Even before ebooks were all the rage, Howard Sherman took it up a notch. An Implementer of Interactive Fiction, he created Malinche Entertainment to “enchant established interactive fiction fans while enamoring fiction book readers.” His latest book is the interactive suspense thriller: Saints in Sin City. Sherman, who has enjoyed books and computers for nearly 30 years, speaks with Write On! about his creative process, the challenge to balance the aspects of his business and his life—and the ultimate solutions, and more.
When did you first get interested in the art of storytelling?
I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little boy so I’ve always had a love for the written word. As a teenager I was captured by the power of Interactive Fiction as it blended the best of both my worlds as a teen—books and computer games! It would take another 20 years or so before I learned how to create my own Interactive Fiction titles.
How did Malinche Entertainment come about?
An ardent fan of Infocom’s Interactive Fiction (also known as text adventure games), I was prowling the Internet looking for any vestiges of Infocom’s work, when I came across a small but dynamic Interactive Fiction community. The businessman in me realized an immediate opportunity to cater to a niche market that was completely ignored; fans like me who craved for more Interactive Fiction in the Infocom tradition. I picked up the tools of my trade in the late 1990s and started work on a prequel to the now-famous Pentari series of fantasy adventure novels. My corporate career as a divisional vice president crowded out any free time to my vision for Pentari further. As I climbed the corporate ladder perched as the President & COO of a nationwide Internet provider, I was suddenly lifted out of the trenches and given much more freedom and free time to pick up where I left off. That’s when Malinche took off.
How are they similar to the old “Choose Your Own Adventures” books?
They’re similar in the sense that the reader is given a sense of freedom of deciding how they’d like the story to progress. That’s also why they are very different; computer-driven Interactive Fiction introduces thousands of variables to the story that’s just not to be found on an ink-and-paper pick-your-own-ending book.
What goes into writing one of your “books?”
Mix two parts coffee with four parts creativity and blend with a dose of discipline. Any Interactive Fiction title is as much a piece of computer software as a full-length novel, and there’s a constant need for energy to create a computer program while simultaneously writing a novel. My cousins in conventional fiction have it easy by comparison; they “just” need to worry about the beginning, the middle, and the end of their novel. Because Interactive Fiction is so non-linear—the reader can do basically whatever they want and whenever they want—I am constantly checking the story’s flow to make sure it’s logical in all conditions. I’m also challenged with preventing the end coming before the middle thanks to the limitless avenue of choices I make available to the reader.
The logic of this can be exhausting. In my latest work Saints in Sin City, the reader is in possession of (among other things) a Taser. What if the reader decides to Taser a colleague such as, oh say, the Chief of Police? Or one of the many bad guys? Or an innocent bystander? My interactive stories must respond to every reasonable condition. I must implement every realistic possibility in every part of the story, which is why it takes much longer to craft an Interactive Fiction title as opposed to writing a book. If I don’t mine every detail, I risk losing the reader to the unforgiving realms of unreality. Counter-intuitively, fiction must be more realistic than reality.
Where do your ideas come from?
Everywhere and nowhere. The ether. The long stoplight. The backyard while grilling steaks and sipping scotch. The one hour stare-at-the-wall sessions where I just sit and think and explore a story’s possibilities in my mind before my fingers touch the keyboard. Most of my ideas emerge from what I’m looking for at the moment. My imagination supplies the treasure.
What was your favorite part of writing A Saint in Sin City? The greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge was my restraint. [laugh] I’m famous (notorious?) for Implementing very large “play areas” the reader is tasked with exploring as they unwind the story. If you’ve ever been to one of the big resorts on The Las Vegas Strip then you know how big any one of those casinos can be. I held myself back from Implementing a massive field for the reader to explore instead opting to be compact and concise. I’m a big believer in delivering atmosphere, and the hardest part of writing A Saint in Sin City was knowing when to go forward and when to hold back to deliver the most realistic immersion experience for the reader without pushing the novel over the edge into the pedantic.
My favorite part was virtually “Living in Las Vegas” the entire time I was writing it. I’m a Las Vegas regular which means I have an infinite supply of interesting experiences to draw upon which made the writing flow so easily at some points. In my own personal travels I’ve gambled with a Michelin-rated chef who was drunk out of his mind, leading him to play Blackjack like an idiot at the Las Vegas Hilton while on another occasion a man named Fuentes extended me an open invitation to visit his expansive ranch In Texas whenever I wanted. We made friends playing Blackjack at The Venetian and he told me to come to his town and just ask anyone on the street for him by name and he will see to it I am properly entertained and looked after. I’ve got dozens of experiences along these lines.
I injected all of my experience and energy from my own adventures in Las Vegas and it was a blast every step of the way. Even the ordinarily event of arduous editing was incredibly interesting.
How do you balance all the aspects of your business?
Ironically, writing A Saint in Sin City forced me to rebalance everything. I blew deadline after deadline for every reason imaginable. First I was distracted by the explosive growth of one of my companies. Then I had the worst bout of writer’s block I ever encountered that lasted months. Then more executive decisions distracted me. Throughout it all were the formidable demands of being a good husband and father which trumps everything else in the world. All told it’s taken me two years to complete A Saint in Sin City which is more than twice as long as usual.
I made myself a promise that will never happen again and I’ve made good on that promise; I doubled the size of my staff, retained a new CPA firm and an attorney to intercept the day-to-day minutia and handle it on my behalf freeing to my write.
My actions led to excellent excess—with all the newly-found free time I’m able to spend more meaningful moments with my wife and my daughter. The secret to this success is wrapped up in just one word: delegate! Nobody can nor should try to do everything themselves.
I put this advice out there: Recruit help and put them to work to tackle the tasks that must be done but don’t necessarily require your personal attention. Let your attention be turned to more important matters.
Advice for writers?
When you hit a wall like I did and just couldn’t write just keep WANTING to write. Crave it. Long for it. Push for every inch. Get yourself back in your zone whatever it takes. Hire someone to nag you if need be. Your brain will provide the answers if you ask the right questions. Mine were: “WHY am I not in the mood?” “HOW can I stop the workflow heading my way from flooding me?” “WHERE can I find inspiration?” Along any point in the writing process—from first-effort draft to the inability to provide a final draft to how to boost book sales—writers need to ask themselves better questions to get better answers.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I knew it was harder than it appeared to be. I would’ve been better prepared for the cold water before I jumped in.