An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
One Amazing Editor
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who listen to feedback and those who don't. The ones who listen to feedback find themselves improving over time. The ones who don't listen to feedback stagnate. It's pretty simple.
Enter: the editor.
This type of role exists in many forms across various media. For writing, it can be a person working for a traditional publishing company that reads and suggests how to improve a story. Or perhaps find and correct grammar and spelling mistakes, or maybe it's a friend who temporarily steps into the role of an editor and reads your story, giving their thoughts on what works and what doesn't. Of course, you could pick apart what I just said and argue the semantics of alpha readers, beta readers, and the different types of edits like developmental, line, etc.—but the core, the root of what's happening, is the same: feedback.
Contrary to some of what I've seen spread on ye olde internet, an editor's job isn't to smile and grab hold of a big steaming pile of 💩 from a writer and make it good. An editor's job is to help improve a writer's work and hopefully help improve the writer in the process. But the writer needs to actually listen.
When I created Absolution, I accidentally introduced all sorts of problems. You read online the final version that Zarina played out, but the previous iterations had issues that you don't know about. These things happen. It happens with anything I write. It's to be expected, really. That's why there's such a thing as a first draft, second draft, two-hundredth draft—however many it takes. When you create something, you see it through a strange lens that allows you to see all of the flaws that no one else does and none of the flaws that other people see. It's a real problem that tempts you into becoming mired in neverending tweaks for things that no one will care about except for you.
That's why, at least for writing, you should let other people experience what you've created firsthand, then provide thoughts. Unless you don't want to improve or think you're flawless and what you've written is perfect (you'd be wrong 100% of the time, by the way.)
Let's talk specifics for Absolution. Here's a list of some things that went wrong but Tae (who else?) caught for me, and I was able to correct them before Zarina saw anything:
The original name sucked.
It was initially "Hospitium."
Hospitium is the ancient Greco-Roman concept of hospitality as a divine right of the guest and a divine duty of the host.
Obviously, this was a reference to Giovanni throwing Ksenija out into the street. Conceptually, it was fine, but the word itself is a mouthful. Try saying it out loud, and you'll see what I mean.
The word "Absolution" has a much better mouthfeel to it.
Absolution: formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment. An ecclesiastical declaration of forgiveness of sins.
Aside from the mouthfeel of the two words, what else do you notice about them that would make Absolution a better candidate for a title than Hospitium? After I wrote down Hospitium to be used as a working title, something in the back of my brain held onto it. It bothered me, but I didn't know why. Eventually, I ran it by Tae, and together, we concluded that if the story revolved around Giovanni, then Hospitium might be a good fit, but since the story actually revolved around Zarina, Absolution fit much better. Giovanni violated the concept of Hospitium, resulting in the family curse. But, Zarina breaks the family curse, therefore achieving Absolution. See? Better, right?
These little details may not seem like much on their own, but when you have an entire story full of slight oddities, it throws everything off. It's like walking down a hallway that's slanted two degrees counterclockwise. You may not notice it as you walk, but you'll probably veer into a wall or trip along the way.
Here's another one for you: Ksenija Horvat has twin boys. Now, that's buried in the character chart for Ksenija, and it didn't come up in the immersive experience. But the whole point of the story was to let Zarina play out a kind of game and then have a bunch of stuff to go through later at her leisure (like the character sheets.) Zarina is an avid reader and has an eye for small details, so the more realistic something is, the better. World-building grounded in the reality we all know makes the suspension of disbelief for the parts we don't know that much easier.
Right, so twin boys, what's the problem?
I originally wrote this as twin girls.
Take a second to see if you can spot the issue.
Giovanni's journal entries are from the year 1650, a few hundred years ago. There are hundreds of years between when Ksenija had twins and when Zarina's story played out. Ksenija and her twins are the only ones left in her immediate family. If Ksenija had twin girls and they grew up to pass along the curse to the Rosiello family, then they had children, and their children had children—all of which passed along the curse, how would they still have the Horvat surname? The likelihood of passing the Horvat surname down generation after generation is good if they are boys, but not girls. In the culture and times, in the history of the regions of the world involved, it's much more believable if Ksenija had boys, and those boys kept the Horvat name and passed it down.
Again, it may not seem like a big problem. But, I can tell you that I've been running a book club for years, and these things do come up. Once someone spots it and mentions it, everyone else jumps in and suddenly realizes that it bothered them, too, but they couldn't pinpoint what it was until someone else said it.
Something, something, something, dark side.
You are cursed.
Wave your hands in front of your face.
Did that make you believe you were cursed?
Of course not.
This was another issue in the early iterations of Absolution. I knew I wanted the story to be about a lycanthropic curse, but I didn't know how it worked or where it came from. Now that's a detail that massively impacted how the story played out.
Zarina's ancestor Giovanni got cursed because of his interaction with Ksenija. A few hundred years later, Zarina gets cursed because Delilah buries a box near her. I could have made it so Zarina just automatically got cursed without any box or Delilah at all, but I wanted an interactive story where Zarina could get her hands dirty.
Readers (and immersive fiction participants) want to understand why something happens. You don't have to spell it all out for them (compare what's revealed in the immersive fiction vs. behind the scenes on Giovanni/Ksenija), but you, as the creator, need to understand—because it can play a huge role in your entire creation. If you just say something is and leave it at that, it will be evident to anyone who reads your work.
How satisfied were you when your parents told you, "because I said so"?
Screaming temporal doom.
We all have tendencies in life, whether they come up concerning what we like to eat, how we entertain ourselves, hobbies we gravitate toward, or how we unintentionally create screaming temporal doom.
Sometimes, I have to move things around when I'm working out a scene. Occasionally, I create a big tangled mess of yarn, and I can't figure out how to untie all the knots. It's a weird phenomenon where, in the span of about 3 paragraphs, I've created a hole in the fabric of space-time. Nothing makes sense. A looping, recursive, self-referential parallel series of déjà vu sentences that I can't resolve because usually I don't even see them.
That's the creator lens problem I mentioned earlier. The creator can see problems that others can't; others can see problems the creator can't.
This happens more often when I'm writing fiction because I try to let scenes develop organically, which means I find out precisely what happens while I'm writing it.
Whether I see the screaming temporal doom problem or not, someone else will catch it. Lucky for me, Tae serves as my own part-time warrior to wrangle the world lines and avert disaster.
Awkward sentences, strange wording, inconsistent character voices, unintentionally using American spellings when it should be British (or vice versa), stiff dialogue, too casual of dialogue for the scene and character, referencing something that hasn't yet happened, overuse of words, unintentional alliteration, character development that doesn't fully develop, character arcs that crash land, weak voices, accidental exhausting exposition, misspelling character names/locations, Switzerland has four national languages (none of which are English), and Italy did not become a single nation until 1861, at which time less than 10% of its citizens spoke the national language, Italian.
That's just off the top of my head. And that's why it's so important to put your work out there and listen to what someone else says about it. If you're writing, you need some kind of editor. It can be a professional, an amateur, a friend, a loved one, a stranger, a follower on social media, someone you pay, or someone who does it for free. No matter who it is, they are giving you their opinion, and if you value that person's opinion, do your part and listen.
If you've ever created anything in your life (I know you have), you already know that listening to someone's opinion on your work can be tough sometimes. But, it's important to listen. You don't have to agree with the feedback you receive, and you certainly don't have to incorporate it. You should listen, though, and try to objectively understand what is being said—then you can decide what to do with it.
No one is perfect, and you don't have to aim for perfection. Just keep an open mind, and always remember that you are in charge of your own creation (unless you've signed it away in a contract. 😉)