Category Archives: Writing and tech

The Writers in the Room

About a month ago, I wrote about how Amy and I have been doing a “live podcast.” The trend continues! We have managed to stream each weekend, despite sickness, busyness, and distraction, and now we’re moving from something super casual and unofficial…to being The Writers in the Room.

Jake is mostly responsible for the title. We were working with “Worldbuilding with PrincessFray and half_pint,” which is a mouthful and a half and doesn’t actually give a random passer-by on Mixer (where we do the streaming) any idea of what we might be talking about. (“Are they video game designers? D&D dungeon masters? Writers? Who knows!”) One day Jake walked into the living room while I was watching a rerun on the Xbox and said, “Why don’t you call it ‘The Writers’ Room’?”

I liked it, but it wasn’t quite final, because it felt too generic. There are a lot of writers’ rooms out there; I’ve been a part of one, and it’s a grand old time, but when you’re in the middle of it you’re always conscious that others have done it before you. We needed to stand out a little more.

So. We’re the writers in the room.

The ones and onlys.

(Onlys isn’t a word.)

We’re just starting to get our branding off the ground – Josh has done up a nice screen that we put up while we talk, when we don’t have anything we want to show on our PCs. (It’s the illustration for this post.) As I mention in this week’s studiolog, we just started uploading our past episodes, with bumpers, to a Soundcloud account. Please follow us if you enjoy our silliness!

And stay tuned for more on how this venture develops. As we mentioned on the episode we recorded today, the Shames are always trying new things that interest us to see what sticks, and The Writers in the Room is one of those things.

Live podcasts

I mentioned in the last studiolog I wrote that we’ve been streaming our studio. Since then, we’ve refined that practice a little bit: Jake and Josh stream their shop time, which is mostly guitar work, and Amy and I stream our creative collaboration time.

It feels like a live podcast. And it’s awesome. (For us, at least.)

I’m not a big podcast fan. I’m not an audio learner, and I find it difficult to focus on anything else when I’m trying to glean real information from an audio source (whether that’s people talking to me or a podcast in my headphones), so until recently I’d never considered using this medium as a way of sharing my style and content with interested parties.

The other thing I don’t like about most podcasts I’ve heard is that they sound like lectures, not conversations. I want to have conversations with my superfans, not stand on a pedestal and word at them.

Thus: live podcasts, a.k.a. livestreaming. We get on the mic, and we’re silly and honest about what we’re working on. We might plan out a few points we want to touch on ahead of time, but mostly it’s spontaneous and organic, moving from one weird topic to another as we find good segues.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend this approach for anyone, but we’re finding that it’s really interesting for the Damn Shames for a few reasons:

  1. It makes us do the work. We aren’t the laziest squad out there, but given the chance to lounge on the couch and watch Below Deck, we’ll take it. The stream gives us a level of accountability to just doing it that we didn’t have before.
  2. We really enjoy it. Turns out, if you’re streaming something you actually enjoy doing, it’s pretty fun. The instant feedback is gratifying, and being able to go back and watch it again later means we don’t lose quite as many off-the-cuff ideas as we may have without the cameras and microphones rolling.
  3. It creates a log of what we did and how. We produce a fair amount of content, but until now, we didn’t do much behind-the-scenes. Having a video and audio record of our working sessions gives us something to look back on when we’re feeling unproductive and like we’ll never figure out how to get past a blocker again. (Spoiler alert: We will.)
  4. Did I mention we get instant feedback? We strive to be commercially palatable artists, and the fastest way to know if we’ve reached that bar is to show what we’re working on to our audience and ask them, “Is this, in fact, palatable?” If not, we haven’t gone too far down a path to change things up; if so, then hey, we’ll keep on keepin’ on.

If you’re interested in our current backlog, check out my Mixer account or Amy’s (you can watch the video-on-demand from either account, you just need to pick whose screen you want to see).

How bots make good storytellers

I love bots. My career is about natural language and language generation, and bots (will) sit right in that realm, when they’re done well. And it turns out that having a bot as a co-author creates a unique marketing opportunity.

I know a lot about designing bot-like things, but not so much about building them. So when I decided this summer I wanted to experiment with a storytelling bot for the Damn Shames characters, I went looking for a simpler option than coding my own. I found cheapbotsdonequick.com, set up a fresh Twitter account, and granted all the necessary permissions.

Then I had a delightful exercise before me that was half solving a logic puzzle, half dissecting the elements of a story. I had to come up with the moving parts, such as the character names I wanted to use or the actions the characters would be taking, and figure out how to nest them to form proper sentences (such as associating male characters with male pronouns).

After that, I had to write a bunch of sentences like this:

#ShamesName# is happy to see #AllCharactersName#.
#ShamesName# is yelling at the oorhunds.
#ShamesName# is eating space oranges in an attempt to ward off space scurvy.

And so on.

Each of those sentences (and the [now] hundreds of others I’ve written) has some random chance of being chosen and sent out as a Tweet on @ShamesBot every six hours. The Cheap Bots Done Quick service does some helpful stuff to ensure the bot is only generating 140 or fewer characters, so what I end up with is four published micro-stories a day.

Crazy, right?

There are definitely limitations to this very simple approach. (I’m not even using the advanced coding options CBDQ offers.) Sometimes, characters will interact with themselves in odd ways — “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab” — but that’s sort of what makes the bot an intriguing storyteller.

Because when I read “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab,” I don’t actually think, “Oh, the bot just put that in there twice.” I think, “Rahab would be as mean to herself as she is to everyone else. That explains why she’s so angry all the time… poor thing.” And suddenly I’ve invented this entire context for what is really a random generator’s weird glitch.

Humans look for the narrative; it helps us organize life’s chaos into something resembling coherence. When the bot produces chaos, the brain fills in the blanks. (Especially if you’ve already read the story the Tweets are about.)

And that’s the genius of a bot as a storyteller. You fill in the blanks for yourself. Bots are powerful narrative tool because their limitations leave so much room for the imagination to play — and when the imagination plays, it often claims what it plays with as its own. (Readers and writers of fan-fiction understand this concept well.)

You can build loyalty with this kind of cooperative storytelling. You can get someone to ask questions, or chime in with their own contributions. And it’s a really fun way to make your stories work for themselves.