Book Breakdown: BREAK OUT, Draft 1Image Not Found.
Stick a fork in it – the first draft of BREAK OUT, my hardcover book on the history of Apple II games, is done.
In fact, BREAK OUT has been done for nearly a month. Most writers recommend stepping away for roughly that amount of time; writing a book is hard work, and you need a little time and space to cleanse your palette and work on something else before you return to your draft armed with dynamite, a scalpel, and a red pen. Now that the draft has had time to marinate, I'll begin revising next week.
Before I dig into revisions for draft 2, I'd like to reflect on BREAK OUT's first draft—how the project got started, how I determined which Apple II games to write about, and, of course, share some fun statistics such as word and page counts.
I'd been thinking about writing a book about formative Apple II games for a couple of years. I have fond memories of playing games on the Apple II my grandmother, a schoolteacher, brought home from her classroom during summer breaks, and of learning to program BASIC on one during... I'm guesstimating it was the summer before sixth grade.
So it wasn't a question of if the project would happen, but when. After finishing Gairden Chronicles and Stay Awhile and Listen, and about half a dozen other books on the docket, most likely. Serendipity happened to step in and speed things along.
Even though I voluntarily switched tracks from computer science to writing over 12 years ago, I still follow the tech scene and use my desktop for much more besides writing, and, when I have free time, I make a point to learn new software and operating systems just because I love tooling around with that sort of stuff. (They don't call us "computer geeks" for no reason, you know.)
Last April, I got it in my head to write a series of self-help books on computer operating systems. I went to my local bookstore, Books-a-Million, to thumb through a few OS books to get an idea of the best book layouts and information organizational structures to use. In the Computers section, I found a hardcover book with an NES cartridge on the front. The title was THE TOP 100 CONSOLE GAMES: 1977-1987, by Brett Weiss. Curious as to how such a book had ended up shelved among programming and Windows how-to books, I took it down and opened it.
A card fluttered out. Picking it up, I read it over. It was an advertisement from the book's publisher, Schiffer Publishing, inviting authors to pitch books in a wide array of categories. I immediately drove home and put together a pitch for my Apple II book in my head. As soon as I got back, I visited ShchifferPublishing.com and wrote my proposal according to their submission form. (Many publishers ask authors to format proposals according to strict guidelines, more to weed out authors who don't know how to follow directions than out of any desire to be picky.)
The book underwent dramatic changes from my initial proposal to the finished draft—of course it did, since I'd only had time to ruminate on it for 15 minutes or so during the drive home.
BREAK OUT started as a glorified listicle. My aim was to narrow the daunting list of best Apple II games down to 50, a purely subjective culling, and write two to three pages on each. Areas of interest for each game would include how the game played, quotes from its developer(s) to share the history of its creation, and, especially, an analysis of what made the game so great and how it influenced the designers who helped foster the genre going forward.
I expanded on my idea as I filled out Schiffer's form that they ask all writers who submit proposals to fill out. Fields in the form include a proposed title (I'd settled on INSERT DISK before deciding that was an innuendo buffet ripe for gorging), my background in writing and writing about games specifically, a description of the target audience, and so forth.
Filling out the form was a good thing for me. It forced me to give more thought to what I wanted to do with the book beyond "write about Apple II games." After reading it over a few times and massaging the wording a bit, I sent it off that same day and promptly forgot about it.
A few weeks passed, after which I assumed Schiffer wasn't interested. Then, in mid-May, I heard from Jesse, an acquisitions editor. Jesse gave me the good news: Schiffer was interested, and we began laying the groundwork for my writing schedule and production work on their end once the book was complete.
I'd had time to think about the book's structure and ran proposed changes by him. Namely, I wanted to ditch the "best 50 games according to the guy whose name is on the cover" approach and write something tighter: 10 to 20 chapters, with each chapter concentrating on a specific game, developer, or company. Chapters would be written in the style of creative nonfiction—that is, true stories that read like novels, moved along by literary devices like character development, but that are factually accurate and meant to share information.
Many nonfiction authors employ an omniscient writing style, such as expository, which is meant to share facts without structuring them in the form of a story. And that's fine. However, I prefer to put myself in my subject's shoes and experience their story through their eyes. I feel that makes for a more compelling read, and have put creative nonfiction to good use (if I do say so myself) in STAY AWHILE AND LISTEN and DUNGEON HACKS, as well as the stories I serialize over on my Episodic Content blog.
First, I decided to change the title, since Insert Disk is both generic and low-hanging fruit for pranksters looking to alter the title so that it makes a sexual innuendo. Plus, BREAK OUT better captures the book's thesis: PC gaming "broke out" on the Apple II, the most popular PC of its day and the platform of choice for both players and developers. (It's also a wink and a nod to the title of Steve Wozniak's famous Breakout brick-breaking game, the assembly code for which was published in a manual that was included with every Apple II.)
Jesse mailed out Schiffer's standard welcome packet, which contained a contract for me to sign and detailed information on how to format my book. Schiffer has very specific formatting guidelines that all authors must follow.
Don't mistake formatting for structure; I was given total control over the flow of information. Schiffer's formatting guidelines are purely syntactical; they exist so that their copyeditors can work with streamlined manuscripts, enabling them to read through them and put them into production on the assembly line as quickly as possible. The guidelines cover topics such as how to denote font changes, sub-headings, where images should be placed, and so on.
With the paperwork out of the way, Jesse handed me off to Ted, my main editor. Ted will be the first to read BO when I finally deliver a signed and sealed manuscript.
In this section, we'll dig into the content and geek out over statistics like page and word counts. Fun, fun!
Table of Contents
If you were to visualize BREAK OUT's table of contents, it would still be in a box with a giant Some Assembly Required sticker on the top and every side. I've tentatively decided on a flow of chapters, but am still squaring away titles. Until that's settled, we can still take a peek at the rough number of chapters I've got planned and the game(s) that will be covered in each one.
Chapter 1: Apple II
Chapter 2: The Oregon Trail
Chapter 3: Zork
Chapter 4: Wizardry
Chapter 5: Raster Blaster and Pinball Construction Set
Chapter 6: Akalabeth
Chapter 7: Ultima (1, or 1-4)
Chapter 8: The Bilestoad
Chapter 9: Brøderbund's early years and misc. games
Chapter 10: Choplifter, Lode Runner, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Chapter 11: SunDog: Frozen Legacy
Chapter 12: Karateka
Chapter 13: The Bard's Tale
Chapter 14: Wasteland
Chapter 15: Prince of Persia
Bonus Interview: John Romero
Bonus Interview: Neuromancer
Bonus Interview: Math Blaster
Bonus Interview: David Ahl
Bonus Interview: Mike Harvey
Let's tackle some specifics.
That main chapters (1-15) will be bookended by an introduction and conclusion. I neglected to write these because I opted to focus my time and energy on interviews, research, and writing for chapters centered on games. This was also a case where being able to sit back and see all the game-centric chapters would help solidify my thesis and various themes, which I could articulate in an introduction and conclusion later on, thus making it appear like I knew what I was doing the whole time. (Ha. Nope.)
The chapter so creatively named "Apple II" is the story of Wozniak and Jobs and the engineering of the Apple I and II, plus the other two computers in the "Holy Trinity" of PCs circa 1977. I attempted to interview "Woz," but his personal assistant made for an effective brick wall. But the joke's on you, sir! I was able to interview Dr. Steven Weyhrich, owner and maintainer of Apple2history.org, one of the largest repositories of Apple II history (duh) on the Internet. He gave me fantastic insight into the two Steves and the computer's history.
Narrowing down games to write about was difficult. If you're familiar with the Apple II, you know there are thousands of games for the platform, many unreleased commercially but still adored by fans and referenced by legendary game designers like John Romero and Brian Fargo. I couldn't write about them all, and most have already been written about it great detail.
I decided to write about games whose developers I could talk about and get new angles and details on their stories. That list includes Dane Bigham, Doug and Gary Carlston, Bruce Daniels, Richard Garriott, Brian Fargo, Andrew Greenberg, Dave Lebling, Jordan Mechner, Don Rawitsch, and Robert Woodhead, among many others.
(I wasn't able to talk to the creators of Choplifter and Lode Runner for different reasons. Dan Gorlin of Choplifter fame was unavailable, and, sadly, Doug Smith, designer of Lode Runner, passed away a few years ago. It became apparent I couldn't talk about Carmen Sandiego without mentioning those games, though, so I got information from other sources and wove it into the narrative.)
I began contacting developers for interviews as soon as Jesse gave me word that the book was a go. Interviews happened in conjunction with early writing. For example, I was researching and talking to the Oregon Trail developers about that game during the same week I was in the thick of writing the chapters for Karateka and Prince of Persia—my interview with Jordan Mechner had been transcribed and my research finished, so those were the chapters I wrote. As soon as I finished the first draft of a chapter, I closed it and immediately started in on another whose transcribing and research was ready to be forged into a story.
Since Apple II games gave rise to, or helped define pre-existing genres, my aim was to write about as wide a range of games as possible. I overcompensated in my research and interviews. You'll notice that Chapter 7 may only touch on the first Ultima, or go into detail on the first four. (I wrote two separate chapters: one for Ultima 1-2, and another for Ultima 3-4. If I cover all four games, I'm going to combine them into a single chapter, provided the word count doesn't get too crazy. Raster Blaster and Pinball Construction Set were also separate chapters, and may be again.) Why four games? Because the advances Richard Garriott made in each successive Ultima, namely in regards to the technology he engineered and the moral choices he introduced, went a long way in shaping the computer RPG (CRPG) genre.
Why, then, would I hem and haw over writing about all four games? Time. BREAK OUT is already three months overdue. Ted, my editor, is fine with that, but there are repercussions. In particular, BREAK OUT will miss Schiffer's 2016 publishing schedule, a dose of reality that left me heartbroken for a good week. Fortunately, Ted is patient. He wants me to shape BREAK OUT into the book I want it to be. Nevertheless, we're quickly approaching 12 months since Jesse gave me the OK to write BREAK OUT; that means it's past time to finish up. Every book must be finished and turned in at some point.
Time constraints and creative license conspired to move Neuromancer and Math Blaster to the bonus interviews section rather than the main body of the book. Not because the games aren't worth highlighting, but because I mentioned my intention to write about as many different games as possible. I structured the chapters in rough chronological order according to each game's release date. Neuromancer, an RPG, happened to come out after Wizardry, Akalabeth, Ultima, Bard's Tale, and Wasteland—also RPGs. Therefore, Neuromancer still makes the cut, but as an interview rather than a creative nonfiction-style chapter.
Math Blaster joins it in the bonus section for similar reasons. While I managed to interview Richard Eckert, the game's programmer—who's a great guy and was extremely helpful—I wasn't able to get in touch with Jan Davidson, the teacher who came up with the game's concept. (Jan hired Richard, a friend of hers, to code the game to her specifications.) Because I was able to talk to the principal creators of Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, I felt those chapters did a more than adequate job of covering the "edutainment" genre.
"This book will be easy to write," I said. "It should only take 4-5 months, tops," I said.
Note that if a chapter's stats are not present in this section, it means the chapter hadn't been written yet.
- Pages: 27
- Words: 8453
- Pages: 33
- Words: 10536
- Pages: 19
- Words: 5950
- Pages: 14
- Words: 4303
- Pages: 27
- Words: 8633
- Pages: 19
- Words: 6026
- Pages: 23
- Words: 7524
- Pages: 27
- Words: 8133
- Pages: 23
- Words: 6965
- Pages: 26
- Words: 8072
Pinball Construction Set
- Pages: 7
- Words: 2166
- Pages: 18
- Words: 5771
- Pages: 25
- Words: 7965
- Pages: 27
- Words: 8292
- Pages: 17
- Words: 5220
- Pages: 26
- Words: 8265
Prince of Persia
- Pages: 34
- Words: 11161
Interview (David Ahl)
- Pages: 11
- Words: 5288
Interview (John Romero)
- Pages: 8
- Words: 4490
- Pages: 13
- Words: 7445
- Pages: 832
- Words: 281117
That's 832 pages in 9 months. And by the way, I've been writing BREAK OUT in conjunction with the second Gairden Chronicles novel, Episodic Content stories, freelance work, and learning the ropes of editor-in-chief-ing for RETRO Magazine. Just off the top of my head, I estimate I've written more than three times that much during since last May.
So, yeah. I'm rather tired, and there's no end in sight. That's okay, though. Writing is fun, writing is life.
It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that I'll be using chainsaws and dynamite to edit and revise. Some of those chapters are just way too long. Oh, who am I kidding—they're all too long (with the exception of Pinball Construction Set, the runt of the litter, which will probably be added on to the end of the Raster Blaster chapter.)
I've poked and prodded a few chapters, but revisions will begin in earnest next week. Fingers crossed that happens no later than the first week of April. I'll be back with another book breakdown once it's done.
Despite the backbreaking work involved in bringing BREAK OUT to life, I'm immensely proud of it and am so excited to see how it shakes out. The clay has been made; now, it's time to shape it.
Pinball Construction Set
Prince of Persia
Interview (David Ahl)
Interview (John Romero)