anything else we come up with sensibly exist on the same play space and interact with one another?”
The answer is, well, they exist in stories. So Verses, from its name, to the kind of fundamental physics and principles of our places, is an IP about stories and storytelling, and the commitment to finding creative solutions over resorting to violence that has always been an overarching value of our company’s philosophical stance plays right into that.
So, Alex and I got to sit down one day, and just talk about all the possible kinds of stories we could come up with, and maybe see what kind of patterns, or discernible buckets they would fit into, and outside of the very obvious ones like “this is the hi-tech place, this is the spooky place” and so on, some of the other, less traditionally recognizable spaces came into being as a home for something like a superhero story, or an alternate history, or even a romance novel. We concluded that pretty much everything we could think of fit, at least somewhat neatly, into 6 possible categories, and that from a game design perspective, 6 is a workable number, so I think we were happy with it.
From there, I just always noodle about stuff, and started thinking of colors, arrangements, pairings, the math that comes out when you have 6 different identities interacting with one another, and so on, sort of like some of the mechanical elements of what the 5 colors mean for Magic: the Gathering. What I came up with is the axis system which is more or less the basis for the franchise’s cosmological architecture, and then started applying that to some of the criteria that we wanted to meet in terms of art selection for launch.
I was also blessed with the recruitment of some incredible teammates, whose refinements, contributions, and insights into what at the end of the day is something I consider to be pretty intuitive, or at least, you know, the result of rational inquiry, has been where the real scratch cooking takes place. I have a few characters that I think are very cool, and that I hope excite the audience as much as they do me, but I also think I largely got the lion’s share of the pieces in the initial launch that fit into some of the more obvious buckets. Watching Mike and Elle do their wizardry, especially with stuff that seems so far from my comfort zone, like the more abstract Kaleidoscope-type pieces, for example, is just one of the best and most thrilling work experiences I have ever had.
To put it in hospitality terms, I’m very lucky and humbled to have leadership that provided me with an open license to stock the bar with whatever I wanted, and two colleagues that use those ingredients to make some of the best tasting concoctions around, that I would NEVER have dreamed up myself. I pretty much just tried to set the bar up in ways that have a type of functional elegance, and allow for ease of use, and I think that I was mostly successful in doing so. Hopefully, some of my recipes are delightful to our readers and fans as well.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> Oh, I’m definitely a gardener, with some hybrid elements. For flash fiction, like we’ve been doing here, especially when we’re writing to a strict deadline and I’m under the gun, I find it much easier to write almost stream of consciousness and then go back to edit and maybe rework a little after I’ve got the bulk of the story in place. Longer works require a little more structure, but I still prefer to let the story largely tell itself, rather than force it to fit a strict outline.
For the CYOA stories I haven’t done any outlining at all, I’ve just tried to look at the artwork, think about the general state the readers are in (How’s their Safety? Is their Energy really that low!?) and go. The Verse and the art’s title also influence the content, of course. Occasionally, I’ll have an idea about the general choices I want to give the readers and that will act as kind of a landmark in the distance that I’m shooting for, but that’s as close to outlining as I’ve gotten.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> We’re writing what is known as flash fiction, in other words really short stories and often on a tight deadline. For me, this has forced me to tailor my writing process for success in that space. I used to be someone who would outline to track story arcs, then write a lot, and finally edit back.
For this, I don’t have time to outline, and I find that the story is much better if I let it flow organically. This is especially true when the story has to lead to four meaningful choices for our readers; the outcome of which will determine the resolution. I have to keep my mind open to many possibilities and be prepared for any of those directions.
My stories are character driven, with the Verse itself treated as a character. My job is both to teach readers about the Verses setting as well as to provide compelling characters for them. Instead of writing towards a specific goal, my stories must illuminate possibilities where the reader has some agency in the narrative. That’s very unusual, and my process is more intuitive as a result.
I spend time going on a walk and noodling in my mind about the character, the setting, and the Verse to explore a lot of different threads before I write. Sometimes there’s no time and I just have to put words to the page. Either way, I try to just let it flow without worrying about the length. After I have about two pages, sometimes even three, I review and cut. The story is always better for this, and to keep it short I’m forced to identify only the most essential components. With practice, I’ve gotten to a point where my first draft comes out faster and needs less aggressive cutting. I’m lucky that I have such talented teammates to edit my work. Alex is also a fabulous editor, and we enjoy it when he has time to work directly with us. Editing is key for me.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> I’d say that my writing process is informed by my academic experience. In the last two years of earning a humanities BA, you’re essentially just taking multiple classes that each require some pretty large-scale writing projects (and, in my case, some in Spanish which is not my first language). Graduate school is more of the same, coupled with lesson planning and providing meaningful feedback on something like 50 students’ writing. So, I’m never not thinking about some project or another. Walking from building to building between classes? Thinking about writing. Standing in line to pay for lunch? Thinking about a project. That’s a habit that I don’t think I could unlearn even if I wanted to. In this case, though, it’s a lot more fun than trying to think of something insightful that nobody in 150 years has said before about Jane Eyre.
I guess in the direct kind of dichotomy that the question poses between planning and organic growth, my functional style is a hybrid. There is, as I said, a significant amount of planning that takes place before I ever set pen to paper, but that planning itself is mostly pretty free-form, especially given the creative nature of the work I’m doing on Verses. A lot of ideas and possibilities get planted, and the ones that show signs of life get fertilized with whatever media I might be consuming, conversations with the team who always give great feedback, maybe watered with a little cold beer to see which ones grow up strong and healthy. Once that’s done, though, trimming the right pieces and arranging them into a nice bouquet or centerpiece is a much more exact and precise kind of work that very much resembles the organizational and technical decisions I’d make when writing literary scholarship. Is that a really long and boring answer? I hope not; I love this question.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I guess it depends on the criteria you’re using. I’ve been writing stories, and developing worlds and scenarios for tabletop RPGs since I was about 9. Professionally, I’ve written a lot of white papers, internal documentation, bug reports, web copy, and that sort of thing over the last 25 years or so, but this is my first opportunity to really write fiction in a full time position.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> You might be surprised that when I entered 2nd grade as a kid I was way behind in my language and math skills, so they sent me to the special ed classroom for half of the year until I caught up. I started out in Montessori school, where I focused on drawing and physical skills, so I had some catching up to do. Once I started really reading I fell in love with storytelling and writing, hell with language in all its nuance and complexity.
By 5th grade, I wrote my first sci-fi story. It was an entry for a flash fiction writing competition, and I have vivid memories of laboring over each word and sentence to pack it with the most meaning I could within the 200 word limit. It was about a young girl in an underground community working to survive a world collapse and wondering what real sunlight would feel like. It did very well, but I was so miserable at home I didn’t see what that success might mean.
In my junior year of High School I had another chance to exercise my creative writing skills for my end of year project. I wrote a story about a woman facing her internalized trauma by isolating herself deep in the wilderness until she had a harrowing vision that gave her release. That also got me lots of accolades by my teacher who explicitly told me to consider a career as a writer. Again, I was a deeply depressed, angry teen who just couldn’t imagine a world where I had success or purpose.
I spent a lot of my adult life exploring, seeking, making mistakes, and healing before I found my way back to writing. When Alex brought me into this project, it was the perfect time. The pandemic had killed the small business I had with my husband, and we were reinventing ourselves in a new state. I’d been thinking about writing a novel, and had done a lot of academic writing in the form of research papers for my historical reenactment hobby.
I never thought of myself as a writer, not as an identity or purpose, but I’ve always found outlets for writing because I love it. To finally land in it as a professional job has been incredibly rewarding.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> Haha, well, I think the first known example of my writing is the classic, Me and Mom, written when I was 6. That was quickly followed at age 7 by Lloyd the Dinosaur, an incredible story of friendship and time travel.
But seriously, reading and writing have been a part of my life forever. I think if I had been born 10 years later, there’s a solid chance that I end up doing graphic design, which is sort of the other end of my fascination with the relationship between word and image, or, signifier and signified as we would say in lit crit. However, fine art was the only recourse for people with that dual interest when I was younger. Photoshop wasn’t a thing, the only people with access to CAD were architects and engineers, and so on, so my talent kinda got funneled into this “more potentially lucrative” path of the writing side of things.
So, in a kind of continuation of my answer to the previous question, I don’t think there’s a time I can remember when I “started writing,” and I don’t think I’ve probably ever “stopped writing” since. In my delinquent 20’s I did some writing on other peoples’ property, for example, and I even write when I sleep. You should see some of my dreams; they’re great!
This also feels like a place where the people who have been instrumental in my relationship with writing through the years deserve a shout out. Cleo Hudson, rest in peace, really made me believe I could study this topic and do it professionally long before anyone else. Dr. David Mazella, the greatest mentor and supporter of a weird kid like myself who he never asked to come walking into his office, for his counsel, feedback, and guidance. Dr. Anadeli Bencomo who convinced me that I could, and should, in fact, write in Spanish. And, of course, the subject of my first book, my dear mom, who unflappingly and enthusiastically supports everything I do, be it writing or not.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I’m really trying not to be too derivative, so I actively do my best to not think about other writers when I write. I can’t really point to anyone and say, “I’d try to write dialog like her!”, or anything like that, but I think that everything we read, all the movies we watch, the RPGs we play in, etc., that it all goes into our consciousness on some level. I’m sure that my writing is influenced by my favorite authors and even those that maybe aren’t my favorites but who’ve really mastered some element of storytelling.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> This is a hard question to answer. I have no doubt that there are writers I’ve read avidly who influence me, but identifying them is hard because I’ve never set out to mimic any particular style. I’ve had my own voice since I was in Elementary School.
To make comparisons between my writing and someone else’s I would need to be objective enough to actually analyze that. I’m more curious if anyone who reads my work makes those connections, because they’re probably better positioned to see it than I am.
As a teen I read all the big names in sci-fi like Arthur C. Clarke, Niven, and Heinlein. Then I wanted to read works by women out of frustration from lack of representation, turning to Marion Zimmer Bradley, Elizabeth Moon, Anne McCaffrey, Octavia Butler, and Lois McMaster Bujold. These writers shaped my psyche through imagination, and no doubt influenced my own prose. New writers like Nnedi Okorafor have been an inspiration for me as well.
My writing tends to be really descriptive because I love details, both reading them in other works and imagining them for my own. One of the things I’ve had to learn is how to use less to tell the same story, to be selective about the details. That’s been a real challenge. I’m still maturing as a writer, so I expect my voice will change over time with the intensity of practice working for Many Hands provides. My teammates are my biggest inspiration right now.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> Oh man, the “anxiety of influence” question. It’s hard to say what kind of techniques and ideas have shown up where inside my own approaches to fiction, especially in an environment like Verses that has so much room for so many different kinds of stories and expressions. A veritable pastiche of styles, is the ambitious answer that I hope is true.
As far as who I hope my work gets compared to, in the short story format, and I’ll just list these chronologically so as not to indicate bias, Hawthorne, Borges, Philip K. Dick, are the true masters imo. Of course, Roy Huggins for his amazing character work on Maverick and The Rockford Files (though it’s probably pretty easy to look like a great character dude when you have the incomparable Jim Garner acting your stories out).
As far as what I have read the most, it’s varied over time, but it’s probably Hawthorne. I find myself going back to it pretty frequently. Some very interesting stuff there, questions about American identity that are pertinent and provocative 200 years later, and a florid approach to the language in terms of creating mood with word choice, with elision, with ambiguity, too many good things to list.
For more contemporary stuff, genre stuff that looks more like Verses, I think James Islington’s Licanius trilogy is absolutely masterfully executed. That guy is an outliner, not a gardener, I guarantee it. S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, and Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree are some works from the last 10 years that I’d consider essential reads for people operating in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror/genre fic space. Did I avoid the question? Good.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> Eleanore and I are married and we’ve run a business together, but it was the only time I’ve had the chance to work with Jody and Ash in person. After the isolation of the pandemic it was really great to be able to all sit down together and draw on a white board and brainstorm over beers and fajitas. It was a fantastic experience and I think it really cemented the wonderful collaboration that we share as a team.
I’m a big proponent of remote work and I think there’s little need to go into an office for the sort of entirely digital work that we do. That being said, the focused nature of the workshop, really kind of a writers’ retreat, allowed us to be very creative and get a lot of quality work done in a short period of time.
I expect that you could achieve similar results with video conferencing, but I think that it can be hard to carve out that kind of focused time without the break from routine. I would definitely do it again!
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> Bringing the entire writing team together for a week to create, laugh, and play in person was amazing. I gained new lifelong friends as we made the pleasant discovery that we all really liked one another as people, not just coworkers. In a lean startup, these relationships are so important because the work is also personal, for everyone.
We set up two giant whiteboards in the living room that we could use to brainstorm ideas in different formats simultaneously, which was terrific. We took pictures of every board when it was full before we erased it, so when we were done we had filled out 21 boards with everything from a deep dive into each Verse, charting characters and long story arcs, story chronology, and emergent lore.
This was a hugely generative experience that’s been paying dividends ever since. The workshop facilitated internal documentation about the setting that helped the game designers with their work, and to make the transition into Point of View stories as a way to develop the characters and settings in between NFT sales.
I also learned that Jody is a fine cook with great taste in tattoos. We played video games and board games on our breaks from work, because we all love games, and forged a lasting bond as a team.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> First of all, let me just extend a heartfelt thanks to Eleanore and Michael for the gracious and exceptionally generous offer to host us, at that time still mostly strangers, in their lovely home. Outside of the work we accomplished, which I’ll get to in a minute, it was just super great to get to meet people in person, commiserate, participate in some conviviality, especially on the heels of having largely not left my own home in Atlanta for 2 years during COVID. None of those things that got me feeling maybe more like an actual human being again post-pandemic would have been possible without my colleagues offering to share their personal space.
Once everyone was there, I think it was a very quick uptake into a mode of genuine camaraderie. One interesting detail that I feel like is an apt metaphor for how the team works is that all of us have different dietary restrictions– I’m kosher, Ash is vegetarian (which is, I guess, necessarily kosher), and Elle has a number of allergies that she and Michael both work around full-time. To see the team come together with creative options that were satisfying and tasty while making considerations for the special needs of each individual is a really cool example of the underlying commitments and dynamic that Narrative has.
Outside of the massive amount of generative work that we did to clarify some of the less-defined details of the various Verses, we plotted a timeline, assigned and planned for the next release, and so on. But on top of the visible work, which is all pretty rigorously documented, and might be a fun release or share at some point in the future, we did a lot of media sharing, and talking about cool things that we want to do potentially in the ARG kind of format. There were also the lovely evening walks in the beautiful Arizona springtime, and of course some gaming sessions. Oh, and Ash and I got matching tattoos on a whim.
Overall, I can’t imagine having had a better experience overall, and I think that a lot of the consolidated front that you see our team put forward is the direct result of the narrative summit. Working remotely is great, and I am constantly impressed by how much we, and everyone at Many Hands is able to accomplish, but in some ways, the get-together really demonstrated some of the upsides of having actual face-time with people. Again, many thanks to Elle and Mike for their extraordinary generosity, without which none of these awesome results would have been possible.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> Writing these stories has made me appreciate the art even more than I had previously. I pay a lot more attention to the details in artwork now, as I often find something that’s the key to my whole story there. The art really tells a story if I’m paying attention, and it becomes a synthesis of what the artist intends to convey, passed through the filter of my own experiences, interests, and the larger context of the Verses setting as a whole.
In “The Wasteland Express” for example, I got the impression of a place in Proxima that had elements that were higher tech than our own world, but in general was much less hospitable and perhaps even post-apocalyptic. When I zoomed in I saw that the humanoid figure in the foreground was carrying some sort of staff or rod, not a walking stick, but something with a greater function, either symbolic or otherwise. It sparked my imagination and gave me Hunter’s command staff and then everything else fell into place from there. It’s just a really fun way to start the creative process and allows me to engage with the art on a different level.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> This is probably my favorite part of our project, and one of the more challenging aspects.
Visual art tells a story. Every piece of art we view gives us information that can inspire our singular imagination, while expressing the artist’s own internal experience. We’re collaborating, viewer and artist, in a story that’s potentially unique for everyone. I come from a family of artists and my Mom teaches art to this day. We love to get together to visit museums and art dealers for the joy of discussing our interpretations and what moves us.
Now I get to take that to another level by building a character, setting, and even an entire culture in response to the visual work of art. I study the piece and look for details that hint at more that I can use to expand my interpretation. Sometimes other team members will have added seeds of ideas for consideration, or the name of the story has been predetermined by Dan and Jody, and I work to include those in the story.
This process always inspires me to come up with something I might not have come to on my own. Even though I’ve never met the artist whose work I’m building on, I feel like I’m in a dialogue with them and that the work I do is deeply collaborative.
For example, there’s a piece by Pat Morrisey-Lewis called the Harvest that I got to write for. Dan Burdick had suggested the idea of a community of people living inside a giant sea creature, but on the whole that didn’t work for me. However, in examining the art I also saw imagery that could easily express an internal biological environment. I wanted to tell a story where the people ventured inside a giant sea creature, but through magical and mutually beneficial means.
I was very drawn to the character’s eyes and alien facial features, as well as the detail of the strange thing the figure appears to be harvesting from the water. I was so intrigued by imagining what kind of genetic lineage might lead to that kind of humanoid that I invented an entire world to support them. The Big Wet is a huge water world with an ecosystem and social structure that I keep coming back to and feel like I could write in forever. The detail of what was being harvested became central to the story and to the economy of the world.
This is a rich, joyful, and sometimes scary process that I feel privileged to participate in.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> It’s a really cool experience, especially considering the quality and range of the art. You know, any author would be thrilled to have a cover for their book by Pat Lewis, or Brian Snoddy– these guys are absolute titans in the industry, and I get to not only have their art, but also interpret it. It’s an interesting jump-start to the creative process, of course, and can get the wheels turning, or the seeds sprouting, to continue with the garden metaphor, pretty quickly.
The flip side to that coin, though, is that there’s some added pressure, some significant feeling of commitment or responsibility to come with something that these great artists are going to find to be up to snuff, to represent their work well. In general, I think we’ve done a great job of that, and all the feedback I’ve seen from our artists has thankfully been extremely positive.
I do tend to think of most of writing as a conversation, though, with everything else that’s out there, and with history, you know depending on whether you want to take a more deconstructionist approach, or one that uses historicity and contextualization in that way– so this isn’t really different than the “anxiety of influence” question. It just happens that the people who are my influences in this case are these incredibly renowned, contemporary producers in the genre space, who have access to my email address if I do a terrible job with their work. Whereas, if I get Van Gogh 100% wrong, he can’t exactly write me a nasty letter, you know.
Overall, what an absolute privilege, even if it does mean a little extra worry about whether you’re really crushing it or not.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I definitely found it to be more challenging than writing in third person limited! I’ve been GMing tabletop RPGs for over 40 years, so I’ve got some experience with telling my players what their characters are seeing and experiencing, but that happens in real time and you get immediate feedback from your players and they control their characters’ reactions. Writing a story that attempts to immerse the reader as if they are the protagonist, or at least an important participant, when you’re also writing their dialog and telling them what their responses are, is a much different beast! Overall, I’ve had fun with the format, but I think it’d be very hard to keep it up for anything longer than a shorter, short story or flash fiction.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> The most technically difficult thing for me was just to keep things in the present tense when I’m so used to writing in the past tense. We chose that 2nd person structure in order to place the focus of the story on the reader, making them the main character. Trying to tell a story that was revelatory about the character in the art without being able to write from their perspective was a massive creative challenge.
Our stories have to elucidate about the Verse, the specific setting in that Verse, the relevant cultural context, and the characters involved in order to offer four meaningful choices for our readers to engage with. And, we had to do all of that in one work of flash fiction where the reader - not any of these other subjects - was the main character.
Whew! That was incredibly difficult. It’s been a relief to switch to point of view stories where our characters within the worlds we’ve introduced get to be the main focus and we can develop longer narrative threads through connected “chapters” of a larger book. I think you can expect that we’ll be playing with the format when we go back to a story structure that leads to reader choices, instead of sticking to the 2nd person narrative as our default.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> Honestly, this was the most difficult part of the initial launch for me. As a guy who is an active reader, and who is trained in literary criticism, I like to think I have picked up a toolkit, a bag of tricks, that range from the top-level sort of organizational arrangement, to stuff that’s very discrete, individual word or sentence kind of scope, and very few of them translate well to the second person perspective.
It presents a set of unique challenges in terms of managing gender and voice as well, though having a team to proof and edit catches most if not all of that before it falls through the cracks and gets published. But, you know, more generally, a lot of the repository that you draw upon as an author is stuff that you have read, things you know and love. Of the literature that’s out there, not even just of the stuff I have read, but like, in pretty much the whole field, you have the famous CYOA novels from the 80’s, and one book by Nuruddin Farah, called Maps, that are written in second person. That’s a tiny fraction to take inspiration from.
If you were looking for great style, awesome execution, from all-time greats, or even from contemporaries, and the topic was skateboarding, there’s thousands and thousands of hours of footage, new stuff coming out every day to feed into your own process of being creative in the space. There’s a lot less footage for tricks you could do on unicycles, and maybe that’s because it’s just not as popular, but I genuinely think it’s because there are just less tricks you can actually DO on unicycles. In any case, I pretty comfortably ride a skateboard; not so much a unicycle.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> This is one of my favorite parts of that format. Especially as someone new to writing fiction in this kind of capacity I really enjoyed getting the immediate response from my readers. Seeing where they thought the story should go was always interesting. Sometimes I’d think I knew how the vote would turn out and they’d surprise me! I really like the idea that fiction can be a collaborative act between someone who is primarily the writer and a group of people who are primarily readers. I think it keeps things fresh and creates a level of engagement that might be harder to achieve when there’s more distance between the two.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> This is where a lifetime of tabletop roleplaying games showed itself to be terrific training grounds. In tabletop RPG’s the players and the GM are shaping the narrative together through an ongoing negotiation where the GM presents a scenario with many choices and the players choose a direction that may, or may not, conform to what the GM expected and planned for.
I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and I have a ton of respect for people who make running a game look easy, while making the world feel open and full of possibilities. It’s easy for players to feel railroaded on the course of an adventure if their choices aren’t really representing divergent directions, but just a thin veneer of difference in appearance that fails to cover up the fact that anything they choose will lead to the same outcome.
Our storytelling is intended to be a collaboration with our readers, where their choices get to have real impact in the way we develop the worlds we’re building. This means we can’t plan the resolution to a story that offers meaningful choices until after the votes are in. We had to be prepared to write a 500 to 1000 word second half of a story within about 6 hours after voting was over.
Just like a GM has to have some idea about the path that player choices may lead to, even if it isn’t fully developed, we had to know our threads well enough to write the finish in a hurry. It was very hard sometimes, and involved a lot of late nights. Yet, the time pressure also offered tremendous creative fuel. There was no time to waffle, which sometimes made it easier to write.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> It’s a double-edged sword. One upside to having the fandom participate is that you can be relatively certain that they are going to get an outcome they are happy with. Also, it can be a factor in community building, you know, for people to debate about what they think is the best course of action and why, and during the initial launch we had a number of moments in the Discord that looked like exactly that. Very fun moments, especially from the privileged position of knowing what each of the 4 choices will mean while everyone else has to guess. Even with the other authors’ stories, if you have access to the ND documentation, part of the writing process is talking about what the epilogue, what the results of each choice will be. So during editing and revision, unless you do like our Ops Manager Jed Dolbeer and deliberately and diligently avoid spoilering yourself, you know what the author has in mind while other people are talking about the potential impacts of the choice they are advocating. The fans got it right a lot of the time, but in other cases were as far from the mark as we could have imagined.
The downside is you have to come up with 4 endings for every story, and each one needs to feel like a reasonable possibility in order for the process to work. I can tell you that I am probably guilty at a few points of having 1 of the 4 be something that was kinda just a mail-it-in option that I didn’t reasonably expect anyone to vote for, or maybe in other situations a little less distinct from another one of the choices than I would have considered ideal. Coming up with a single good ending is a pretty challenging element of writing a good story, so the added burden of doing it 4 times is definitely noticeable.
At the end of the day, though, I think it’s a really neat mechanic, and I think there’s a call for this kind of thing from communities in the space. In MtG, one of the most popular things of all time that they have done is the “community creates a card” thing; whole IP’s like FRWC and WAGDIE are based on the notion of shared creative spaces. If this story mechanic is successful at making Verses the kind of place where fans can feel like active participants, whose opinions and ideas matter, then it’s definitely worth. Optimally, I’d hope for other, less laborious solutions to creating that level of participation and excitement, but I’d say this was a successful experiment, if one that looks a lot simpler in concept than in execution.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> That’s a tough one! I really like them all, but Proxima may be my favorite. I really enjoy that sense of almost this world, but not this world in important ways. Kaleidoscope and Gloom are probably the runners up. That’s funny though, because I haven’t written anything in Kaleidoscope yet, I’ll have to reassess once I do. I’m also just about to write my first piece in Commedia, so we’ll see what impact that has too!
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> Picking favorites is usually impossible for me. I love variety and have poured a lot into stories throughout the Verses, but two have consistently thrilled me to imagine myself exploring, those are Kaleidoscope and Fantasia. Jody was spot on.
I adore the fantasy genre and all the creative opportunities within that space, especially because I think our culture has largely interpreted it too rigidly from the lens of romanticizing a Western European Medieval aesthetic, due to powerhouses like Tolkien who really built our modern conceptions about fantasy storytelling. I think the genre has a lot of open space to play in when we free our imagination to see magic as a tool that can shape cultures in lots of different ways depending on the ground in which we plant the seed.
I’m having a ton of fun building the world of O’ooryu (The Big Wet) where an alien species on an alien planet has their own culture that arose from being from a world with magic as the most potent part of what shapes reality. That said, I also enjoy that the fantasy genre is so derivative of itself. I love stories about dragons and never tire of stoic and noble elves. We repeat these tropes because they capture our imagination so well and that retelling makes them relatable.
In Kaleidoscope, I get to explore my other favorite thing; the intangibility of the human psyche and what it might mean for that to shape our physical realities without any measurable physics like gravity. It’s a psychedelic dream world where you could find yourself riding a giant cat on a rainbow in a starscape. How would social animals like humans form communities in that environment? How does consensual reality play a role in this changeable place where each individual subconscious affects that reality for those around them? What happens when someone can’t bury their subconscious, or what if they actually succeed?Writing for Kaleidoscope is all about exploring these kinds of questions for me, which I absolutely love to do.
I’m a huge fan of Robert Anton Wilson and the research that has been done into using psychedelics to help people reverse deep psychological patterns, like addiction to alcohol among many others. I’ve also had incredible personal experiences through a variety of meditative practices and generally maintain a commitment to ongoing personal growth. Much as I love Fantasia, if I were to be from a particular Verse it would probably be Kaleidoscope. It feels very homey to me.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> Oh, this one is a chuckle moment for the whole team, because everyone knows what I’m gonna say. Elle has at least 2, and Michael is surprisingly hard to get a bead on, if he has a “favorite” at all.
But, you know, I listed Hawthorne, Borges, and Philip K. Dick as authors I’d hope to be compared to, and the connective tissue between those three corpuses of work, in spite of their wildly different approaches to setting, different amounts of magic or technology, different cultural assumptions, is the pervasive sense of impending dread. I think it’s also probably interesting to consider just how much of what happens in those works could reasonably be considered “non-violent,” because it’s more than you might think.
In 2022’s version of the genre game of “horror,” especially in film, over-the-top explicit gore has kind of taken the driver’s seat, because there’s this level of competition to outdo, to be more ridiculously grotesque than your predecessors, a game of brinksmanship, playing chicken with shock and titillation. For me, what’s far more compelling is existential horror, situations and feelings, and so this project’s space for “scary stories” is really a great fit.
Noir moods, rainy days, anonymous letters from unknown watchers, a map that always inexplicably brings you back to where you started, those kinds of things are the evocative elements that make my hair stand up. When I’m participating as a consumer of scary stuff, that’s what I’m looking for, not something that makes me cringe and say “ewww,” or turn my nose up.
So, yeah, Gloom. Easily my favorite. A wide open space where you can ask a lot of questions, and also maybe have to be okay with, maybe even come to pretty immediate grips with the fact that it fundamentally hinges on the premise that there might not even BE a suitable answer, a positive outcome. That’s a very real feeling in my personal experience.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> That’s another tough question! Eleanore’s “Tethered to Prophecy” is one that has really stuck with me. The premise is great, the reader’s responses were a lot of fun, and it really feels like what I would point to as an archetypical Kaleidoscope story in the best sense. Jody’s “Tod” and “Bitey” were also some of my favorites. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the two characters and particularly Tod Bitey the used boat salesman, now spiritual leader. I’m still hoping to hear more about Juston, the luckiest man alive (nudge, nudge!).
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> Dang, this is a tough one because we’re all such different writers in style and voice. I’ll say that Jody has done a ton of great worldbuilding with rich contributions to the lore of Verses that we’ve all used as jumping off points for our own storytelling. His writing generates curiosity and leaves me wanting to know more, and I’m particularly enjoying the way that the point of view format has allowed him to develop these vibrant characters in response to that curiosity.
The Toothtwig Tales series he’s started is just beautiful, and my current favorite from Jody. He wrote such a cozy family scene that revealed a lot about Al-Suyá as a father, while still dropping many intriguing clues about the mouse and the Bluemoat community that have me excited to read the next installment. Every setting Jody creates is inventive and offers something new to love, with Bluemoat being one of many.
Michael is also my favorite GM, and his capacity for creating compelling characters that are part of long story threads full of twists and turns is fantastic. I aspire to be that good. I find myself emotionally investing in the future of all of his characters and anxious to know where the plot will take them next.
This makes The Wasteland Express my current favorite by Michael, by a small margin since I love all of his stories. In this one he sets the stage for an elaborate exploration of time that may shape the future, introduces fun characters, and develops a dystopian setting that shows humanity continuing to strive together for something better in spite of living in the consequence of devastation.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> This one is easier to answer than I expected, after a quick glance back. “Too Much History” just has so many things to like about it.
First of all, it’s a fun and well-written piece that manages to feel full of wonder and excitement in spite of being mostly dialogue, and not a whole lot of snazzy action. To give a story that kind of buzz without resorting to stakes that are artificial, without leveraging duress or threat, is a high-tier expression of what Verses is all about.
Secondly, and, you know, not a thing that’s probably very obvious to people who are viewing the project from the outside, it just marks for me this moment when Eleanore became super locked-in. Commedia was always a tough cookie, but she jumped in to tackle it because it was sort of assigned to her as part of writing for Sarcasdrake. In this follow-up story, we get back to a place we’ve seen before, but it’s written with a style, that, much like the characters, has become more confident and comfortable, and clearly gets in touch with some of the most important concepts of our problem child Verse.
Third, and it’s something that is so admirable about Elle’s own persona, is the commitment to representation without turning it into spectacle. This is a core value of her worldview, and the poise and elegance with which she is able to create a role for Mitena, with accurate, subtle details, while not invoking the sort of offensive tropes that make up First Nations representations in so much of media, or ham-fistedly making it feel like the character’s cultural heritage is wedged in for some kind of credibility or quota is a really beautiful example of doing it right.
I also think that the names and ideas behind the 4 choices are so incredibly clever in the way that they represent our other spaces, filtered through the lens of Sanctuary’s culture, and are probably the 4 best choices of any set in the initial launch.
Overall, it’s just a really robust fleshing out of one of the core narrative threads of our world, and even just re-reading it now was an absolute delight. I don’t love the fact that Flies True seems to be biased against my Gloom baby, though, and have said as much to Elle herself. *wink wink*
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I think Proxima may be the easiest Verse for me. It’s familiar so I’ve got a foundation to work from, but it’s not really our Earth so I’m free to write stories that aren’t historically or scientifically accurate. Physics, technology and things work mostly the same way they do in the real world, but I don’t feel any need to research them to make sure that I have all the details correct. The same goes for history, but more so.
I’m a bit of a perfectionist and can get a little obsessed with things like that. Even in Proxima I can go down a rabbit hole over details that probably don’t matter to anyone but me. You don’t want to know how much time I spent researching and watching YouTube videos on how people assess and process roadkill for human consumption when I was thinking about the D-Road Surprise for the “Tales from the Food Cart” stories I’ve been working on! It’s a relief to let some of it go, while at the same time I can talk about real world objects like solar panels or cars and don’t need to explain what they are.
Gloom is a close contender. For some reason I find it easier to create fictitious creatures and characters in a dark and sort of horror tinged environment than I do in Fantasia. I also feel like it’s easier to create stories that have meaningful stakes in that kind of setting.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> Kaleidoscope for me, no doubt. I love how abstract and subjective that Verse can be. I’m a little surprised by how easy it is for me to visualize this Verse and get into the flow of a story set there.
I’m not a neurotypical human and have struggled both with ADD and a tendency to take people literally in my life. This caused a LOT of problems for me when I missed subtleties in communication where reading between the lines was more accurate than the actual words someone was saying. I worked really hard to understand the problem and what I needed to learn to avoid the conflicts that plagued me as a kid.
So, one might think that a setting where reality is highly subjective, fluid, and abstracted would be super challenging for me. At least, I expected it to play out that way. Instead, because I live in a world where I’m very aware of how unique everyone’s reality is, and that mine is in no way an accurate barometer of what others experience, writing in a setting where these differences get to interact and make stories is actually freeing for me.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> This may be a surprise, after hearing me wax poetic about Gloom, but for me it’s Fantasia.
It’s a space that’s incredibly familiar, and ubiquitous in terms of footage in popular culture. Like any writing, it’s a challenge to do it well, but I think readers have some predispositions and expectations in the Fantasia-type genre that makes it a little more forgiving than some others. You want it to make sense, to be coherent, but like the classic image of Merlin from Sword in the Stone, you can always just kinda wave the wand and go “MAGIC,” and off your dishes go, dancing into a suitcase that they’d never fit into. It’s a delightful, memorable moment that took a strong spark of creativity, but probably not as much legwork as in some other Verses. Of course, the best kind of speculative fiction has systems of magic that ask important questions about morals, trade-offs, epistemology, and so on, and if you wave the wand willy-nilly too often, your readers will turn on you. But you can just have these impossibly incredible moments without doing a bunch of research into photovoltaic elements, or the complexities of ceramics production that you need to do to feel informed enough to earn the same suspension of disbelief in a Synthex story.
Fantasia also just has such a wide range of stakes and tone, it feels really open in a way that some of the others don’t. Like in the example of the Bluemoat election and celebratory feast, or Scribs’ treatment of the reason that the books in the Infinite Library aren’t cataloged or organized, you have something that’s a very high register, light and breezy. On the other hand, you have this very elemental, planetary-level threat or even fundamental universal power thing that you see in Nefer-Ta and Dear People. None of those stories belong anywhere BUT Fantasia, though. You could say, “well Bluemoat is just closer to Commedia, and Dear People is closer to Gloom,” but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think all 4 of the stories I mentioned are centered quite clearly in Fantasia, and demonstrate the potential range that I am talking about as one of its key features that is really just not as present in Proxima, in Synthex.
I definitely also think writing for Gloom is something that comes naturally to me, but it’s much more emotionally taxing. That may have to do with the subject matter, or maybe it has to do with my own unique sort of attachment to it as a space and genre, but doing the Roydice/Selena/Crumbling Keep series, while obviously even informed by Fantasia-type elements, was a real rollercoaster. It’s about lost love, mistrust, symbols of office and power dynamics, vicious cycles, all these weighty things.
Doing Omni and Scribs, on the other hand, was fun and playful, even though it’s not all just making up silly fictional book titles. There’s real effort there in exploring a relationship, trying to find a tone in the voices that explains this unlikely friendship and endears readers to the odd couple. Still, if I know I am doing a Gloom piece, I’m starting the gardening process earlier than if I’m doing Fantasia. Same for Synthex, though that tends to be a lot more about going and reading up on stuff so I don’t blow my cover in the speculative scientific details.
Fantasia just seems to make the least demands in and of itself, so I find it the easiest to write.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I haven’t written anything in Commedia or Kaleidoscope yet and they both kind of intimidate me. I feel like I’ve got a solid handle on their flavor and structure, but they definitely seem the most challenging. They’re both more abstract, and Kaleidoscope has fewer cultural touchstones than the other Verses, or at least conventional touchstones. Of the two, Commedia seems slightly harder for me. I’ll be writing a story there soon, so we’ll see how it goes!
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> I haven’t yet written for Gloom, but I think that even after I do I’ll be able to say that Commedia is the hardest Verse for me to write in. As a result, I really like taking on stories that are set there. I enjoy the challenge and the way that I grow as a writer because of that.
The dialogue in Sarcasdrake was a big deal for me to come up with, because sarcasm isn’t easy to do well, and I felt intimidated by dialogue in general. Commedia is a Verse where it’s easy for people to make connections with one another and where the Verse is a self aware story. It’s a place where interactions are lower stakes because in general the consequences of misunderstanding aren’t as risky.
I have affection for Commedia, and I love the potential for unbridled chaos when you bring large populations of sentient beings together in a constantly shifting story like kids playing with bumper cars. I’m still trying to figure out how to fulfill the potential for silliness and humor that exist there, because my writing tends more towards the serious. I’m grateful for the challenge.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> It’s definitely Kaleidoscope. For starters, I know that Alex and Elle both have strong feelings about this Verse, and those are two people that I have deep respect for and deep commitments to, in terms of our shared vision of this project. So, there’s a little extra pressure to do it right.
I also mentioned earlier my interest in graphic design, and that’s a thing that I still participate in, just as a hobby now, and less than I used to. But Kaleidoscope, in its representation of abstraction and thought, symbols, hidden connections, all these things, feels to me like a place where it would be a lot easier for me to create some art, even very specifically word art, to express my understanding of what’s going on.
We’ve definitely discussed the role that songs, poetry, and other forms outside of the strict narrative that you’d expect from a CYOA or even a lot of POV pieces could play as part of what we publish as Verses lore moving forward with the franchise. But the task at hand has some relatively strict confines, and we’ve, for better or worse, also set some expectations with our fans. Getting a Verse that I strongly associate a visual component to in just a straight-up story feels daunting to me.
Even just looking at Ashley D’s story Mystic, and Ash is a friend of mine from college, we were literally educated by the same English department at the same time, her prose has this dreamlike quality that borders on the ecstatic. I think the way I write can be very evocative, but it does that through voice, and wordplay, and most of all probably a sense of pace, these things that are much more deliberate than, let’s say, “channeled.” Kaleidoscope feels like a place where channeling that sublime that’s a key component in William Blake is a lot more important, and I live pretty strongly in the other half of Romanticism from that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of Kaleidoscope. I’m just not confident that my skill set and approach is really the best suited to create there.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> I’ll answer that after the next series of art comes out!
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> Without a doubt the Julie van der Wekken piece that we used for the story Too Much History. I recognized the picture as petroglyphs from the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, and I really wanted to respectfully include an acknowledgement of this fact in the story without falling into the pit of cultural appropriation. I hope that I was successful, but that’s ultimately not for me to decide.
Unlike all the other stories, I gave myself a ton of lead time and did loads of research. I was relieved when a bunch of Google searches led me to conclude that the original petroglyph was from a site known as Newspaper Rock, or by the Navajo people as Tse' Hone: “rock that tells a story”, and that this site appears to have been a way station for travelers rather than a place devoted to sacred rituals.
I have some knowledge of Lakota traditions due to my own personal history, but this site was a reflection of Dineh culture among many other tribal groups that made the Southwest their home. I researched Dineh creation stories, listened to videos of current day elders telling these stories in the Dineh language, and generally tried to understand as well as I could some of the significance of the imagery on the petroglyphs.
This was all so that I could try to avoid misrepresenting these beautiful spiritual stories by accidentally making choices that matched up. I needed to understand enough of the relationships at play to be able to create a story of my own that was close enough to have the wisdom of the Dineh culture be a key to unlocking the puzzle, but not hold any pretense of trying to represent a current living and breathing tradition.
Mitena is the character I created to be a bridge between the ongoing Dineh culture and the mysterious ancestors of the people of Sanctuary in Commedia. She’s from Proxima and I tried to give details in her description, such as her hairstyle, that would be recognizable to Dineh readers, but not make a big deal about her specific affiliations. An, if you know, you know, kind of a thing. I gave her both academic and personal expertise and let her play her critical role in solving the puzzle.
Every detail about the ritual to open the portal was planned before I wrote the story and triple checked with a critical eye and painstaking care. I also called on my own history and spirituality, and built a ritual that felt incredibly personal. The whole thing was a big journey of self examination and exercise in attending to my values with intention.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> I have a piece of art that is going to be used for the second set; that I’m pretty sure has already been spoilered, so I’ll just mention how long I have been trying to come up with something interesting for the piece with Einstein sitting by the fireplace. He’s just such a well-known piece of our cultural lexicon, that putting him into situations where he’s the same but different is quite the challenge.
I’ve also mentioned the kind of research that goes into trying to compose stuff for Synthex, and I think it goes for lots of other places too, that has to be accomplished to inform an educated and believable perspective on the topic at hand. In this case, the topic at hand is one of the smartest and most revolutionary thinkers in human history, so, there’s more than just some technical details to get right if you’re going to do him justice. Some pretty top-level, million-mile view kind of thought processes going on with his work, and it took the man himself a lifetime to express what he was thinking about, and that in the relatively straightforward language of mathematics, as opposed to the value-shaded and rather slippery spoken languages that we use to generate stories.
If anybody has a great Einstein idea on deck, feel free to reach out with it– I love the piece, and I’m excited for the opportunity to bring him into our narrative world, but it’s also a really tall task.
<span class='h3-inline'>Michael:</span> That’s a tough call, all of the artists have given us great stuff to work with. As I mentioned earlier, Stephan Martiniere’s works have given me some great inspiration, but if I have to choose just one I think I have to go with the Pat Lewis piece for “A Most Surprising Hero”. It’s a story set in Gloom, and I think the art really captures some key aspects of that Verse really well.
I had a lot of fun with it because looking at the art, the character seems sad, frightened and pretty powerless, but as the story unfolds he shows a lot of bravery and becomes a real hero. In a lot of ways he’s more heroic than the prisoner that’s the “you” in the story. I loved writing that original story itself, and of course now Spare Parts has become one of my go to characters for stories throughout the Verses.
<span class='h3-inline'>Eleanore:</span> The challenging pieces of art are often also really fun for me. The art for Sarcasdrake was a ton of fun because I got to write about an adorable little dragon, and super challenging because it took place in Commedia.
The art by Ken Meyer Jr. that became the story Tethered to Prophecy was intimidating everyone, and none of us wanted to tackle it, but I feel lucky that it fell to me. I set it in Kaleidoscope and got to build a whole community where the giant baby in the sky made sense, and the entire artwork turned out to be rich with inspiring details. Even the fine lines that were reminiscent of craquelure were important.
Now, I prefer writing for the pieces that seem difficult, because they often yield the sweetest fruit, and that’s my kind of fun.
<span class='h3-inline'>Jody:</span> I really loved writing for “This Is Fine,” or as it’s come to be known, the VOLSTAR suit. I know for sure that Jeff Laubenstein, the artist of the piece, is involved in some harder SF stuff than I usually get into. Battletech, specifically, is where I think this image was originally set before I got my hands on it, and it’s pretty commensurately legible as a serious situation, a suit of armor in a raging fire.
Dan Burdick and I had made a naming pass, though, and his sort of whimsical love for memeing shows up in a number of the names of pieces. Of course, I am aware of the dog drinking coffee in a burning house meme, aka “This is fine,” and so my taste, which admittedly runs to the serious or pensive, was presented with this challenge to make it topical to Verses as always, and do justice to Jeff’s amazing art, and also generate a relatable moment of humor. I think it ended up being successful on all of those fronts.
I also got some really good feedback from Alex on this piece, back when he had a little more time to interact directly with the narrative, and some of those secret tips and tricks that made the improvement from draft #1 to the published product really obvious to me are things I still use pretty frequently. Add to that the opportunity to create some fun sciency words, and the fact that formulating this whole aspect of Delphi culture in refractories and foundries really first happens here, and it comes out to be the single piece that I think was the most enjoyable for me so far.