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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo (or Nation Novel Writing Month) is an annual event where people the world over decide to write 50,000 words for some form of literary project in a single month.  For those of you that don't know, 50,000 is quite a lot.  Most novels are at LEAST that much.  My last novel was 80k words.  The final papers I had to write for my literature classes in University ranged from 2k to 10k words.  Point being, for most people who have full or even part time jobs and can't devote their day to writing, this can be a very daunting task.  To reach the goal, one needs to hit about 1700 words per day.  I've been aiming for 2000.  Some days I get there, some days I don't, some days I go over.  I still have a job, and other projects, and I still need time to unwind and just listen to music or read.  Still, I've managed to keep up so far, and it's the most consecutive, productive writing I've done since mid-2011.  

So, why?  Why is this a popular thing, and why have I (and other writer friends) been so gosh-darned productive during this time, when we bemoan things like writer's block and drag our feet the rest of the year?

Well, to put it simply, because other people are doing it, and it's a thing.  

There's nothing to stop me from filling in fake numbers every day and uploading an old, already finished manuscript into the verifying software NaNo has on it;s website.  But that would be cheating.  Worse, it would be cheating at writing, which is such a huge sin, it makes what Adam & Eve did look trivial by comparison.  But really, it would be cheating myself.

Writing is, despite what people may say, hard.  There is a great satisfaction to be had in completing a written work, even if it's a very messy first draft.  NaNo helps with that, giving the writers little tidbits and motivational posts from famous authors like Neil Gaiman, and you can hear success stories from people who turned their NaNo manuscripts into real, traditionally published books and sell them.

It's a lot easier to write when you have a deadline, even if the deadline is self-enforced.  If you're a writer, you'll stick to it, because if you don't, you'll feel bad.  That sounds a bit silly, but it's true.  I was sick all last week, and still had to work.  I came home every day wanting nothing else but the embrace of my bed, but I couldn't until I'd pushed out those 2000 words.  Knowing that counter was up on NaNo, waiting for me, and knowing that I would feel like a proper bastard if I didn't update it, kept me at the keyboard.  

And look, I even managed to update my poor, neglected blog in the midst of the whole thing.  

If this is the first you're hearing of NaNo and want to join, it's a bit late now.  you'd have to be a real masochist to sign up at this point (and produce more than 5000 words per day.  Yikes), but if you're into the idea, I suggest you join up next year.  I'm really not a part of the NaNo community, but it's nice just knowing it's there, and that thousands of other crazy folks like you are scattered across the world doing the same thing.

If you wanna check it out, here you go:

Good luck to all the other saps out there,  9 days to go!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Paragon is Dead. Long Live Paragon.

As you may have guessed from previous entries, I play video games.  Not ALL the time (I have a job, and hobbies like that writing thing, and books), but quite a bit.  I've only ever played one MMORPG though (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), and that was City of Heroes.  CoH was unique in that it was the first MMO to break the typical mold of fantasy or sci-fi.  It was the first superhero MMO that let you design your very own superhero (and eventually, supervillains), and its character creation was second to none.  Eventually a couple other superhero MMOs came out: Chapions Online and DC Universe Online.  

CO was okay, and had an excellent character creator, but godawful voice acting, and kind of boring gameplay.  DCUO had amazing production values, but an absolutely abysmal user interface, and very limited character creation.  So CoH was always my fave.  I met a great bunch of people on there, got to know them in real life, and we were buddies for years.  then one of them passed away and we fell apart, but I always thought about him and smiled when I played CoH.

One of my favorite authors, Jim Butcher (of The Dresden Files) played CoH.  The game was the first and only MMO to allow players to make their own story arcs, to write the dialogue and design the missions and share them online.  It was one of the things that inspired me to write The Steam Punk, and served as one way to stay connected with my other friends in the States when I moved to Korea.  On more than one occasion, I used the character creator to design characters I was writing about to cement their appearance in my head.

CoH was rich with the usual superhero mythology of secret government organizations, mythical galaxy eating gods, robot armies, trans-dimensional aliens, and so on.  I think I probably know more about the universe of CoH than I do about Marvel.  

But a few days ago, an announcement was made that the plug was being pulled by NCSoft, the game's Korean-based backer.  It's not terribly surprising, but it is a bummer.  The game was pretty old, getting close to a decade.  Very few MMOs last half that long, and CoH had a good run.  I'm still sad to see it go though.  It was and will always be my first MMO, and one of the best.  

I'll miss Paragon City and Atlas Park, Grandville and the towering statue of Lord Recluse, Pocket D and all the funny role-players, and everything else.  Thanks for all the ideas and fun you gave me.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Writer's Workshop: Weak and Empty Words

I'm gonna actually talk about the nuts-and-bolts of writing now.  Like, the specific minute details of words and so on that most people don't even realize exist.  We'll start by looking at some truly weak and useless words that have very little, if any, place in your writing.

Remember Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back," how he said "Do, or do not; there is no try."  Well there isn't much place for "Seemed."  Something is or isn't.  The only time you should be using this word is if your characters themselves are unsure, and really, you can think of better ways to convey this than "seemed."  "Seemed" also encourages telling as opposed to showing.  Which is also bad.  Duh.  Look here:

"She seemed happy."
"She smiled and laughed."

The second sentence is more effective at conveying an emotion and doesn't tell us the information, but shows us.

I recently had somebody point this out to me in something I wrote and noted it as a "filler" word, which was true.  Various is a vague word and usually goes along with other vague words.  Like "Various things," or "Various ideas," and so on.  Those words are empty and don't provide the reader with anything meaty.

"He carried a sack full of various bits of junk."
"He carried a sack full of broken clock parts, empty cans, and rusty nails."

The second sentence gives more detail and maybe we can actually learn something from it.  He's got all metal stuff!  what's he doing with all that metal?  Whatever he's doing, it's a lot more informative than just saying "junk."

This goes for all tenses of the verb.  If you have to tell the reader how something felt (whether it's a physical sensation or an emotional one), that's a bad thing.  You're telling, not showing.  Don't do that!  Stop it!  Bad writer, no biscuit.

"The iron felt hot."
"The iron glowed a dull red and he jerked his hand away as the heat bit his fingers."

Yeah that second one is longer, but it sure sounds a lot nicer!  I know Shakespeare said "Brevity is the soul of wit," but it's okay to indulge a little.  you're not writing print for a newspaper, you're writing a story.  Spruce it up a bit.

Lord knows there's loads more, but three is enough for today.  Those three are pretty big and show up a lot.  And yes, I use these too.  I'm just another poor sinner.  But I also try and keep my eye out for them and get rid of them when and where I can, and I encourage you to do the same.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"The Steam Punk" or, "I wrote a book, guess what genre it is?"

Well, I wrote a book.  Actually I've written three books, and have written enough other things to qualify for another 3-4 books, but this is the first book I've written, had edited, got a cover for, and put up for sale.  I'm pretty proud of it, and I think it's a bit of all right.  I also think you should maybe check it out and give it a read.  

And just in case you're wondering, yes, it does adhere to the stuff I just talked about in my last two posts.  It's got steam, it's got punk; it's got magic and monsters and mecha-tanks and all sorts of other fun stuff as well.  It also has a pretty entertaining story and characters, if I may say so.

Right now it's only available on Kindle, but you can get a Kindle app for iPad, and soon it'll be available on Nook and in printed format.  

You can find it -> HERE <-

I'd like to thank my friends and family for all their amazing support, and you, Reader.  You make it worthwhile.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Genre Talk: Letting Off Some Steampunk

We've covered the "steam" half of the equation, so let's move onto the second half...

NUMBER TWO: What's the "-Punk"?

The "-punk" suffix is a lot more widely used than the "steam" prefix.  Last time I mentioned things like cyberpunk, splatterpunk, and others.  The "-punk" suffix connects them all.  But what does it mean?  Well, what's a punk?  What do you think of when somebody says that word?  I think of somebody in a NiN shirt with the sleeves ripped off, sporting a spiky hairdo dyed some outrageous neon color(s) with a nose-stud, one of those metal hopes inserted into the earlobe that stretches it out, with a thin silver chain connecting the two.  I also think of this fine, upstanding citizen saying something like "Fuck the pigs," or flipping off a member of the student council.

Some of you might think of Bart Simpson, or a guy on a motorcycle, or a tomboyish woman in a bar playing pool, or who knows what.  But whatever your image, it's likely to have at least one thing in common: someone who defies societal norms.  That's a fancy way of saying "Somebody who doesn't give a shit what you think."

The "-punk" suffix indicates some form of rebellion (whether literal, cultural, sexual, etc).  Somebody is unhappy with the status quo and they are going to actively change it, or just live their life in defiance of it.  Punk characters exist on the fringes of society, away from polite, "normal" people.  They are the ones who rock the boat just by showing up.

And like the punky characters in a -punk book, the story itself will be something of a punk (is "punk" starting to sound funny yet?  Like if you say "spoon" over and over again and it stops sounding like a real word?  Bear with me).  A -punk story should be about these outlier characters engaged in some form of outlier behavior.  Are they inciting a revolution against the government?  Are they starting a new fashion trend that most people find totally unacceptable?  Are they merely trying to find a place for themselves in a society that is unwelcoming or even hostile?  All those are good -punk stories.  

Last time I talked about Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, and now I'm gonna do it again!  Remember that scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin, and how he was pursuing a new type of energy source?  That was the "steam"; here's the "punk": the rest of Isaac's colleagues, and indeed, the whole academic world, think Isaac's new energy source is a pipe dream, and they don't really like associating with him.  Isaac's a rebel scientist doing things his own way.  He turned his back on proper academia years ago and now does things the way he wants to do them, and screw those stuffy profs at the university.

Pretty much every major character in PSS is like that: a bohemian artist ostracized from the rest of her species, rogue treasure hunters, a reporter for an underground and anti-government newspaper, and so on. What so many would-be steampunk books miss out on is the -punk aspect.  Plenty of steam, but not so much punk.  You gotta have both!  It's not all about the technology and whatnot, it's about the characters and the world and the story too.  

Next time, I'll have a surprise for you.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Genre Talk: Letting Off Some Steampunk

Steampunk is something that not a lot of people are familiar with.  It's grown in notoriety over the past several years, but it's still kind of on the borders of social awareness.  There are a lot of things that have steampunk elements  but aren't really steampunk.  So let's start with breaking that word into its two main components.

NUMBER ONE: What's the "Steam"?

Steampunk, real steampunk, is a lot like cyberpunk.  Both deal heavily with the use or pursuit or discovery of some new technology.  In cyberpunk, it's something, well, cybernetic or in cyberspace or something like that.  Think Blade Runner by Ridley Scott or Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson.  Except in steampunk, it's steam-based technology or something similar.  There's a sub-genre of steampunk called "gaslamp fantasy" that focuses more on supernatural elements and less on tech, and was made to differentiate from steampunk.

So what's this look like in an actual steampunk story?  I'm going to be pointing to one of my all-time favorite steampunk books as an example: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.  In PSS, there's a professor named Isaac Grimnebulin, and through much of the book, he's pursuing a new energy source he refers to as "crisis energy," and how to harness this and make a sort of crisis engine to put it to use. This search leads into the main problem of the book that involves some very nasty critters I may have mentioned before.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson is all about Victorian Era Britain after Charles Babbage invents a mechanical computer.  The story follows several characters as they pursue computer punch cards, or pieces of technology.

The movie Steamboy revolves around the creation of and the pursuit to find and utilize a "steam sphere," a powerful source of energy.  Scientists and military men and spies are all after this piece of steam technology for their own ends.  

What so many current steampunk works forget is the technology.  They just slap gears on top hats and corsets and call it good.  Steampunk is becoming less of a specific sub-genre of sci-fi and fantasy and more of a catch-all term for an aesthetic.  I've heard people describe something as "Looking steampunky."  Which is fine when you're just applying the term to somebody in a costume or something, but it's sort of lame to do it for literature that doesn't really fit the criteria for a real steampunk story.

I realize that's kind of splitting hairs, but steampunk's a genre I like, and it's annoying to see something labeled as such when it isn't.

Next time we'll be look at the "Punk" half of this equation.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Story Similarities & Differences

You've heard of The Hunger Games by now.  It was the top-performing movie in America for a while, and has made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.  Before it was a movie, it was an international bestseller.  If you haven't heard of it, well then you're probably with those same people I mentioned in my last post who haven't heard of e-books.  


The Hunger Games is a pretty damn good book (the sequels I didn't care for as much, but the first one is very solid).  However, some people are saying it's copying something else.  That Suzanne Collins ripped off another story.  The original in question is the Japanese book, Battle Royale.  It also went on to become a film, and a manga (Japanese comic book).  So is that true?  Did Ms. Collins rip off a somewhat obscure piece of Japanese literature and cheat here way to author superstardom?

Uh, no.

Here is what BR  and HG have in common:

In the future, a dystopian government forces its youth to compete in a massive death match while filming it as reality TV.

Anything beyond that is different.  The motivations of the characters, the world, the history, how the story feels, it's all very, very different.  Battle Royale is a much more brutal, unforgiving, cruel story.  Hunger Games is a lot less grim.  Katniss Everdeen is absolutely nothing like Shuya Nanahara.   Despite Battle Royale being the more vicious of the two books, Katniss is a much more jaded, calculating protagonist.  Shuya is borderline idiotic with how naive he can get.  

But maybe you're thinking the basic idea is still too close for comfort.  Well, the books are very close in their main idea of kids killing kids for TV.  No argument there.  So let's look at some other, similar ideas that are pulling double duty.

In the future, a utopian society exists, but its citizens must take pills that curb their emotions and desires, or be killed by the ruling government.

That's from the classic novel The Giver, and the action movie Equilibrium with Christian Bale.  The former mainly focuses on the growing relationship between a boy and an old man and the power of memory, while the latter is about a guy with gun kung-fu taking down the government with bullets and ninja swords.

Have another:

A social outcast and misfit becomes so upset by the growing crime in his neighborhood, that he becomes a super hero and takes down the mafia.

The films Blankman and Kick-Ass have that as their driving idea.  The former is a goofball comedy while the latter is a deconstruction of the genre that gets kinda dark.

One more.  Can you do one more?  Sure you can. 

Several strangers fall asleep, then wake up together to find that the world around them has drastically changed.  They must contend with each other, some freaky monsters, and time itself, or they'll all die.

And that gem of an idea is from The Langoliers, a novella and mini-series by Stephen King, and King of Thorn, a manga and animated film.  The first one is King's usual horror story style, while the second features quite a bit more action and features more monsters.

This is, by no means, encouragement to go rip off a popular idea.  But don't hamstring yourself because something similar exists, or freak out because you get a little deja vu when reading a new book.  There are no new ideas under the sun, but that doesn't mean you can't take an old idea and make it like new with your own unique perspective, characters, viewpoints, and style.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

On E-Publishing & the Rise of the Indie Author

If you have not heard about e-publishing, you're likely in a third-world country in a cave, or are so willfully ignorant that you qualify as a vegetable or a tea-partier.  Things like the Amazon Kindle (pictured above) and the Barnes & Noble nook are e-readers: devices that let you download digital copies of books.  My Kindle has something like 500 books on it, and I love the thing.  Buying e-books is significantly cheaper because you're just buying information, not a hardcover book with hundreds of pages and so on.  

An unexpected side effect of this is that self-publishing has now become a real, viable option for independent writers.  Self publishing has existed for years (sometimes also known as vanity publishing) but the costs of publishing your own physical books and distributing them was so incredibly prohibitive that hardly anybody did it, and those who did almost never saw any substantial profit.  

But now, that's all changed.  the digital marketplace and the rise of the e-book has paved the way for the indie scene.  This is actually very similar to the rise of other digital indie media, like games and films.  Thanks to digital distribution services like Steam and the X-Box Live marketplace, small video game studios are producing cheap, fun games and selling them online.  Small film companies and studios are releasing webseries via YouTube and other streaming sites.   So it was only natural that books got in on the action as well.

So what does this mean?  Well, it means that if you're like me and sick to death of being rejected by literary agents, you can just publish your own damn book(s) and strike out on your own.  The number of indie books has exploded in the past year to absurd numbers, flooding the market with reams of crap as well as some genuinely good pieces.  Some indie authors have sold millions of e-books and gone on to sign contracts with traditional publishing houses.  That's the miniscule exception to the overwhelming rule of selling almost nothing, however.

Indie publishing is finally starting to catch on with the general public, due to even lower prices (99 cents being the lowest, although sometimes authors will have promotion days where they temporarily mark their books as free), and the fact that the publishing industry as a whole is becoming more and more creatively bankrupt.  

Even if you're not a writer, it's still incredibly interesting to watch the paradigm start to shift.  Literary agents are now also becoming e-publishing consultants.  The Big 6 publishing houses have people whose job it is to just patrol and monitor up-and-coming indie authors who they can then sign into their stables.  And, god bless 'em, there are some indie authors who have given the finger to traditional publishing and continue to pave their own way.

I'm not 100% against traditional publishing.  I'd still like to have a publisher give me money to write.  that would be cool.  But being an indie author isn't such a bad gig either.  It's actually pretty cool, since you have more creative control and you set your own publication dates.  They both have things to offer, but indie publishing keeps growing at a phenomenal rate.

Definitely something to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Back in Korea Again

After a quick trip back to the States to visit family, I'm back in Korea again, though this time at a University.  I have to say that teaching at a University is about a bazillion times better than at a hagwon, for a few key features:

1) Universities will usually give you on-campus housing which means a couple things.  First, you won't have far to walk to work, unlike a hagwon that might stick you on the far end of the city.  Second, as the building will be on-campus, the staff wants it to look nice so their campus doesn't appear run-down, so it'll be in pretty good shape.  Unlike my old hagwon that had me living in squallor in the middle of the dirtiest part of the city.

2) Higher pay.  Universities pay more.  Simple, end of story.

3) Less work time and less busy work time.  My university has me working 18-20 hours a week, and all of that is actual work, not just sitting around wasting time.  The hagwon had me working 35-40 hours a week, of which a significant chunk would just be sitting at my desk doing nonsense BS work like reviewing text books or whatever.  

4) Vacation.  Most universities will give you at least a few weeks of vacation a year.  Mine gives me 2 months.  The hagwon gave me ten days, spread out over the course of a year (the longest chunk of time I had off was three days).

5) Prestige.  Working at a University just looks good on a CV.  Working at a hagwon looks all right.

So, how does one get a University job in Korea?  Well you don't need a Ph.D. or a Master's, though those would certainly help.  All University jobs I've seen (including the one I landed) require at least 3 things:

1) Minimum of 2 years teaching experience.

2) Strong background in English (either a college degree in English or related field, or a job that involved heavy use of proper English, like an Editor, writer, something similar)

3) Previous experience in Korea.  So yeah, you probably can't have this be your first job in Korea, as the folks at Universities like to know their employees can stay in this country for a year and not quit mid-contract.

Somebody described working in Korea like joining a frat: the first year you're low man (or woman) on the totem pole, and you're gonna get stuck with the crappy stuff.  But after that first year, you can do all the cool stuff.  Which is pretty accurate.

Overall, I'd say it's pretty sweet.  My busiest day involves working four hours and ten minutes.  My shortest day, I work one hour and forty minutes.  I get the whole month of December off, and during the summer, there's at least a couple weeks where I only work fifty minutes a day.

So I very muich recommend getting a Uni job in Korea if you can.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Endings can ruin everything OR Why ME3 is the biggest disappointment ever OR Angry Nerd Mode: Activated

So, some of you may have heard about this game series called Mass Effect.  If you haven't here's the short version: it's a really well-done sci-fi space opera series that's captivated millions of people worldwide for about 5 years now.  The final game in the trilogy came out a few weeks ago, and pretty much everybody agrees that the game is awesome....until the very end.

Now, before you go on, here's your warning:


All right.  I wanted to talk about this, not just in the context of one truly horrible example, but of endings in general, how important they are in capping off an audience's experience, and how they need to fit in thematically.  

The ME series is great, well-written, engaging, and emotional, but high-brow art it is not.  It is a very excellent space story about aliens and killer robots and character development, growth, redemption, sacrifice, and more.  It is not 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is not a psychological mind-screw.  It's a straight-forward narrative with lots of shooting and explosions and sex in it.

But the ending cocks all that fun up by trying to be different.  It presents a series of incomprehensible events that make zero sense, leave gaping plot holes, and devalue any and all personal choices a character has made up to this point.  Many players have spent the last 5 years playing their Commander Shepard (ME's protagonist), making their choices, and having those choices matter in the sequels.  ME is notable for it's use of choice and consequence, and is one of the major differing points between traditional story-telling modes.

In something like a book or a film (or even a lot of video games!) the audience must merely sit and watch.  As they are passive, watching the events unfold, there is less emotional investment.  In a game, especially one so heavily focused on choice and consequence as ME, the audience is active, and no longer just an audience, but a driving force in the course of the narrative.  We want our decisions to matter.

But in the ending, you are presented with a maximum of three choices, and these choices are exactly the same no matter what you have done prior to this.  Have you saved an entire species of aliens, or destroyed them?  Have you been a paragon of virtue or a renegade of merciless destruction?  It literally does not matter.  You will be given the same options as someone who made dramatically different choices than you.

The events that follow which of the three decisions (each of which are nearly identical themselves, mostly featuring a cosmetic change of what type of energy is unleashed on the galaxy: orange, blue, or green) are even more inexplicable.  A character is seen fleeing from the game's major conflict, an action which goes against everything we know about his motivations and personalities.  We know this character would fight to the death, but they are inexplicably fleeing.  Worse, he's somehow picked up my friends, who last I checked, were fighting on the ground.  How did they get in the spaceship?  why did they leave the battle? How did they leave the battle?  

There are nothing but plot holes and messy mistakes, which I won't get into here.  Suffice it to say, it's a lazy, emotionally disappointing ending.  And it ruins the rest of the game, if not the series.  The question is how?  How could ten minutes of bad writing (even truly awful writing) spoil dozens of hours of otherwise good writing?

Invalidation and frustration.

Any ending that makes the previous time spent getting there invalid ruins the whole thing.  The best example of this is the "It was all a dream," ending that shitty writers seem to love so much.  By saying the events an audience was emotionally invested in were all a dream, you're saying it wasn't real, and if it wasn't real, it had no consequences, so it didn't matter.  It was a brain fart.  The events in ME3 were real, but by taking away the consequences of previous actions, the writers invalidated those actions.  They were meaningless, because there was no emotional payoff for them, good or bad.

And frustrated is the last thing you want an audience to be at the end of a story.  Sad is perfectly fine.  Happy is great.  Wondering what happens next is awesome.  Confused or  Avoid those.  Those two mean that you as a writer have not done your job.  If your audience is confused, you have failed to help them understand.  If they are frustrated, you have failed to give them the emotional release or catharsis they require at the end.  

Neither of these two things have ANYTHING to do with if an ending is Disneyland Happy or Gulag Sad.  A sad ending can provide just as much (maybe even more if somebody's crying!) emotional satisfaction and understanding as a happy one.  However a confusing, frustrating ending cannot.

Let's look at The Grey with Liam Neeson.  Spoilers ahead 'cause I'm gonna talk about the ending, duh.  The Grey is a very bleak film about survival in the frozen wilds, about men hunted by ferocious animals and the cold grip of nature itself.  It is NOT a happy movie.  It's about the struggle to survive, to fight, to live in the face of horror and despair, to not give up.  Throughout the movie, Liam is stalked by wolves, including the Alpha, the head honcho of the vicious creatures.  At the end, Liam is face-to-face with the creature and his pack: impossible odds.  His death seems certain.

But then he tapes a knife to his hand, arms himself with broken glass bottles, and stares the wolf in the face, ready to go.  The music swells and the movie ends.  We don't know if he lived or died.  But that's okay, because the big question was answered: Will Liam give up and die, or will he fight, even in the face of hopelessness?  He decided to fight.  We achieved an emotional release because Liam made a decision that was consistent with the feel and themes of the movie.  

If this had been like the ME3 ending, it would have ended right before Liam made a choice, and the audience would be left holding the ball.  The whole build up to this confrontation and whether the character chooses to lie down and die or fight would be pointless because the question wouldn't be addressed in a satisfying manner.

ME3 fails so completely because it ignores the players' decisions, their investment, and it ignores its own story.  It forgets about the characters its developed, the events that have unfolded, and minimizes everything to three nonsensical, stupid, nearly identical choices.  It betrays itself as much as the player.  And the real tragedy is that it was so close to being such a great story.

Too bad, ME3.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Genre Talk: Dreaming About Fantasy Part 4

Now we're going to talk about a major fantasy idea that also appears quite a bit in sci-fi as well.  It's one of the things I love about fantasy the most:

NUMBER FOUR: Exploration

Any fantasy book you pick up is almost guaranteed to have some kind of running theme of exploration and/or discovery.  High fantasy typically involves the more traditional expectation of this: crossing big mountains and rolling fields, delving into deep caves, uncovering old secrets in mystic forests, etc.  Urban fantasy more often deals with the discovery of fantastical elements in general, and the exploration of how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So there's physical exploration of the world (road trip!) and mental exploration of the fantastic (magic is real?!). So let's look at Final Fantasy 6 for our "physical" exploration and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere for our "mental" exploration.

In FF6, it's stated from the legendary opening movie that magic is real and pretty much everybody knows about it.  gods are real too (or were) and most everybody knows about them too.  The exploration comes from literally exploring the physical world, from forgotten islands to a ruined landscape.  Things are uncovered in the plot as well, but you're trekking across an entire planet the whole time, hopping from one local to the next.

High Fantasy loves this.  Lord of the Rings takes you from the peaceful Shire to the blasted landscape of Mordor.  The Sword of Shannara has the reader traveling from boggy swamps to ancient fortresses.  Exploring the world, showing it off, letting the reader see new landscapes, is one of the most fun things about fantasy.  This is one part of world-building, which I'll talk about later, and is essential to any sort of fantasy.

Now, in Neverwhere the sense of discovery is centered more on the fact that magical stuff exists at all.  In the TV series, Richard Mayhew discovers the world of London Below: a hidden society beneath London (fancy that!) that has all sorts of whimsical things and goings on.  Now, while Richard does travel around, his sense of wonderment stems mostly from his discovery of things he previously thought impossible, as opposed to just the cool scenery (though there is that too).  His exploration is of the new perspective he has gained since finding out that things like magical markets and people who can travel through magic doors are real.

Now, both FF6 and Neverwhere incorporate both physical and mental exploration (most fantasy stories do), they just do one significantly more than the other.  Fantasy stories that usually combine both in equal measure are "portal" stories, where the main character goes from our world to another (like in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe).  And that's another discussion all by itself.    

Monday, March 12, 2012

Censoring YA: When it's Good and When it's Bad

For those of you that don't know, YA is short hand for Young Adult Literature.  YA lit covers any book written for older teens, say 14-17ish.  These aren't books you read in high school per se (I read Hamlet, The Things They Carried, The Awakening, and a bunch of other adult books in high school that were definitely NOT YA), or even necessarily books that feature teenagers (though most all YA books do of course) but novels directed at kids in their late teens.

Now, the problem with some YA books (or Middle Grade (MG) books) is that taboo topics pop up.  Like sex, drugs, violence, etc.  Now these are things teenagers deal with, and it can be comforting for an author to address these topics in a story.  It lets them know they're not alone, that some of these things are normal, and that they can get better.  But sometimes authors go overboard and descend into gratuity, sensationalism, and absurdity.  

So then, when is censorship in YA okay?  The answer is never.  Censorship in literature is never okay.  

"But Justin!  Then gratuitous sex and all that other stuff will run rampant!"  You might say.  No it won't, because gratuitous things are never okay either.

So now you might be confused.  It's okay, it's actually super simple.  If sex is important to a YA story, if sex is essential to the plot and characters, then it isn't gratuitous.  And if it isn't gratuitous, it shouldn't be censored.

If however, the sex in the story is meaningless, if it does nothing to advance the story or define a character, than it IS gratuitous, and shouldn't be in the story anyway, making censorship irrelevant.  

See?  Easy.  

Now, let's takke a look at an example.  Here we have Teach Me by R.A. Nelson.  Teach Me is the story of a girl, Nine, who falls for and has an affair with her teacher, the hilariously named Richard Mann.  Now, there are a lot of horrible news stories about teachers diddling their underage students.  A book about how something like this happens is both repugnant and fascinating, especially to kids I'd imagine.

But Nelson kind of cops out of making things really interesting by holding off on the sex until the heroine is 18.  Why?  Was that an editor censoring Nelson's original manuscript, or Nelson censoring himself?  The real world isn't neat and tidy.  I've yet to hear the news story about the teacher who waited to start the affair until his or her charge was of age.  

This is what I'm taking about.  The characters' decisions to wait until Nine becomes nice and legal feels way too tidy and neat.  Am I really expected to believe a man (especially a Dick Mann) who is willing to risk his career, his future, his own adult relationships, is also going to be responsible and possess the self control to wait until the object of his desire is 18?

Likewise, is Nelson really expecting me to believe that Nine, a hormonally charged teenager, can restrain herself from her hunky English teacher until she is allowed to legally buy smokes?  That's bullshit.  It smells like censorship.  and furthermore, it cuts off a lot of interesting ethical dilemmas.  It makes the story too neat.  It makes Dick Mann too easy to forgive and excuse what is an otherwise deplorable choice.  

Comepare this to S.E. Hinton's classic The Outsiders.  By today's standards, The Outsiders seems pretty tame, but it was some serious shit back in the day.  Kids from broken homes, gang violence, sexual desire, murder, all in a time when that sort of stuff just wasn't talked about.  But all of it built up the characters, all of it moved the story forward, all of it touched the reader, and all of it was real.  It was ugly and sad but it mattered and it was true.  It's even more poignant because when Hinton wrote it, she was a teen herself.  

The Outsiders was great because it didn't censor itself.  It didn't try to makes things neat.  Teach Me is a disappointment because it does.

So never censor, and never be gratuitous, and everything will work out great.   

Genre Talk: Dreaming About Fantasy Part 3

While this is in no way specific to fantasy, it is a major part of damn near every fantasy story.  I'm speaking of course, about 


The quest is by no means specific to fantasy, but it is found there more often than in other genres.  I'm using the term "Quest" instead of something like mission or journey because quest sounds more appropriate, and because it has its routes in medieval romance where a knight goes out to pursue something (a lady, a dragon, etc).  It also involves travel, and fantasy stories usually love to go exploring.  But that's another entry.

So let's look at a couple types of quests.  First up is a classic: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  In it, the Pevensie siblings find a magic wardrobe that transports them to Narnia, a big fantasyland that's seen better days.  Once there, they journey across ice-covered wastes to the camp of Aslan, to do battle with the evil White Queen.

Now, the quest portion is set off pretty quickly: Get to Aslan and once there, help defeat the Queen.  The most famous of Lewis's classic Narnia books is very straightforward, partially because it's for children, and partially because it's a very simple example of what I'll call the "Vanilla Quest": go here, do this, go home.  It's also notable for that last bit: "go home."  Not all quests have that, but most do.  Going home is sometimes just important to the quest as leaving home is.  But for vanilla quests, the outcome and goal are known straight out of the gate.  Stories like Lord of the Rings (destroy this ring) by Tolkien and Sword of Shannara (get this sword and slay that dude) by Brooks are also good examples.

Which brings me to the next example: China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.  Now, this is not a classic quest.  In fact, the whole of it takes place in the confines of a single city (and briefly, Hell), but the characters crawl all over that city, and it's more fleshed out and alive than entire worlds other authors have written.  The quest involves one fat scientist, Isaac Grimnebulin, and a varied cast of others trying to save the city from soul-sucking monsters called slake-moths.  It's actually quite a bit more involved than that, and really very brilliant, but I'm abbreviating here.

The quest in Perdido is what I'll call the "Uncovered Quest": things are not clear from the beginning, and it isn't until much later that the true goal is discovered.  Isaac doesn't start off knowing about the monsters in his city: he's a scientist who wants nothing more than to work on his theories and shag his insectile girlfriend.  The quest is born out of necessity and to save his own ass.  And in the end, not everybody can go home again.  home is gone.  Other stories that feature indistinct goals at first are Imajica (journey of self-discovery becomes something waaaay bigger) by Clive Barker and one of my favorite games ever, Chrono Trigger (quest to save a princess becomes a mission to save all of time and space).

Now, there's lots of types of different quests based on scale (save the princess vs. save all of reality) and other things, but these are the two basic types I've always sorted everything into.  Neither is strictly better or worse than the other, it just depends on how they're executed.

That's it for this very short entry.  

Next up is Exploration.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Genre Talk: Dreaming about Fantasy Part 2

Mystical power is usually somewhere in fantasy stories.  Not always, but usually.  It goes by lots of different names: thaumaturgy, the Force, the current, elements, but for our purposes, we'll go with the old stand-by and call it magic.

If you're going to have magic, you need to have it be three things: logical, well-defined, and limited.


This seems counter-intuitive.  It's magic right?  Why should it be logical?  It doesn't need to be logical like real science is logical, where you can explain every single detail and have it actually occur.  That's no fun.  by logical, I mean it needs to have rules, and that you shouldn't break those rules to make it convenient for the plot.  

I used a term term in one of my previous posts, "Deus ex Magicka," which is a play on "Deus ex Machina," or "God from the Machine."  When somebody mentions something as being a Deus ex Machina, they mean that it's a cheap, convenient way for a problem to be resolved in a story.  this is a Very Bad Thing.  It means the writer is lazy and uncreative and so just has some solution show up and fix everything.  

Bad, illogical magic acts this way.  Suddenly the hero knows how to cast fire for absolutely no reason at all and is saved or they conveniently break previously established rules in a way that becomes acceptable.  

A good magic system with clear-cut rules is the one in Harry Potter.  Rowling spent years thinking about it, and it shows.  Things like wand movement, quality of a wand, pronunciation, and even the intent of the spellcaster are taken into consideration.  There are multiple branches of magic as well (potions, dark arts, defense against the dark arts, enchantments, etc.) and each has their own rules.  For potions, it depends not just on ingredients, but how you stir, how hot the mixture is, and so on.  Every aspect is very well thought out and Rowling probably has tons of information she thought of that never made it into the books.

A bad magic system with very little in the way of rules is the one in Clive Barker's Abarat.  Words of power are said, but they have random or vague effects, and it's unclear if any skill is required, or if somebody needs only to know the word to make magic happen.  It's pointed out that expert magicians can create glyphs (magical vehicles from thin air) in a matter of minutes, while novices need more time, but it's never explained why.  To summon a glyph, one need only recite a magic phrase over and over again.  So what makes an expert need to say it less while a novice needs to say it more?  It's never explained.  Things just...happen.

Rules provide structure, and challenges.  They make any magic system more interesting and complex, and more believable.  Just remember to stick to your own rules.


You and the reader should both know what magic in your world means.  How does it feel?  What's it look like?  The magic you see in the video game Skyrim is very different from the magic you see in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

The magic in Skyrim is prevalent and in wide use and is incredibly easy for anybody to pick up to some degree.  There is no shock or awe in seeing somebody conjure a fireball or turn invisible.  Anybody can do it, literally.  Especially if they have potions or scrolls or something.  Magic in the world of Skyrim is cool, but it's really just seen as a type of science.  It's an academic subject that lets you shoot lightning from your hand.  Some people even comment that studying it is super boring and dull.

Magic in The Dresden Files is unheard of through most of the world.  It's a secret that very few people have knowledge of.  It's also not as convenient as it is in Skyrim.  Not everybody can use it, and those who can use it, can't use all the different types of it.  And you can't just fire off any spell willy-nilly.  Some magic requires hours (or days, or years, or centuries) of time to set up and cast.  It feels much more rare and special than in Skyrim, as well as more mysterious and dangerous.  

Note that neither of these is bad.  they're both fine, they just have very different feelings to them.  Know what kind of magic you want in your story.


Finally, magic should have some kind of boundary.  There should be some things that it definitely cannot do.  Otherwise the solution to every problem is magic, and that becomes predictable, and that becomes boring.  In the aforementioned Dresden Files spamming magic is impossible, because it's like physical stamina: there's only so much energy a practitioner can have.  They can die if they use too much or overreach themselves.  If they screw up a spell, it can backfire and kill them, or summon some creature from beyond that rips them apart. 

Pretty much every magic system I've run across has some form of limitation, even the really bad ones.  There are different ways to limit yourself though.  Maybe some magic is just flat out impossible, like the genie in Aladdin saying he can't make anybody fall in love with Aladdin, kill anyone, or give Aladdin any more than three wishes.  Or maybe some magic is so complex that it requires ultra-rare materials and incantations to pull off, and one wrong move means disaster.  There's lots of different ways you could do it.

That's all I got for now.  Next time I'll be talking about The Quest.

And yes, I'm aware I've been away for a month, but I've still been writing, so there.