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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, Fiction, Pop Culture, The Writer's Life

I’m Irked About Inkle—Another Bad Idea for Writers

Here’s the latest from the land of I Wanna Be a Famous Writer But Don’t Know Nothin’ About Writing. It’s a service called inklewriter[1], and it purports to help would-be writers create “interactive tales.” That’s a story where the reader gets to choose from among several options as to what happens next.

If I sound prematurely condescending, it’s probably due to the non-writerly marketing spiel on their home page. Here’s the opening blurb:

At inkle, we believe it takes great writers to tell great stories. That’s why we’ve created inklewriter, to help writers tell interactive tales with the minimum of fuss.

Fuss? Anyone who thinks writing involves “fuss” isn’t a writer. Fuss is for cleaning your oven, or wrestling with your do on a bad hair day. And the idea of great writing without effort[2] is completely ridiculous. But then, marketing people aren’t concerned with making sense, only with creating a positive impression through words that have a positive connotation—hence “believe” and “great” and “minimum of fuss.”

What really irks me about inkle is the idea of interactive stories themselves. Sure, it sounds cool and technological, and certainly the idea could prove popular among readers. But from the author’s perspective, it’s essentially saying that the writer’s message is superfluous. The themes in the writing, the social comment, the desire to help readers understand a world they’ve never before considered—all that is now subordinate to what the reader wants.

The inklers are encouraging writers to give up their integrity in order to pander to the market (this is what marketing and advertising people do every day). They are telling writers to let the reader decide how the story should go. But a main idea behind writing (and other arts) is to convey what’s in the creator’s mind and foster an intellectual discussion of the issues raised. When a writer gives up that authority, what is left? I’d guess just a series of meandering scenarios…

When I write, I often develop several possible plot lines and outcomes. Then I work to discard all but the very best one, the one that makes the story or book resound with meaning. Inklewriter says no more of that. Meaning is passé. Leave those failed storylines in! No wonder there’s no fuss.

It’s bad enough so many agents and publishers have been duped by their corporate overlords into believing the market should drive artistic aesthetics. Now inklewriter wants writers—the very creators of the art—to believe it too. Trouble is, that approach doesn’t produce art, it just churns out more wanna-be writing. I have to believe, or at least hope, that real writers will see inklewriter for the marketing scheme it really is.

As for me, I’ll stick to good old, spill-your-guts-on-the-page writing. Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but at least I’m not a fussbudget.


[1] The lower case is theirs, not mine.

[2] Effort? Try blood, sweat, guts.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

52 thoughts on “I’m Irked About Inkle—Another Bad Idea for Writers

  1. Well, really. Of course writing takes effort. Writing interactively, that takes fuss; because you have to map out alternatives, branches, make sure they weave in and out but still hang together, and make sure the tale gets told the way you wanted it to.

    And I totally disagree that interactive writing means the author has no message. It’s not as though making a story interactive means the author doesn’t write every single word. It’s a different manner of reading, but I don’t see the writing getting easier here.

    So, for example – because you read at least one example, right? – here’s The Intercept, a story about deception and concealment set in Bletchley Park, which is very interactive, and very tightly woven.

    http://writer.inklestudios.com/stories/theintercept

    I feel like your objection is that it’s available to “wannna-be writers” who may write “meandering scenarios”? But I find that odd – so is a pen!

    Posted by Jon Ingold | March 16, 2013, 1:07 PM
    • Mr. Ingold neglects to mention that he is one of the founders of inkle studios.

      Posted by jpon | March 16, 2013, 1:13 PM
    • So true. It’s no different than a story-based video game. There’s a still a message, but the reader just has more “control” over how to get to the end (or to one of many ends).

      Posted by Jennifer M | July 13, 2014, 11:58 PM
  2. Well, I thought that obvious from the link on name, to be honest.

    Posted by Jon Ingold | March 16, 2013, 1:15 PM
  3. Unfortunately, this seems to go with our whole “be famous without doing anything” culture. I was listening to a musician’s interview recently where he was asked about how his children take the fame. He said he tells them they’re not famous, he is, and that he’s famous only because he did the work for 30 years.

    On the issue of image in general, I think there’s a strange phenomenon here in Silicon Valley. If you’re under 40, you have to be working for one of the cool names: LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, Apple. It doesn’t matter what you do there, so long as you’re there. I know young people who’ve taken less money or lesser jobs from bigger (stodgier??) companies because it’s not cool to work there. Kind of like it’s not cool to write your own book anymore and actually create something from nothing — you need inklers, or James Patterson for a partner.

    Posted by Teri | March 16, 2013, 1:21 PM
    • Your comment made my day, Teri. It’s interesting to me how many people see art and entertainment fields as a way to “get rich and famous quick,” even though they usually require more study and experience than most careers. It could be because unlike say, accountant or attorney, there is no absolute requirement for an advanced degree. But except for a rare cases, becoming successful in the arts takes years of effort and frustration. Think Beyonce started out at the top? Even (cringe) Britney Spears had to practice for a long time.

      Posted by jpon | March 16, 2013, 4:53 PM
    • I was just at a conference in Santa Clara. One young wunderkind presenter had created a brain-to-machine interface, with which he could pilot a wheelchair by thought. But he didn’t know how to pronounce the word naive. (He said “knave” instead.) My language snobbery arose in force, and I felt better about being old and less technically skilled. (Later that day, another Silicon Valley wunderkind pronounced it “knive”!)

      Posted by aric | March 18, 2013, 12:39 AM
      • What dumbbells. Everyone knows it’s pronounced “kneeve.”

        I would like to see what happens when these people try to use voice recognition software. They probably think there’s something wrong with the coding.

        Posted by jpon | March 18, 2013, 12:00 PM
      • Don’t make me brandish my umlaut!

        “…most people have the literary skills of an anteater (I was going to say, ‘a chimpanzee,’ but these animals are too smart for my metaphor).” –Jakob Nielsen

        Posted by arichaley | March 18, 2013, 9:17 PM
  4. What famous talking head was it who said that each person on earth could now have his or her “fifteen minutes” of fame? Inkle sounds like an idea which has come to maturity (or rather, senility, since it doesn’t sound like the work of mature writerly folk) in that atmosphere.

    Posted by shadowoperator | March 16, 2013, 1:33 PM
    • That wasn’t a “talking head.” It was Andy Warhol who said it.

      Posted by jpbohannon | March 16, 2013, 2:47 PM
      • Sorry, didn’t mean to sound offensive. While I don’t particularly idolize Warhol, his remark has been quoted so many times by so many people that I myself probably did hear it from a “talking head.” I meant the label with no real degree of precision. What concerns me is the notion of constant chatter in the news, everyone saying something which amounts to no one actually saying anything that stands out.

        Posted by shadowoperator | March 16, 2013, 3:06 PM
    • And now we have the potential for “fifteen pages” of fame.

      Posted by jpon | March 16, 2013, 4:55 PM
    • No need to apologize. And I agree with you about the constant chatter. I was just sticking up for good old Andy–didn’t want him confused with Katie Couric, Matt Laurer, Bill O’Reiley, etc. Cheers.

      Posted by jpbohannon | March 16, 2013, 9:09 PM
  5. Joe,

    Thanks for helping me oil up my thought machine this fine Saturday morning. It looks like I’m on both sides of the issue here. I think inkle’s premise really isn’t a threat or a true apples-to-apples comparison to the craft of writing. It seems to fit more in the novelty word game bucket, much in the same vein as Mad Libs.

    I don’t see the harm in offering readers a mechanism to be involved in storytelling. Inkle sounds like an entertainment platform based on ploy and ease-of-use, but it at least encourages readers to use a different side of their noggin. It accomplishes the artful, hybrid objective of merging language with technology in a collaborative fashion.

    I guess I don’t begrudge inkle participants their choice of leisure time much in the same way that I don’t turn my nose up to those who are addicted to the wildly popular online board game, “Words with Friends.” If anything, I like the fact that an increasing number of folks are at least spending part of their day thinking about words and potentially improving their vocabulary in the process.

    I do notice a trend, I think, in offering the reader (or in the case of film, the movie viewer) multiple story endings. It’s not as satisfying, perhaps, as a complete resolution, but like the director’s cut or uncut version, the choose-your-own-ending device does give the non-writer an inside glimpse of the creative process and encourages “participation.”

    In sum, Joe, I respect your efforts as a writer to whittle down all the possible plot lines and outcomes to choose a resounding conclusion. And I’m confident that you and most serious writers of fiction won’t allow themselves (or their character development) to be influenced by reader expectations or preferences. Just as you would never let a publisher, agent, marketer or Hollywood producer tell you how you think your story should end. Unless, maybe, the idea that they offer actually gets you to thinking about the tale in a whole different light.
    .

    Posted by Dan Cafaro | March 16, 2013, 2:15 PM
    • If a Hollywood producer asked me to consider changing the resolution of my story, I would probably go into existential crisis mode. Maybe I could wheedle a few extra bucks out of them, along with the right to say publicly I disagreed with the producer’s choice. Makes me wonder how often that’s happened with writers whose books get made into movies.

      But you make some great points, Dan. And I don’t begrudge inkle’s attempt to make a business with what they’re doing. If there’s a market for it, they’ll be fine. In fact, the other aspect of their service, helping video game designers plan scenarios, seems like a natural (but I’m no VGD so what do I know). What really bothers me is the marketing approach that equates “great writing” with a computer program. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I found it insulting to any writer who’s worked for years to get a manuscript just right.

      Posted by jpon | March 16, 2013, 5:08 PM
  6. There’s no reason inklewriter can’t be a fun way to produce a story. There’s no reason it can’t be entertaining for the reader. It’s even possible for a talented writer to use this device and produce something interesting.
    inklewriter has a place. But that place is in the toys and games department, next to paint-by-numbers kits.

    My objection is that inkle seems to purport to be a short cut way to produce writing of genuine value. It has a very info-mercial feel to it. It’s like the differece between knitting and using a Ronco Knit-O-Matic.

    “Yes! You are a writer! Just plug inkle in and away you go! Plot quandries? No worries, INKLE!!!! Lack of direction? INKLE!!! And if you order within the next ten minutes, we’ll send you dik-shun-ary!!! Every word you’ll ever need, all in one place, just choose the ones you want!!!! (Shipping and handling extra.)

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 16, 2013, 4:04 PM
  7. (And I think Andy Warhol would have loved to create an installation of a TV showing his head, repeatedly saying, “Fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes!)

    Posted by Jon Zech | March 16, 2013, 4:07 PM
  8. Interesting, I’d never heard of this site before. Does anyone remember the “Choose your own adventure” books by R. L. Stine and others? (Here’s a wiki link on the topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choose_Your_Own_Adventure)

    I remember enjoying them when I was a child, but of course I enjoyed many different things back then. I can’t honestly entertain the idea of reading them now, but I can see the appeal for children. Maybe the inkle site would be fun for kids getting started in writing, but I can’t imagine using it myself. Too much technology between my story and the page (whether that is paper or a word processing document) is more trouble than it’s worth for me.

    Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 16, 2013, 5:14 PM
    • I hate to admit I’m a little too old to remember CYOA, but they sound fascinating, from a pre-technology standpoint, kind of like the 10-pound, mechanical adding machines people used to use before calculators came along. Kind of makes me sad for the days when people actually had to think through large organizational problems

      Posted by jpon | March 16, 2013, 5:23 PM
      • They were fun and pretty engaging. I only read a few and my impression was they were all pretty similar but I always wondered if I had exhausted all of the possibilities.

        Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 17, 2013, 2:00 PM
    • I loved those interactive books when I was a kid. I can’t say they had any significant impact on my reading habits or made me less appreciative of other books—it was just something to do, like Mad Libs.

      I can’t tell whether inkle is a game or some sort of Scrivener device to organize the different plot lines.

      Posted by Averil Dean | March 16, 2013, 5:57 PM
      • I thought the same thing at first, Averil. Now I see, there’s an app for that!

        And as my kids would say (and say about everything these days) “There’s an app for that.”

        Posted by Teri | March 16, 2013, 6:05 PM
      • Same for me. It was a fun diversion mostly. I definitely enjoyed other books more but it was fun to read them now and again.

        Posted by 365 Days of Verse | March 17, 2013, 2:02 PM
  9. It’s fascinating what CREATIVITY comes up…not only great works of art…but stuff like this.

    And I believe you mean “…their corporate overloRds…” not “…their corporate overloads”…?

    Posted by fpdorchak | March 16, 2013, 5:28 PM
    • Damn! Where’s my grammar checker? You can’t count on these writing programs for anything!

      (I’ll fix it…)

      Posted by jpon | March 16, 2013, 5:37 PM
  10. I agree with all the comments and especially the post. Moreover, let me wander into the fray a little further and ask you all whether we all really need to promote our books through social media?

    What I mean is that everyone these days is advised by “successful authors” that they probably spend a small part of their day writing and the majority of it twatting…oops Freudian slip, tweeting and engaging readers through (anti?) social media to build up a “following”. Should not we be sweating, crying, feeling elation at times when we create something, and holding our heads when the Muse deserts us?

    Do we writers, or rather should we, have to resort to blatant self promotion to be able to publish? Or should we spend that time reading and writing?

    I for one, dislike social media as a means of promotion… I would rather write what I want to write, have a couple of friends read it than a lot of people who I really care nothing about… Then again I could write complete codswallop, have a squillion followers, sell cartloads and outsource the writing and the social media management to someone else.

    Ah… For the days of a pen and a piece of paper, a good idea and a stiff drink (and not necessarily in that order)!

    Posted by JC | March 16, 2013, 5:40 PM
    • Don’t get me going. That’s not just another blog topic, that’s a book’s worth. We all spend way too much time on social media as opposed to actual writing because when the corporate moguls bought up the publishing industry (just like they bought up every other artistic endeavor), they made sales more important that artistic statement and intent. Agents and publishers have almost no choice but to follow their dictates, and we writers either play along or play alone. The standard rejection response from agents is no longer “I didn’t think the story was good,” but “I don’t think I can sell it.”

      And I’ll have that drink now.

      Posted by jpon | March 17, 2013, 12:26 AM
  11. I always thought there should be some nice curtains in the background of the Mona Lisa. That would be interactive art, wouldn’t it?

    Posted by Paul Lamb | March 16, 2013, 10:52 PM
    • Love it! Maybe they should hang a digitized version of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, so viewers can change the color scheme until it suits their mood.

      Posted by jpon | March 17, 2013, 12:27 AM
  12. What happened to your “like” icon. I like this post very much. Inkle pisses me off. Guess I’m an old “fuddy-duddy” too.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | March 16, 2013, 10:58 PM
    • Strange. Several people “liked” the blog earlier today. Must be a WordPress issue.

      I suspect writers are fuddy-duddies by nature.

      Posted by jpon | March 17, 2013, 12:34 AM
  13. Guess your “like” button went somewhere with my question mark in my comment. :-)

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | March 16, 2013, 10:59 PM
    • Tune in next week. Maybe it’ll be back.

      Posted by jpon | March 17, 2013, 12:35 AM
      • “Like” is on the WP “Reader” page, but I don’t show it on your actual blog page, either. Just the past one or two weeks, it’s been like this for me.

        Posted by fpdorchak | March 17, 2013, 1:09 PM
      • See the response to Anna, below. Unless I’m the evil twin, in which case the good twin turned it off.

        Posted by jpon | March 17, 2013, 1:19 PM
  14. I wonder if there really is a market. This is the first time I’ve heard of Inkle. Or maybe it just went in one ear, out the other? (See? Without the “like” button, I’m reduced to cliche.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | March 17, 2013, 2:33 AM
    • Oh I’m sure there will be some kind of market for this.

      And I found the problem with the like button. Someone turned it off. My evil twin perhaps.

      Posted by jpon | March 17, 2013, 1:18 PM
  15. very interesting exchange around a well-written, thoughtful post. It’s complicated, because as the Warhol reference evidences, we are already in this odd, late capitalist, uebermarket world, where everybody and everything is commodified (a situation that Warhol arguably contributed to via the Factory and his pretty shameless self-promotion and “use” of other artists [see I SHOT ANDY WARHOL for an alternative history of that world]).

    My gamer students and friends tell me that the world of video-games proposes exciting multiple narrative threads to players, and it sounds like this current writing program is attempting to capitalize on that interest. Video-games as an art form certainly exist (there was apparently a video-game created that lost you points as you killed people, while you gained points as you proceeded in pacifist, altruistic directions..), but that’s not what this program is proposing. And, as others have noted, it drains the creativity out of the individual artist’s practice, by “doing it all for you.” And absolutely, the language is insulting — but then so is the language of most advertising.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | March 17, 2013, 7:33 PM
    • The language of advertising, just like the language of politics, is designed to appeal to what I call the lowest common denominator–in other words, most of it is written so the dumbest person will understand and be motivated by it, and anyone smarter just puts up with it. (I should know, I used to work in that field.) But as you said, it’s insulting to anyone with more than an 8th grade level education. Trouble is, as the educational standards in the US go into freefall, that kind of advertising only works better, which brings the level of discourse lower and lower. Until our society makes a commitment to better education for ALL, we’ll only continue the downward trend.

      Posted by jpon | March 18, 2013, 11:56 AM
  16. Open-ended, interactive stories make me cringe.
    On the other hand, I wasn’t brought up among laptops, wiis, x-boxes, tablets, i-phones and the like. Maybe it’s just the new way of telling stories and we ‘traditional’ readers/writers are a bit out of touch?

    Posted by ccpietri | March 23, 2013, 3:23 PM
    • That could be. Some times I feel like everything we “traditional” writers learned is out of touch with the way it’s done now.

      Posted by jpon | March 23, 2013, 9:51 PM
  17. One of my favorite lines from Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead is “Every exit is an entrance somewhere else”. interactive storytelling has the potential to take that idea to its ultimate meaning. Imagine Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view ( http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/12/hamlet-choose-adventure/ ) Indeed one could argue it’s more in line with the very roots of narrative and literature ( http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/14/science/la-sci-sn-oldest-cave-art-20120514 ).

    Every medium seems to go through the same cycle. novelty, exploitation, refinement, acceptance, expansion. We’re hitting the refinement phase of interactivity currently.

    When motion pictures first started they where considered entertainment for children and simpletons. Theater pundits pronounced them dead on arrival. That was before the likes of City Lights, Metropolis, and Steamboat Willie. Later it was believed that television would destroy the movie industry. But inevitably, those mediums simply adapted. It’ll be the same here.

    Products like inkle are to interactive stories what the super 8 camera was to film. A means of democratizing a medium heretofore reserved for a select few “within the industry.” Besides, have you ever tried to keep track of dialog trees within Word (or used Word in general)? It’s a tool, use it, or don’t if it isn’t for you. Don’t begrudge them a little wide eyed optimism.

    It’ll be interesting for future generations to compare The Metamorphosis with Mass Effect, Nineteen Eighty-four with Portal, THX-1138 with ICO, or compare The Morning After with the meaning behind Missile Command (seriously watch this, it’s only 6 minutes: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/narrative-mechanics)

    And I can’t wait to see where the choices in Kentucky Route Zero Resolve. Now instead of one narrative thread we can examine stories from multiple angles, and personal perspectives.

    Ultimately the means of telling a story are less important than the result in the audience.

    Posted by Nobody | August 13, 2013, 7:45 AM
    • Excellent points, and your assessment of the five stages of technology–novelty, exploitation, refinement, acceptance, expansion (which seem a bit like the five stages of grief) is spot on. But I still see a lot of the exploitation phase going on, encouraged by our capitalist economic model, which forces even artists to place a monetary value on creativity. Indeed, I am part of a group of local writers planning a small publishing venture. Although we all would love to do it for the love of literature, we find our meetings filled with questions like “how can we make money from this activity or that one?” It may be a necessary part of the equation, but I’d love to see how things would go without it.

      Posted by jpon | August 13, 2013, 10:28 AM
      • Absolutely! You want to produce something but it costs money to make anything, not to mention that pesky eating, living somewhere, paying bills problem that keeps coming up. You’d like to think that the works you produce will find an audience, and that audience in turn will reward you enough to make the next work. Getting anything in front of an audience is a labor of love, compromise, and consternation. All the while trying to avoid con-artists and shady business partners.

        A lot of the focus on return on investment in interactive media, I think, stems from the fact it’s largely a collaborative medium. Not to mention the cost of the tools themselves. To give you an example, until recently the Unreal Engine, the toolkit a large portion of developers use, cost $50,000 to license! That’s before you even Start making anything. Then you have programmers, modelers, texture artists, sound designers, game designers, marketing teams, quality assurance teams, business professionals, all of which put in hard work (roughly 100 people at around 200 000 man-hours) to make any major project a reality. Many major productions can cost upwards of $100 million to produce. Most of this money coming from investors who naturally want a return on their money.

        Thankfully we are starting to see a wave of freely available/lower cost toolkits, and additional tools to help reduce the amount of material that needs to be produced. Not to mention a reexamining of what is truly necessary to convey an idea interactively. Epic has made a version of Unreal freely available (until release commercially which costs $99, and then when you hit a specific amount of sales at which point the royalties kick in) or Unity which has a free version and a single priced onetime fee for the professional toolkits.

        To return to the film analogy we’re at about the period of the studio system collapse. Independent developers are beginning to rise up, sometimes out of the ranks of the major studios themselves, sometimes from completely outside the system. It’s only a matter of time before we have our own Shakespeare, Truffaut, and Spielberg.

        The internet to has been a large part of this as well. Now artisans no longer need permission from gatekeepers to reach an audience. Many other art forms have benefited too, from poetry and writing to movies and graphic novels.That creates the problem of much greater competition, but also the promise of reaching a more focused audience. We’re moving from the Medici model to the collection plate. And so the cycle continues. At least it’s getting a little better.

        As for content maturity, we’re getting there. In baby steps, but we’re getting there. Reading this ( http://kotaku.com/cancer-the-video-game-471333034 ) had me in tears and I haven’t even played it yet!

        Posted by NOBODY | August 13, 2013, 7:10 PM
  18. I surfed on in to this months-old article. And, while I’m too busy to read every single comment posted since March, in case anyone else hasn’t pointed this out, interactive fiction has been around since at least the 1970s (Choose Your Own Adventure books are one form that comes to mind, as well as computer text adventures). So this is nothing new. What is new-ish is the means of creating and “publishing” (if we understand the Web as a means of publishing) without the need for a publishing house, book deal, etc. Surely, you are not criticizing the very spirit of the Internet. Anyone who is a lousy writer and uses this program may remain a lousy writer. Or they may improve over time, especially if Inkle is used alongside books on how to write in addition to simply reading good books.

    The title of your post was how Inkle is another bad idea for writers. But if it’s writers we’re talking about, how can this be? How is exposure on the Internet via a free website a bad thing for writers? Is this simply a matter of pride, that you would deny the reader input into your story through the decades-old vehicle of interactive fiction? If that’s what you dislike, then so be it. But I find it hard to criticize Inkle Writer for offering a free program to encourage writers to write, or curious would-be writers to try.

    Posted by David Paskey (@paskeyland) | October 15, 2013, 11:03 PM
  19. David Paskey you are the only man here who gets it. Joe, I think you missed the point entirely. You speak about themes in writing and social comment. You are thinking specifically of proper novels/books (like the Outsiders, Don Quixote, Northern Lights, Lolita…. list goes on).

    I don’t think many people are going to be trying to write such things with Inklewriter, though they could if they wanted.

    Inklewriter is a great idea for people who want to make computerized choose your own adventure books, these books are just good fun and not always meant to have a message or be trying to say something.

    Look up some of Eddard Packard’s books. Very successful, I loved them when I was younger. No message in them, not the highest standard of writing but great fun all the same.

    Posted by Cian | June 17, 2014, 2:36 PM

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