Chris Lewis Carter is a head writer for the upcoming video game, Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes. His career thus far entails the success that emerging writers dream of. From unknown to author of almost two dozen short stories published within just two years, Mr. Carter has proven his status as one of those rare talents that can do about anything when it comes to storytelling. No genre is out of his reach, be it Comedy, Tragedy, Horror, Action, Crime, or Young Adult.
His stories have appeared in some of the hardest markets to crack, including Word Riot, 3am, Pseudopod, Murky Depths, and last year’s Hacked Up Holiday Massacre anthology from Pill Hill Press, in which Mr. Carter was featured alongside such horror heavyweights as Jack Ketchum, Joe R. Lansdale, and Lee Thomas.
Mr. Carter received academic recognition when his story, “Halloween Knight,” was selected for publication in Nelson Literacy 8, an eighth-grade textbook that allows students to learn the joys of reading and writing.
Taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his success and his experience working on the Rival Threads video game, Chris Lewis Carter gives us an exclusive on the details surrounding his upcoming project, Camp Myth—an unprecedented event that calls for creative minds to join together in crafting the magic of good storytelling.
Your popular story, “The Cord,” was published as a podcast through Pseudopod—not an easy feat considering their low acceptance rate—but on top of that, “The Cord” is now seeing a print release through Niteblade #19.
Your stories, more often than not, are adventures that promise to introduce readers to unknown worlds, or to show readers new things about familiar worlds, whether it’s cordyceps in “The Cord,” or La Tomatina in “Seeing Red,” or even a simple word and definition, as with your story “Kayfabe.”
Why is so important to you that your stories go beyond entertaining and introduce readers to completely new worlds and ideas?
First off, thanks so much for having me, Nathan. I’m beyond stoked to be a part of Solarcide.
Back to the question, I think it’s because I tend to judge every piece of media – regardless of format – on two main criteria: “Did I have fun?” and, “Did I learn something new?” Now, that doesn’t mean it has to do both – I’m perfectly fine with not feeling any smarter after watching the latest episode of Survivor – but if it does, I consider that a bonus.
So that’s the mentality I try to have whenever I sit down to write something – that it’ll stick with you for a lot longer if you walk away with some little factoid tucked inside your brain. Like in Magic Man, I wanted to try my hand at a post-apocalyptic zombie story, but since that genre has been done to death (grooooan), the main character, who used to be an As-Seen-On-TV pitchman, teaches you how to sell a product (while conning survivors with his fake cure).
I remember hearing about Cordyceps for the first time from an episode of Planet Earth, and I had it down in a notepad before the segment had finished. Something about it just sounded so mysterious and creepy that I felt the need to teach it to anyone willing to listen. Unfortunately, it’s hard to give most people a straight-laced lesson on fungus, so I dressed it up a little. That way, no one can criticize me for writing mindless nonsense. I mean, sure, somebody just got their leg torn off, and that’s gross, but now you know something new, so it’s cool. It’s practically school.
It was the same thing with La Tomatina. It just sounds powerful, doesn’t it? Like a sexy dance, or a Harry Potter curse. I wanted to share my latest discovery, so I added a little murder, and… ta-dah!
Your love for genre fiction and genre characters is evident through your work, however you’ve also had a chance to show off your talent for crafting a straight literary tale with “Bandit,” which appeared in 3am Magazine.
The bond between Bandit and the Narrator is the core of the story, which effectively incorporates tension, suspense, and tragedy. Even with your genre stories, the characters are the shining elements. In “Wolf’s Pawn,” for example, you could argue that the lycans are irrelevant, and that the true is story is that between two old friends, where one helps the other find new life, or to get his mojo back, so to speak. No matter what setting you create, or the kinds of characters you choose to explore, the reader is always left with a strong sense of who your characters are.
Is it emotion, or is it the relationships and bonds to other characters, or is it a given reaction to certain situation that helps you to discover how your characters tick?
Without a doubt, all three of those are factors, but ultimately it’s reaction by a mile. My crackpot theory (well, one of them) is this: I can’t tell you how to feel when you read a certain paragraph, and I don’t get to decide how you view the bond between specific characters. But I can stack the deck in my favor by making characters react in ways that are fairly universal when it comes to expressing emotion.
I mean, it’s a lot like everyday life, when you think about it. If I said, “My friend was really upset today,” would that mean anything to you? Probably not. It’s too vague. And you don’t know the guy. Maybe he gets upset all the time, like if he’s standing in line for more than five minutes at the drug store. How are you supposed to know if he really felt that way or not? Admit it, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.
Now, if I said, “My friend was really upset today because he forgot his Mom’s birthday,” that’s a little different. I’ve brought a family member into the mix, and my assumption is that you’ll feel bad because you have a great relationship with your mother, and therefore you can empathize with this guy’s situation. This is a little better, but it still relies too much on you being able to make that connection. Maybe you hate your Mother, or maybe you’ve never understood why people get so hung up on birthdays in the first place. Again, depending on your relationship outlook, this might not work.
So let me toss this out there. “My friend was really upset today because he forgot his Mom’s birthday, so he decided to apologize by dressing up like a clown and dancing to Lady Gaga on her front lawn.”
Now we’ve hit pay dirt. By explaining his reaction to the situation, we can extrapolate so much more about all parties involved -, he must really love her to put himself on display like that, he must have been pretty upset to go to such great lengths to apologize, at least one of them is down with Lady Gaga, etc. With just that extra detail, you can see the entire thing. Heck, you probably feel like you know the guy, that big ol’ ham. Why? Because doing something crazy for someone you love is universal. We’ve all rented that metaphorical clown costume, and that’s what makes it special.
I feel like now is a good time to mention that I’m known for my roundabout answers. Also, I want “We’ve All Rented That Metaphorical Clown Costume” on a t-shirt.
You’re known to participate in writing workshops. Even with the success you’ve enjoyed, you continue to participate in workshops with your peers. How valuable are workshops to your writing today in 2012?
What is it, in your view based on your experience that a writer can gain from actively reading and reviewing the works-in-progress of their peers?
I’d go so far as to say that my experiences with workshops have been responsible for everything I’ve ever accomplished as a writer. No joke. There’s simply no substitute for throwing your hat in the ring and getting called out on your crap by your peers. It still amazes me how – even after reading something a dozen times – there will always be a ton of mistakes that you’ve overlooked. Fresh eyes are invaluable to the writing process.
And then, on the flip side, there’s so much to be gained from being critical of someone else’s story. Not in the “This is terrible, you suck,” sense, because, let’s face it, nobody likes that guy. But, with a little practice, you’ll develop an eye for structure, and learn how to properly articulate what works and what doesn’t. Then you can hopefully apply that way of thinking to your own drafts. Although, it’s equally amazing how quickly you’ll go from World’s Best Editor to Drooling Moron when you pull up a blank word document. Funny thing, that.
I first got involved with the workshop over on the Chuck Palahniuk forums back in early 2009. Truth be told, I was one of the hundreds who flocked there around that time to take part in a contest they were running to have your work published in an anthology forwarded by Chuck himself. He even personally critiqued a few of the pieces each month, including one of mine, and that review is still hanging above my desk to this day. I wonder if he knows that? If you see him, could you mention it for me?
But yeah, aside from the contest-mania, I discovered that it was a pretty great place to meet other like-minded people, and a lot of them had solid advice. In fact, my short story that eventually became part of a high school textbook went through that workshop first.
From there, I started taking some of their intensive classes, including ones taught by some of my writing idols, like Jack Ketchum and Craig Clevenger (hey, this site should interview him!) Being able to interact with those guys, and having them break down the craft (and my work) on such a mechanical level – I was hooked.
Since then, the entire outfit has branched off into an entirely separate website – www.litreactor.com, which I cannot recommend enough if you’re serious about getting published. They have a fantastic community over there, and it’s perfect for people of all skill levels, whether you’ve been writing for years, or finally want to dip your toe in the pool. Tell ‘em Chris sent you. You’ll get a free keychain! (Note: that is a lie. There will be no keychain.)
As a known lover of video games, your role as a head writer for upcoming game, Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes, must be a dream come true.
How different is creating the fictional world of a video game compared to crafting fiction for the literary market? Obviously, a video game entails more of a team effort, but speaking to your specific role as a writer for the Rival Threads video game, what obstacles did you face that you don’t as a writer of short stories, in terms of creating characters, and how did you apply your writing experience to help craft the wonderful world of this game?
Great question. I should probably start with a general overview of what Rival Threads is all about. I’ve always joked that the elevator pitch would sound something like, “Pokemon meets the Bruce Willis movie, Surrogates, in high school.” What’s not to love about any of that?
So, imagine a world where the technology to control your own personal automaton has been perfected. These beings (called “Marionettes”) are a such a staple of everyday life that all teenagers are sent to special schools in order to not only receive their first marionettes, but to learn how to effectively control them (and you thought being old enough to get your driver’s license was exciting!)
There’s just one catch…
Because they’re brought to life by utilizing a fragment of a person’s soul, marionettes always resemble their owner’s true self – In other words, who they really are, deep-down.
That’s right. If you’re actually a nice guy on the inside, your marionette will be a reflection of strength or virtue. But if your outside appearance is all an act, and in reality you’re rotten to the core, expect a marionette that will blow your cover.
And all of this happens in high school – the place where most kids try to hide their real selves from, well, practically everyone.
With all that in mind, Rival Threads is the story of two such students, both beginning their first day at Vermilion Academy: Sebastian, a laid-back slacker with a mysterious past (don’t they all?), and Maya, a girl born into privilege, who intends to shake up the school’s rigid class system.
Along the way, they’ll battle dozens of unique marionettes, uncover some of Vermilion Academy’s best-kept secrets, and learn what it really means to be who you really are.
If you’d like to find out more, including links to the Kickstarter campaign (with project updates), check out http://www.kontrabida.ca.
Okay, so to be even more roundabout with answering your first question, my Dad has this great story about how he discovered that videogames had taught me how to read, and read well.
When I was four, he bought me a NES and a stack of games, and I was obsessed with the thing. I’d play it every day for hours, which I guess was great because it kept me quiet and entertained. Anyway, one of the games in my stack was Final Fantasy – back when the fantasy was much more final – and for some reason it was the game I’d keep coming back to.
So one day he’s sitting on the couch, watching me play Final Fantasy, and I’d walk up to a character, their text block would appear on screen, and I’d click past it right away. I’d walk up to someone else, their text block would appear, and I’d click past it again. This went on for a minute or so before he finally said, “Chris, I think we’re supposed to read what those people are saying, and they’ll tell you what to do next.” At which point I turned around, shot him an incredulous look, and said, “But… I am reading it.”
He thought I was lying, so he spent the next few minutes quizzing me on what all the NPC’s were saying. He had no idea that I could read at that level.
And I haven’t stopped playing since.
So yeah, to say it’s a dream come true is probably an understatement.
As for the second question, the answer that instantly comes to mind is assets.
Asset creation was something that you never have to consider when writing prose, other than the fact that it’s probably good if you can create more pages. If you want to write a scene where the main character fights an army of sea monsters, then transforms into a rocket and flies to the moon – sure. Great. Have at it. (Note to self: write that scene.)
But with a game, every object that you want to add requires the time and efforts of artists and programmers (both groups that have far more design talent than me) to create and potentially animate. Kontrabida is a small team, and those guys and girls are working on a tight budget, so it’s all about finding the right balance between possible and practical.
For example, take the animated storybook chapters that will appear as in-game collectables. In my first draft, Leo, the lead developer on the project, asked me to note how many different things they would need to pull off each scene. I thought I was being all conservative, but then I counted the number of objects and animations, and it was ridiculous.
The storybook has since went through a bunch of design changes, but the script has remained pretty much intact. I’d like to give kudos to everyone who’s had a hand in the final product: Rye Quizon (animation wizard), Luke Thomas (musical genius), River Kanoff (silky-smooth narrator), and Leo Molar (director extraordinaire, and our fearless leader). Those guys are amazing, and I’m lucky to have some small part in the tremendous work they all do.
Looking back on your experience with Last Class Heroes, what advice can you give writers seeking to break into the gaming industry, and is there a key step to the creation process that maybe you feel would prepare a writer, or that many writers maybe don’t know and should be aware of upfront?
It’s funny, because my first instinct is to tell you that, straight-up, I feel like I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Then I realize that I always hate when I read an interview and the person’s advice is, “Be in the right place at the right time,” so let me try to actually say something useful.
Looking back on not only Rival Threads, but most every writing break I’ve caught in the past couple of years, I think it’s a combination of being willing to learn, writing constantly – even if it’s just scribbling down something insightful you found on the men’s room wall – and not being afraid to put your work and yourself out there.
I’ve already covered the first one, read a bunch, join a workshop, take a class, get told you’re not that great and come back for more, etc., and it probably goes without saying that a writer should write. But you’d be surprised how often that putting yourself out there – a concept that should be even more obvious than anything else I’ve said – somehow gets lost along the way.
You never know where your next break might come from. I wouldn’t be involved with Rival Threads if I hadn’t stumbled across their Kickstarter page and emailed the team asking if there was anything at all I could do to help with the project, from writing to copy-editing. Sounds like a long-shot, I know, but, again, put yourself out there. I already had several publications under my belt, so I at least felt like I would come across as somewhat legit, rather than cold-calling them out of the blue to say, “Hey guys, I like video games. Can I write some of yours?” But being able to show published work helped get my foot in the door.
As for a key step in the creation process, at least for RPGs, my advice would be two things. Always be prepared to rewrite material, and to learn how to avoid what I’ve dubbed “The Taps.”
Yeah, it sounds like some kind of STD (or a sequel to The Cord… Hmmm…) but the truth is far less interesting. It’s just my way of referring to the number of times a player will have to tap the screen (or click a button) to finish a particular dialogue exchange.
I remember writing up a draft of what I thought would be a great opening sequence. I turned it in thinking I had knocked it out of the park – I mean, really took the cover off the ball – until I spoke with Leo, and we ended up reenacting that scene from Flight of the Conchords where Bret writes a love song.
Chris: What do you think?
Leo: It’s a bit long.
Leo: It’s fifteen pages long.
And at the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around what the problem with that was. It revealed a ton of information about the world, characters were bantering back and forth with each other naturally – I felt like it said everything and more.
Only, that was the problem. I was writing a story with the characters, not introducing an interactive world to the player. In my original script, you’d have had to sit there and tap the screen for ages until you could finally play the darn thing, and with the blistering rate that some people download, snap-judge, and delete iOS games, it risked bogging down the entire experience.
I see that now, and feel like a total dope for defending those pages how I did. Luckily, the entire team has been great to work with, and Leo has been more than patient with me while I’ve been adjusting. I’d like to think that I’m a lot better now.
For fans and readers of your stories, has your writing experience with the Last Class Heroes game changed your ambitions in storytelling, just meaning are you seeking more work in the gaming industry and eventually looking to leave short stories and the idea of novels behind altogether, or do you harbor a passionate love for writing fiction that will all but guarantee more stories from you no matter what?
I would love to continue writing for the gaming industry. Heck, in a perfect world, Rival Threads takes the platform by storm and they want me back to help pen the sequel. There are more than enough interesting parts to the world that could be expanded upon, and plot hooks for future games are being baked into this one, so you never know.
But yeah, I feel like it’s a really interesting time to be a writer when it comes to the video game industry, because games are finally becoming an accepted storytelling medium by the mainstream, which means we’re seeing more and more big-time authors becoming attached to projects. From AAA titles like Gears of War 3 making it a point to recognize Karen Traviss as the writer, to R.A. Salvatore crafting the entire 10,000-year history of Amalur, people are demanding better writing in their entertainment, which can only mean good things moving forward.
Then, on the other side of the spectrum, you have these amazing indie projects like Kan Gao’s To The Moon, which plays out more like an interactive movie (seriously, go buy it). With so many new distribution platforms, a small team can make their game available to millions of people, and if the writing is strong enough to resonate, it’ll find an audience.
It’s exactly like what we’re seeing now with e-publishing. Sure, there’s a ton of unedited trash floating around, but it’s also a way for talented-yet-unknown authors to make their work available, and build a fan base.
(Warning: Shameless Plug Approaching)
Take me, for example. If you’d like to check out some of the pieces I’ve talked about here, why not fire up the ol’ Kindle and download my short story collection, “An Overly Pleasant Apocalypse.” For just $0.99, you’ll get six stories that were previously only available in four separate anthologies and two websites, including Magic Man, which answers the age-old question, how would a made-for-TV pitchman survive the zombie apocalypse? Killer Interview, an inside look at Hell’s application process for souls to become reincarnated serial killers. And Lost and Spammed – a personal favorite of mine, written with a friend. When Ethan Loffe wakes to find himself trapped in a hotel room, he uncovers the truth about the outside world through the mysterious spam messages in his email inbox. It’s told entirely through email exchanges, and was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything.
Okay, plug’s over. But yeah, I think that paragraph alone should let you know that I’m not about to leave short stories and novels any time soon. There’s just nothing else like waking up with an insane idea, sitting down at the computer, and within minutes I’m already in that world. No pre-production, or actors, or set design, or budget or anything else in your way. If you can imagine it, you can write it, and most of my ideas are too crazy to come across any other way.
Oh yeah, speaking of novels, I’m working on one of those. Or should I say, two? Well, hopefully two. Hey, we should totally talk about that.
You have a brand new project in the works that you haven’t talked about before. Solarcide is thrilled and honored to have the exclusive on this, and so we start with the name of that new project. Camp Myth.
What can you tell us about it?
Camp Myth is something that’s pretty special to me. I feel like it’s going to be the ultimate Boom or Bust project, and I’m so excited to finally be able to talk about it.
Let’s see, where should I begin? For about a year or so, I’ve had (what I consider to be) a great idea for a YA series. It’s called, well, “Camp Myth,” and it’s about a summer camp for young mythological creatures. There aren’t any special human children who can see “beyond the veil” or anything. I mean actual kid versions of all these bad-ass monsters go to a summer camp to learn how to play nice with each other.
Instead of all those cheesy Boy Scout camp merit badges you get as a kid for tying knots and taking care of your pet cat, this camp has badges for taking care of a pet Cerberus, or bird watching for a Phoenix – stuff like that. I had a ton of great ideas and potential story directions, but then I got sidetracked with a bunch of other projects, so I put the whole thing on the backburner. This is, until I discovered Kickstarter, and thought it was a perfect fit.
So now Camp Myth has been reborn as the world’s first (I think) entirely collaborative novel. For the next few weeks, the project will be available for funding on Kickstarter, and how it ultimately turns out will be decided by the number of people who contribute, and what details their donation will allow them to add to the narrative.
In other words, much like a summer camp is comprised of a bunch of unique kids and counselors doing activities and learning to support each other – so too will the novel be a reflection of the personalities of those who choose to back it.
I’ve also teamed up with the amazing, incredible, talented, every-synonym-possible-from-thesaurus.com, graphic artist, Anne Ballaran (who is also one of the lead artists for Rival Threads) to illustrate the cover. And if you think she’s as fantastic as I do, you’ll be happy to know that she’ll be providing some custom artwork for high-level backers. Trust me, work from her alone is worth the price of admission.
You mention creative input from funders being the key difference between Camp Myth vs. other Kickstarter Projects. Can you elaborate on that for those looking to find out how they can participate creatively?
I’d love to. So, Kickstarter is awesome, but over the past few months I’ve noticed a pretty definitive theme to the projects being offered: they’re all concrete ideas.
What I mean by that is, even at the highest donation levels, the most that a creator will typically offer is a cameo appearance in the final work (novel, movie, etc.), but certainly not any meaningful input into the project direction. The creative people on Kickstarter (and in general) have a firm idea of the story they want to tell, and that’s that. They aren’t looking to you for inspiration. They’re looking to you for cash.
And that’s totally fine. I completely understand the reasoning – heck, I agree with it. But what if you took the idea of a public-backed piece of entertainment and instead allowed people to contribute based on the amount they donate to the project? What if everything, from parts of the setting, to characters, to certain plot points were completely modular and ultimately left up to the backers?
Camp Myth will be a fully crowd-sourced novel, where the more you donate, the more of a say you’ll have in the world where everyone will interact.
Donations of any amount are greatly appreciated and general rewards start at only one dollar. But at the ten dollar level and beyond, you’ll be able to enroll in the camp, and you can select the mythical race (from eight) and name of a camper in the novel. The more you donate, the more defined your character will become, with higher tiers allowing backers to become camp counselors – or even a main character!
But there’s more. Camp Myth is a pretty dangerous place, and not ever camper returns home in one piece. After all, the Mythic community is no place for creatures that aren’t capable of facing a little danger. That’s why, beginning at the $25 dollar level and higher, every backer will be responsible for randomly removing a lower-tiered backer’s character from the camp.
That’s right. While your character won’t do the deed directly, you’ll be personally responsible for someone else’s character being taken out of the story. Will they be eaten after taunting a wild dragon, or sent home early after being caught with contraband phoenix feathers? Who knows? But since you’re only a potential target to people who’ve contributed to higher donation tiers, the higher you go, the better the chance you’ll make it to the graduation ceremony.
But there’s even more! In addition to creating a character, several tiers are able to contribute directly to Camp Myth lore. You can design merit badges that the cast will attempt to earn during their enrollment, and choose whether the main characters will succeed or fail, with consequences that will impact the rest of the story. Returning to my phoenix example, a backer could say they want the camp to have a badge for spotting a phoenix in the wild. If they succeed, maybe they find one of its fire-starting feathers to use down the road. Or maybe they fail, startling the phoenix, and in return it angrily torches the nearby baseball diamond (and half of the players!) Hey, I told you it was dangerous.
While there already is a main story in place that would work even without any outside input, I’m able to modify practically all of the moving parts while keeping the core concept in place. There are some restrictions, though, obviously. The success of Camp Myth will only be possible if people are willing to play ball. While anything creative within the realm of mythical creatures is encouraged, I’m going to be moderating to ensure that no one is paying ten bucks just to troll. You can’t just donate to the project and demand to name a camper “Ass Face McButt,” then create a merit badge for filleting a mermaid. I really believe this project can be a wonderful, entertaining experience that allows for creative people to come together and build an incredible world, but, like most things in life, it can only reach its full potential if people are willing to take it seriously. It’ll be a lot of work, but I know that I’m up for it if you all are :)
Oh, and in addition to eBooks, short story packs, hard copies of the book, custom characters, authorship of events, and the fun of eliminating other campers, have I mentioned that you can also get custom art from Anne Ballaran of your camper earning your personally-designed merit badge?!
Seriously, look at that cover again, then tell me you wouldn’t want something like that to hang on your wall :)
So yeah, if any of this has piqued your interest, why not head over to Kickstarter and check out the project page:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/chrislewiscarter/camp-myth-a-collaborative-ya-novel
And if anyone has any questions, or if you’d like more information, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, thanks for having me, Nathan. This was a blast!
Born and raised in Newfoundland, Canada, Chris Lewis Carter has been featured in over a dozen publications – both online and print – including The Cuffer Anthology II, Word Riot, 3AM Magazine, Murky Depths, and Pseudopod. His short story, Halloween Knight, was recently published in Nelson Literacy 8, and he is a finalist in the chuckpalahniuk.net anthology project. When he isn’t writing, Chris can usually be found playing video games or listening to obscure podcasts. He is currently working on his first novel, and is the lead writer for Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes, a video game scheduled to be released for iOS, Windows, and Mac in 2012.
Visit Chris at his Homepage: http://chrislewiscarter.com/
Buy his stories through Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Chris-Lewis-Carter/e/B007HCBUZS/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1
See the first chapter of the collectable, in-game story book that will be a part of Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes video game here: http://vimeo.com/38380312
Read “Kayfabe” at Word Riot: http://www.wordriot.org/archives/2318
“Bandit” at 3:AM Magazine: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/bandit/