Writer Perks

Being a writer allows me to...

1. Get Backstage Passes

I often get to go behind the scenes, where no ordinary citizens are allowed, to research stories. It's like having a special passport.

For Space Rocks, scientist Adriana Ocampo showed me around parts of JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) off-limits to the public. This giant, sprawling NASA center specializes in flinging robotic spacecraft to other planets.

An assignment on elephants landed me a front-row seat to a Ringling Brothers circus rehearsal. Here, I'm clowning around at the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

2. Meet Amazing People

I love all things space and was pleased to meet astronaut Tom Jones. At Kennedy Space Center, I also walked directly underneath space shuttle Endeavour, which was in the repair shop to replace tiles after a flight.

3. Learn Cool Facts

In the Galapagos Islands, I learned that, if you tickle the neck of a giant tortoise, it will extend its head way up, out of the shell. Here, I'm playing this trick at a Reptile Park in South Dakota. (It's a bad hair day for both of us.)

4. Try Something New

A good trait for writers is the hunger for new experiences.

My husband Chris and I took a hot air balloon ride in zero degree temperatures in New Mexico. All of our toes froze but the views were spectacular.

5. Take Time to Think

That was the view outside my home office one evening!

6. Tell Silly Pirate Jokes

Q. What's the bounty for capturing a pirate?
A. A buccaneer. (a buck an ear)

Q. Why is being a pirate so addictive?
A. As soon as you lose yer first hand, you get hooked.

Q. How can you tell a rookie pirate?
A. He counts by twos—two hands, two legs, two eyes . . .

Q. Why are philosophical pirates so smart?
A. They think, therefore they AAAAARRR.

Q. Why did the pirate walk into the bar?
A. Lack of depth perception. An eye patch makes it hard to tell where anything really is.

Q. Why don't pirates mind their P's and Q's?
A. They spend all their time at C.

Q. When does a pirate act like a bird?
A. When he's a-robbin'.

Q. What are pirate movies rated?

Creative Adventures

INANIMATE ALICE: What's it about? What's been my role?

In recent conversation with a colleague, I discovered that I've been somewhat cryptic and perhaps even invisible about my involvement, ever resistant to putting myself too far out there (a Midwestern thing?).

So please, if you don't mind, let me share a bit of my four-year Alice journey, a ride full of mostly ups with a small and geographically diverse but super talented creative team....

In 2010, while plunging enthusiastically into the newly emerging transmedia scene, I discovered episodes 1-4 of Alice online (sadly, they are in Flash, a dying platform). They were co-created by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph based on what I later learned was an unproduced screenplay by producer Ian Harper and originally intended to be back story for Alice's movie adventure.

Though simple in story and bootstrapped in production on an indie budget, I saw glimmers of "born digital" innovation and felt a pull to this mysterious girl named Alice who, while remaining unseen, narrated her adventures with an edge.

I contacted Ian and freely shared some thoughts, strategies, and professional contacts, looking for an opportunity to help grow and elevate the property or perhaps attract a publisher who would invest in it.

Though I saw Alice as an entertainment, Ian told me that education is a market that emerged unexpectedly for Alice... a passionate one, with wonderful fan fiction (episodes and art created by students) and a small but dedicated corps of teachers who love Alice and share her adventures with their students. Alice is also studied in some academic programs as an example of the emerging new media and digital storytelling fields.

Making fun stuff that works in the classroom and meets curricular needs is a core specialty I learned at Scholastic, my first and longest employer and publisher of most of my books. I've made a good living at that for many commercial clients, but at that time, I was moving out of the school market and into informal education and games, books, and other products for adults.

Besides, the quirky, indie Alice was budget-challenged and, with no revenue stream or business plan, the producer was swimming in sharky, digital disruption waters. Still, there was something attractive about Alice.

Here's where I pause to thank the enthusiastic, can-do school librarian Laura Fleming . Laura and I met for the first time at a transmedia workshop at Digital Book World (thanks, Alison Norrington! ) and we became fast friends, our values and stars aligned.

You couldn't talk to Laura and not love Alice, too. Impossible! I was hooked by the creative concept ("born-digital storytelling"), but Laura's passion and zeal reeled me in.

My first assignment for Alice, in early 2011, was to write activities based on episode 1 for Promethean Planet, a smartboard platform for classrooms. Fun and easy.

From there, I established "Alice on Everloop," a presence for the character and her virtual friend Brad on a startup social media site for tweens. Though the site has since folded, for more than a year, I adopted the voice of Alice, engaged directly with her young audience, and wrote interactive digital journals, narrative, mini-games, and other content to share on her Loop (that's like a personal page or wall).

At Everloop, I learned a boatload about audience engagement, social media strategy, and the 24/​7 cycle that is digital publishing. (And about tween idols ;-)

In 2014, I conceived and crafted a proposal for Education Services Australia to create five Alice Travel Journals to teach Indonesian and Japanese languages. The successful funding bid set me and Andy Campbell (art design and code) to work—very challenging work—much of last year and into spring 2015.

This was my baby. I played editorial director, writer, and more:

  • gathered all the assets (hundreds of images, sounds, videos)

  • crafted the narratives for Alice's journeys

  • wrote and edited the copy (some of it in Indonesian and Japanese!)

  • worked with the client and domain experts (several wonderful language teachers)

  • brought in volunteers and assistants

  • designed and tested the 22 language games

  • processed audio clips in Japanese and Indonesian (!)

  • managed the project.

I am super proud of these unique, complex, multi-layered beasts, a blend of fiction (Alice's adventures abroad during her Gap Year) and nonfiction (cultural information about the target countries).

On Episode 5: Hometown 2, I helped with the beta testing and launch (taking over Alice's social media presence) last November. Though created in Unity 2D (you'll need a web player plug-in), this episode, like the four prior to it, was created on a very low budget, and kept simple and short as a result. It has a linear narrative with a few simple, built-in interactives, including a mini-game called Canal Chase, that flow with the story.

What would Alice look like with more money behind it, a deeper and more complex story and characters, and a more robust tech platform?

In April 2014, Alice won a grant from the Arts Council of England. Producer Ian named me as narrative designer for Episode 6: The Last Gas Station, along with Andy Campbell (lead developer), Kate Pullinger (lead writer), and Chris Joseph (music/​audio).

I spent much of last summer analyzing and synthesizing the entire Alice story world (episodes, journals, crossmedia outreach, educational materials) and crafting a dynamic and flexible fifty-page design document. My aim was to help shape the property as a whole, with branding and franchising and a mainstream audience in mind, and to figure out how the Episode 6 narrative would fit neatly with what came before and what might come ahead for Alice. (Episodes 7-10 were very roughly mapped out with lots of room for expansion and development.)

The role of narrative designer is a sweet spot between story-game. It's about taking all the bits—the interactives and text and sound and images and game mechanics and aesthetics and so on—and shaping them as a whole to deliver a cohesive and immersive user experience that serves a theme, a universal truth.

The challenge with Alice, traditionally a linear narrative, has been to build up her storytelling strengths (add more emotional arcs and depth, create three-dimensional characters) while responding to the user's actions with a greater measure of agency (meaning, your choices have real consequences). The episode is in Unity 3D, which introduced a range of new interfaces and a free-roam environment with a first-person point of view.

Instead of "playing as Alice," my idea is to play as a "friend of Alice"—going along on her adventures, interacting with her, and occasionally making choices and taking actions that she might not like. The trick is, fans of Alice know that the user never actually sees her. In past episodes, her presence is most prominently featured in the form of narrative statements—simple text on the screen, aimed at her audience in an indirect but personal way. We'll see how that plays out in this new format.

Interactive storytelling and narrative design is what I know, what I can do, and where I best shine. It's the messy, complex sandbox that I most love playing in.

My career dovetails with a very rare place and time when it was possible to explore and experiment with this brand new medium freely. I wrote my first digital narrative and video game scripts in the 1980s for Scholastic and then moved onto CD-Roms in the 1990s.

My appetite for the form has only grown.

I am a writer/​game designer, melded.

UPDATE: I have, with sadness, decided to leave this struggling project and move on for both creative and financial reasons. I hope episode 6 sees daylight, finds its audience, and succeeds.

The Connector? Me? (really?)

At Games for Change (2015), connecting with game makers, funders, nonprofits, and educators.

After yet another conference (a bit ambivalently attended tbh), I realized I've morphed over the last five years of intensive mid-career pivoting from super-introverted creator type (my cave is rural, I tell you, in more ways than one) to...

THE CONNECTOR—a maker of stuff who's been traveling between media for decades as a content creator... and between geographic regions, industries, personality types, skill sets, mindsets, agendas, etc etc etc to find new pathways.

Games and Meaningful Play conference: Academically oriented (which gave me pause initially, oy, pedagogy/​parsing, not my strength), but populated by super smart and creative types who don't know what I know, haven't done what I've done, haven't met the people I know. And vice versa. That's what conferences are about, right?

Meaningful connections ensued.

A few takeaways:

1 Digital literature : Paul Darvasi and other teachers are embracing this new media approach and (soak this in -> CREATING it) as game designer-writers to move us all collectively into the future of storytelling.

They need help (hey, they TEACH, full-time, grading papers every weekend). Let's team up!!!!! They're hungry for games as lit, interactive stories as lit, RPGs as lit. etc etc.

Turn One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest into an ARG ("The Ward"). Shape The Odyssey into a first-person classroom game.

And, Inanimate Alice, which pioneered some of this approach and is poised (poised, I tell you!) to do much, much more.

2 Co-creation, design process, iterative testing.

This is so ingrained now with me—from both a science and tech pov (a client :) AND a storytelling pov.

How about you? Invite your audience in, early and often, to figure out how to solve a problem, create something amazing. Messy, chaotic, at times... and perpetually beta, but MAKE IT WORK. Efficacy. Results. Real.

3 Know each other—and respect and talk to each other.

I've been working with language experts ("domain experts" in his terms) and authors and artists and coder and project managers, and communications specialists... so important to talk to and respect each other and share ideas toward a common vision.

Introverted as I am (by nature), I feel as if I've morphed into a natural collaborator, with tentacles. All along, my goal has always been: make great stuff. And that takes a team, all-in. Who's out there?

And a vision. <- My strength, eager to share, along with experience.

Thinking Globally, Disrupting Locally

Tweeting from the front row of Learn Do Share: Urbanism, a free event for exploring DIY and DIT (do it together) tactics for improving the world.

One of my favorite events to attend is Learn Do Share (formerly DIY Days), which Lance Weiler started in New York some years ago as a way to help independent makers and creators collaborate and achieve their dreams. It's free—always free—and staffed by volunteer producers and helpers who are generous in spirit and intellect.

Lance has gradually shifted the focus from creators telling story in DIY innovate ways to solving global problems through storytelling and other non-conventional approaches (first education, then urbanism).

With Learn Do Share 2014 in NY, the transformation is now complete. It's no longer about making cool stuff. It's about making cool stuff that matters.

The group is like a loose anything goes, everyone welcome, just make-it-happen version of Games for Change, except games are a sliver of what's presented and what's possible at Learn Do Share. There are no labels or containers or categories.

The spirit is local -> global, fast and cheap prototyping: throw it out there and see what sticks, what needs fixing, what can work even better... and maybe it will scale and be sustainable.

As a traditionally published writer and content creator, used to creating draft after draft with layers of editing and management, I embrace that spirit gratefully and hungrily.

At the June 2014 event, I learned about tactical urbanism: Fix a city problem on the cheap and even on the sly ("unsanctioned") and see if the community embraces it and it becomes sanctioned. Then, we did it, thanks to Rotten Apple: We deployed simple improvements (a chess board, a fold-down seat, a doggie poop bag repository, a cell phone charger...) around the New School in New York.

Learn Do Share has spread to Los Angeles, Paris, Gothenburg (Sweden), London, and other cities. I'm hoping to make the London iteration Sept 5-6 ("future cities" theme).

Find Your Tribe

Artist and graphic designer Cynthia Jabar and I hit it off, creatively, from the start.

Writers tend to live a solitary life, spending a lot of time inside their own head, imagining. That works for me most of the time, but I've also enjoyed some mind-stretching experiences both working on and leading a creative team.

So, here's my number one advice for writers: Show up. Say yes, follow through, and leap out of that comfortable cocoon to connect with people.

For the past five years, I've made a serious commitment to attend more conferences, workshops, openings, mixers, networking lunches, and other outings. I've organized informal gatherings on my frequent visits to New York, each one a fresh mix of friends and colleagues.

I love talking shop, craft, and business with fellow writers, editors, and game designers, but I also make a point to reach out to people who have skills and experiences that I don't. Magic happens when you can combine divergent forces and create something fresh and special.

I welcome collaborations, especially in game design and digital publishing, where the solo act just doesn't cut it. Contact me if you think we're walking a similar path.

Don't forget to laugh along the way.

I Went to a Game Jam and Came Back a Writer (twice)

Team Ganesh! Multitalented Katy, developer Larry, artists JP and Edwin, and me at the Global Game Jam 2013.

At Global Game Jam '12, Mushroom 11 was my favorite game, by Itay Keren. I don't usually go for platformers, but this one has a lovely feel to it.

JANUARY 27, 2013, 2:10 a.m.

You know, at last year's Global Game Jam, at NYU, I went in, thinking, "I can make a board game in my sleep." That was my fallback. But, what I really wanted to do was connect with people who have skills I don't: coders and artists, mainly. A hidden agenda.

Pretty quickly, I was lured onto a video game team: a friendly designer and a tight-lipped developer and a talented drop-in artist. After hearing the theme (ouroboros—the tail-eating snake), we left the site and brainstormed over cheap ramen noodles.

I came up with half a dozen game ideas to fit the theme, many half-baked, and one pretty good and thematically appropriate one. Back in the corner we staked out, I paper prototyped it, and we made some progress on that game until site closing, midnight sharp.

I took the train back to Brooklyn and tried to sleep. Squirrel brain kept me up most of the night, and so I refined, fine-tuned, and honed that game design as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I came up with a brilliant solution to a problem. I expanded and extended the game, and then contracted it—streamlined it to its doable essence.

At 9 am, NYU doors open, I showed up at the site full of sketches and enthusiasm. BUT: Overnight, my video game team had gone in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT DIRECTION, and the artist had jumped ship. The remaining duo had abandoned everything we did, didn't tell me, and essentially voted me off the island. Ouch!!!

Since I can't code fluently and have limited art skills, I turned my game design into a party game—a physical, two-team conga line challenge. I prototyped it with colored blocks and then couldn't find 10 people (!!!! I know) to help me test it. They were all glued to their computers, coding and creating pixel art. I was tired. Over the course of the afternoon, I introverted and withdrew from the scene, returning on Sunday afternoon to see what other teams had created.

A year later, I still have that game on the back burner, untested but promising. And, I don't at all regret going. I met some very, very talented people. WOW. I wish I had met more of them. (Stayed too long in one room, with one team, and then retreated.) The after-glow was that I came away with a bunch of creative energy that sustained me for the next week or so. I poured that energy into more profitable and doable ventures for me. A win, not a loss.

So, here I am, round two, for Global Game Jam 2013 (why did I come back? I don't know). And at 2 a.m. on Saturday night, I have squirrel brain again. But this time, it's my right brain, the writer in me. Our game is out of my hands, almost completely. The coders and the artists are manipulating their pixels and I can't test my design until they're done

So, I am writing a blog post. And thinking, I really *want* to write now. (I don't feel that way enough.)

What is it about Global GAME Jam that brings out the WRITER in me?

Part of our "Heart of Ganesh" brainstorm board. The gist: You're a matriarch elephant leading your family along an increasingly crowded migration path. Can you navigate to the watering hole without trampling villages?

Who Taught You? Thank Them.

My favorite teacher? Lorraine Woodard. We even share a first name.

At Northville High School, I showed up to her Advanced Composition class exactly 59 minutes late one morning, a victim of that tricky EDT/​EST switcheroo (I was never, ever a ”morning person”), and she didn’t bat an eye, no demerits, no fuss. For a graduation gift that year, she gave me a pen that lights up. She said, simply, ”For when you get your ideas. Write them down.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the secret to writing. It doesn’t do anyone any good at all, if it’s all in your head. You have to WRITE IT DOWN. If you don’t, it’s lost forever. Something was said at the time about not being able to step in a river twice, but I probably took that too literally as a teen.

I get it now. I wish I still had that electric pen.

I’m a professional writer, and Mrs. Woodard worked hard to make me a good one, but I’m still searching for my voice. You see, I keep getting these ideas. I need to write them down.

Mentor, and Be Mentored

On February 18, 2012, I attended the memorial service of my friend, editor, colleague, and mentor, Eric Oatman. Through generosity and a passion for education, Eric taught a generation of editors and writers best practices, while forging many deep friendships. With their help, I compiled this booklet of "Eric's Life Lessons" to share and spread the wisdom and kinship.

Make Yourself Squirm

Regi Carpenter mesmerized me at the 2011 Taos Storytelling Festival.

I love my computer, I love my cozy home office, and I love writing. So, the thought of standing in front of a crowd at the very center of attention and spinning a yarn paralyzes me. By chance and good fortune, I met storyteller Regi Carpenter in Taos, and we talked a bit about her craft, and mine, on a long shuttle ride from the airport.

The next evening, I loved listening to Regi's polished and pitch-perfect tales of growing up along the St. Lawrence River as a "Carpenter Kid" and signed up for her workshop. Thanks to Regi's warm, skilled guidance, I now have the very beginning of a new story, one that, to my surprise, revealed some truths about myself just in the telling.

When it's practiced and polished, I will sum up the courage to stand on center stage, come what may.

That's a promise I just made to myself.

Just Go There

Whenever I've been home too long, I look at a map and say, "Where next?" Then, I tell myself, "Just go there." On a road trip from Michigan to New Mexico, I decided to take the long and winding route there and back. This beautiful redscape is near Devil's Tower, Wyoming.

Expressing Marrakesh

Is this me? Believe it or not, it is! At the generous invitation of two of my English language students, I visited the busy, stunning country of Morocco, North Africa. I'm sitting near a beautiful pool and garden at the edge of Marrakesh. Behind me is an olive grove and, immediately beyond it, stretches a vast desert peppered by Earthy-red colored homes. Wearing a scarf is optional for Moroccan women, but my friends are traditional Muslims and, as they say, "When in Rome . . . "

Patagonian Megabeasts

I spent three weeks traveling around Argentina. My kind hosts in Patagonia were teachers Su and Sergio. Sergio brags that Argentina has "the best megabeasts, ever." I believe him! PUBLISHERS: If you're intrigued by the idea of a book, game, or other product about these amazing creatures, please contact me.

I'm standing on stone that's 90 million years old and so littered with fossils (dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, eggs, petrified plants, etc.) that paleontologists only bother to collect the best and rarest. (photo: courtesy of Sergio Stinco)

I'm extremely happy to be holding a dinosaur egg fossil at a dig site called Lagos Barreales in Patagonia, Argentina. One of the paleontologists just handed it to me, and I nearly dropped it. It's very heavy and surprisingly round—like a bowling ball without holes. (photo: courtesy of Sergio Stinco))

All the material on this website is copyright © 2000-2015 by Hopping Fun Creations. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to visitors to download, print, and use the "Freebie" reproducibles free of charge for educational use only. Reproduction, reposting, or distribution in any form or media is prohibited without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Featured Books and Games

Children's Books
Read the sad, moving tale of a peace-loving leader who lost his land, many of his people, and his life-long fight to keep the peace.
The true science adventures of Diane France, forensic anthropologist. NSTA Selector's Choice, AAAS/SB&F Subaru finalist, starred reviews!
Adriana Ocampo found her path to science adventure through space-traveling robots and crashing asteroids! (FREEBIE science quizzes.)
The Body as Evidence (Autopsies) and Crime Scene Investigation!
Outdoor fun for 6 to 8 year olds.
Tornadoes! and Hurricanes! are my two best-selling books with 1.6 million sold!
A must-have card game set for English language (ESL/EFL) and language arts teachers and tutors. (FREEBIE ESL materials.)
My top selling game book!
Lively games and activities about grammar, vocabulary, and dictionary skills.
Great American History Games, 15 Primary Source Activities (plays, games, readings, and more) and more!
Race from Earth to Mars, an orbiting target, by fixing malfunctions and answering intriguing science questions. Endorsed by astronaut Jack Lousma.