Header / Cover Image for 'Lessons learned from revising Rulebreaker Recipes'
Header / Cover Image for 'Lessons learned from revising Rulebreaker Recipes'

Lessons learned from revising Rulebreaker Recipes

The timing of this article obviously coincides with the release of the book Rulebreaker Recipes, the second book of the Wildebyte Arcades!

It contains major spoilers about that book, because I initially wrote this article while revising the book and learning some important lessons. Ye be warned!

When I returned to do my revisions, I already had a list of issues I wanted to fix and parts about which I was uncertain. I always have this, but this time the list was quite a bit longer than usual.

My main gripe was the fact that this book had a bit too much content.

  • It teaches the separation between information and what it looks like in games.
  • As such, it teaches the basics of the GPU, including some next level things.
  • But it also teaches the fact that what something looks like isn’t necessarily what its body is like.
  • To show this, I had a few quirky elements, such as Wildebyte being stuck to a bike in this game, which makes it hard to navigate and move around (especially in tight places).

I came into the revisions with the goal of “killing my darlings”. All these tiny additions, all these hints about extra things a game or computer can do, they were too much and had no direct payoff in this book. I had to streamline and focus it!

While revising, however, I realized I didn’t like the story without these elements. The phrase “edited to death” came to mind. I’ve read so many books that went through a myriad of editors to make the story absolutely as focused and streamlined as possible, and those books were the worst I’ve ever read. So soulless, so bland.

If I removed those extra elements … what did we have left? A small mystery about a Ninja destroying stuff? Taking place in a setting you didn’t really care about, because there was nothing weird or special about it. A story that could be swapped with any other Wildebyte story, as the Wildebyte was just … themselves and nothing else.

As such, after writing a version without the elements, I basically added them all back in and leaned more heavily into them.

The entire process taught me a few things.

1. Find the balance between hyper focused and hyper interesting

When people say they want a streamlined or focused story, they mostly mean they want something that they can follow. It’s not overwhelming, it doesn’t feel like homework, and there’s a clear through line or purpose behind it all.

As such, I think each story should have one “common thread” that is very focused and present. A simple goal stated at the start that is constantly referred to or pushed forward, right until the final chapter. This creates focus and makes the story easy to follow.

But around that, I think you should just go for whatever feels most fun or interesting. That core thread is scaffolding; build unique and creative ideas on top of it.

It’s basically the whole point of creativity and reading stories. To experience something new. To be surprised, amazed, curious, interested by something you don’t quite understand yet.

I made the mistake of thinking an edited story had to be entirely “clear” and “understandable” from start to finish. But no, that just removes everything that actually makes the story unique.

Almost all stories are, at their core, identical. That’s why we have genres. That’s why we can describe books (very accurately) with phrases like “thriller meets rags-to-riches meets magical school”. This “core” of each story is a streamlined, proven concept that’s already been used a million times.

What makes the story actually different and interesting is all the other parts you bolt onto it. And I realized one shouldn’t compromise on that. Leave the funny jokes here and there. Leave the one chapter that’s a bit off-beat but introduces some quirky part of your world.

It’s what gives the story an actual heart and soul.

It also has to do with my next point.

2. Streamlined stories are just newspapers or textbooks

When I stripped away all those extra bits of humor, remarks, mystery, quirky events … the story is streamlined, yes. It’s a logical series of events from a clear start to a clear finish. It teaches one computer concept—and only one—in depth.

You know what that is? A textbook. A newspaper. A piece of informative text with no heart or life to it. (Ironically, textbooks are pretty much the worst way to learn anything, precisely because they are dry and only focused on bombarding you with facts.)

Test readers of my first book specifically remarked that the explanations of computer concepts were plenty, but always fun and easy to understand. Because they were spread out and always connected to some actual story element.

That’s what makes it actually informative. That’s what causes people to actually read it and walk away with some new ideas. The fact that information or ideas are tied to interesting (hopefully) story.

At first, I wanted each Wildebyte book to really hone in on one computer concept. Discuss nothing else, take no detours, but present some storyline around exactly 1 thing. (Such as “this is how the GPU/graphics work” or “this is how the touchscreen works”.)

But this creates a textbook, not a story. To get an interesting story around it, you have to pull in other ideas, other characters, subplots that give it extra weight or perspective. And in doing so, you inherently pull in related parts of how a computer work.

What did we learn?

Wildebyte books will still be focused primarily one one (new) aspect of video games or computers. But they’ll always be about related topics as well. The same concept returns several times over multiple books, in different ways, as that’s what helps you actually understand and remember.

I learned this earlier with the Saga of Life, but somehow failed to apply it here at first. The Saga of Life explains the origins of life—human history and biology, primarily—through fun fantastical short stories. At first, I planned one story all about photosynthesis, one story all about forces, etcetera.

Guess what? Doesn’t work. It’s not a story, it’s a chapter in a textbook. Those topics are so broad and applicable to all of life, that NOT explaining and using them again in multiple other stories is foolish.

Rulebreakers is primarily about graphics and the GPU. But it also adds more ideas about general code, the CPU, the idea of physics bodies, and other tiny bits that will be explored further in other books.

3. Fewer characters

The first Wildebyte book was almost entirely about them and nothing else. That’s probably why I compensated in book 2 (and 3) by adding a host of varied and interesting characters.

But it’s just too much. The one thing I couldn’t fix in the revision—without making the story considerably longer than my “max word count”—is the fact that characters don’t receive enough depth. It makes the mystery of figuring out who the Ninja is a bit weaker, as the answer is revealed while you’re still getting to know people.

I come from a large family. I have always tried to view all perspectives on a situation, empathize with basically everyone in some way. That’s probably why my stories always gravitate to a large cast of characters, all of whom matter.

But it’s just too much, especially in such short (episodic) books. We only have time to delve into 3 or 4 characters at most. And going deeper is almost always better than going wider.

That’s why I steered the overall story in a direction that allows me to reduce the number of characters tremendously in many upcoming books. So I can actually devote time to deepening them and making each one count.

4. No, it’s not boring, you can leave mysteries for later

Like many creative people, I am in constant fear of not keeping my audience’s interest.

I know—and I have known for years—that this is stupid. I made the thing. It obviously has no secrets for me! I know the plot twist, I know the characters, I have invented this story or tested the rules of this game.

The creator of something is absolutely the worst person to judge its quality for anyone else.

And still … this pushed me to add more and more stuff to stories.

Oh, we’re already at chapter 5? Better introduce something new again!

Oh, we’ve resolved one mystery? Immediately start another one, even bigger and badder than the last!

Oh, this character died? Must insert a new completely different character to fill that void!

This is just bad. Plain bad.

When I wrote the first draft of this story, I hadn’t figured out the overall planning or world of Wildebyte yet. I hadn’t considered money, for example. How it would work, if it even existed, etcetera.

This meant that the story had one throwaway line about money, vague to the point of being useless. Attached was a NOTE TO SELF to expand that into a scene or at least multiple paragraphs explaining it.

When revising, I realized this wasn’t needed. The throwaway line could stay. I could perhaps repeat it a few times in relevant moments, hinting at the existence of money in this world.

But did it need explanation? Did it need a chapter devoted to it in this book? No!

It’s a great mystery for new readers. A great hint to a bigger world and something explored more in other stories. And in this story, it doesn’t break immersion to mention it and then drop it, because the entire story isn’t about that.

The same was true for other general hints or comments to something outside of this story. My notes said I should expand on them and devote more time to it, but reading back the story I realized I could just leave it as a tiny mystery for later and move on. That worked just fine.

Some time ago, I read a great line by some other writer (can’t remember who or where):

Readers should not finish your first chapter with understanding, but with a need to find out.

This is a crucial difference that made something click inside my head. The first chapter shouldn’t introduce some problem in a streamlined, focused, clear fashion.

It should introduce a problem, make clear that it is a problem, but leave everything else a mystery for later. So the reader actually wants to turn that page and keep reading, getting hooked on that story.

The same is true on a grander scale: the first books in a series, for example. They shouldn’t finish book 1 and 2 with a complete understanding of all Ludra/Wildebyte’s World entails. They should finish it with a need to find out more about it in the next books.

And that requires stating things, introducing things, not relevant to the current book, so you can just drop it for now and move on.

5. Revision is mostly about exaggerating what actually makes the story good

Finally, even after all these years, I keep entering revisions with this idea of “I just need to cut words, sharpen the scenes, check if it’s easy to follow now that I’ve forgotten the story myself, and we’re good”

That is never true.

Instead, as you read back your own work with fresh eyes (after letting it be for 3+ months), you realize two things.

  • “Why did I write that? It has no use / it’s wrong / it doesn’t flow.”
  • “Wait, I wrote that? That’s good! We do more of that!”

As you write the first draft(s), you always insert some ideas that you believe in … but end up going nowhere. This second global look makes those stick out like a sore thumb. With some cutting and rewriting, you can usually remove entire “failed threads” from a book. (Even if that’s just a joke you thought would be recurring, but it didn’t.) That actually helps streamline the story and shorten it.

But you also realize things you like a lot. A joke, a scene, a character trait, a mystery that makes you go “huh, maybe this story is worth something after all”. And then you exaggerate that.

In this story, for example, I introduce the idea that developers can leave comments in their code. Those are stored in the nearest object (character, building, whatever) and can be revealed if you want it.

Those are fun. They are both an explanation of an important real-life concept when coding (leaving comments to explain the code to yourself or team members), as well as endless opportunities for jokes, mysteries, subtle exposition, etcetera.

The original book only used this idea twice! But when I re-read it, I immediately decided to do more of it, ending with I believe 7 comments in the entire story. (Of course, exaggeration can go too far, so I try to keep it balanced.)

Doing this for many different ideas creates a story that’s more rich and cohesive, while allowing you to chase what is interesting or what made you write the story in the first place. Now, one such “comment” occurs every 3 or 4 chapters, tying the world together for the reader.

Also, what I probably thought were “obvious hints or foreshadowing” at the time, usually hide themselves during revisions. You gloss over them, don’t even realize they were supposed to be an obvious hint. So I spend a large chunk of a revision exaggerating my foreshadowing / hints / repeating information you’ll need later.

In the moment, it feels like treating your readers like babies. But to a new and unknowing reader, that’s the actual amount of guidance they need.


Anyway, second book of Wildebyte Arcades is out now!

I’m honestly still figuring out the details of where we’re going. That’s why I held off on publishing the first book as long as possible (until I’d written large parts of the next books). I have a strong sense of the rules of the world, the approach to take, how long the books should be, etcetera.

But I hope readers understand that I’m still experimenting with different types of stories, different formats, different ways to utilize this rich world of “being inside a video game/device” as fully as possible.

Especially since I can rely on my intimate knowledge of how this works, which other writers who dabbled in the genre do not. That’s not to sound arrogant or discredit them, it’s just to state what should be my unique angle coming into these stories.

I can built a story around how the GPU works and explain it with a physical allegory, or show it through simple mysteries or action sequences. I can view everything through the lens of code, of instructions, of computer parts. The other stories about “being inside video games” are almost solely about popular shooter games, and you forget you’re inside them after chapter 1.

As I’m moving forward and writing more stories, I’m trying to find a balance between my unique approach and solid stories—now and moving forward. Because this website already shows quite a few stories are planned. And, reading the blurb, you can see we’re going to try taking Wildebyte and Ludra into many completely different directions :)

Keep reading (and writing) (and playing),