Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Humble Bundle: Revenge of the RPG

So another Humble Indie Bundle is out now.

You've probably heard of the concept, but if not, it's a bundle of four or five games that you can purchase for multiple platforms (this one will give you Android 2 and Windows/Mac/Linux versions), and you get to choose the price you pay. It's a great way to get in touch with what's coming out of the indie game studios, and one thing I'm particularly interested in with this bundle is the Ultima-style RPG Avadon - The Black Fortress. I've been playing the demo and am just about to purchase the bundle so I can get the whole thing. It's old school, certainly, but on the other hand it appears to be working towards dealing with the issues I have with modern RPGs. FFXIII was terrible - it wasn't so much a game as a journey with a decent scenic route.  Dragon Age 2 fell off a cliff, seemingly looking for a totally different audience from the first game (which was very good and possibly the last great computer RPG I've seen).  And I just can't stomach Mass Effect at all after the first one managed to be so incredibly dull in spite of having all the right tools and a setting that really appealed to me.  Skyrim I enjoy but its story is sorely lacking, to the point that the big showdown at the end of the main quest felt less dramatic than any of the plethora of random encounters which occur when going for a walk.  That's what I miss most about the genre - the great stories that did not take a back seat to polygons and cut scenes. I'm not deep enough into Avadon to know yet whether or not the story is great, but from the reviews I've read it seems to be a strong point of the game, and what's enjoyable so far is that I'm in a Game of Thrones style world where I have to make decisions that actually seem to matter and have genuine moral weight to them. It's not so simple as choosing red or blue to know whether murdering everything in the room is evil or not. It does involve a fair bit of reading, though, and with the 90s-era graphics and no real soundtrack to speak of, I can see where a modern gamer might not be thrilled by it.

Still, I've complained long enough about RPGs not getting it right anymore. I have serious reservations about the direction of the gaming industry in general - too much flash, too much concentration on multiplayer, and far too high expectations for graphic and sound production that prevents anybody taking any risks and doing something new. This is a game from a studio that's at least trying to do things the way I'd like - forget spending millions of dollars and thousands of work hours on the graphics, let's get the story and gameplay working. So I'm putting my money where my mouth is and recommending it. And the bundle benefits not only developers, but the Child's Play charity and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Brave New World

Once more into the breach, dear friends.

I have a few publishing credits under my belt because, shockingly enough, on occasion editors have taken a fancy to my work and agreed to include it in a collection they have sent to print.  It is always a thrill and an honour, and nothing quite matches the thrill of scanning a reply and seeing the word "Accepted", just as nothing quite stings as strongly as the inevitable "not for us" or other polite euphemism that we writers are so used to when being told we're not wanted.  I have been fortunate enough to receive the good news several times now, but each victory is a struggle, a battle won in a war that at times seems hopeless.  It was like being at war not with the mighty empire of China, but its Great Wall.  Unfeeling, unrelenting, the publishing industry does not care how many stories you sling at it; it will always sit there, resolute and steadfast, unmoved by your plight or the ferocity of your firepower.  Rare is the writer who breaks a few stones; rarer still is the writer who breaches to the other side and can consider themselves an insider.

Until recently, scaling the wall was the only option for a budding author.  Write a slew of stories, submit them as often as it takes, and hope to build some credits so that you might be taken seriously enough to be considered for publication or gain an agent for that novel you've always been working on.  There was only one way to play the game and the rules were set to make entry near-impossible.  Now, the publishing industry finds itself encircled by an enemy unfathomable in its power: the Internet.

Self-publishing has long had a certain stigma attached to it, and with good reason.  Vanity presses would take the money of hopeful authors who had no hope of seeing returns, or even seeing their book on shelves.  Pseudo-academics would use their own imprints to add an air of legitimacy to questionable research they could not bring anywhere near a mainstream journal.  For a long time it did not bode well for one's career if self-publishing was deemed necessary.  Now, however, thanks to the plethora of platforms and the digitising of the reading experience, publishing on your own is not only acceptable, it is becoming a norm.

Not the norm, of course, because there remains the prestige attached to having one's book published by a major house, not to mention the marketing advantages.  But with the likes of Smashwords and CreateSpace, authors no longer have to stand sniveling before the court of publisher opinion.  It is not up to anyone but themselves whether their material gets out there for public dissemination, and it is up to the public whether it yields any returns or gets read at all.  Publishing is democratised and the playing field somewhat leveled.  Of course, as with any open system plenty of drivel will seep out as an over-enthused writer pours a barely concealed fan-fic over the keyboard and throws it online in a rush to see their name in lights, long before considering character, pacing and plot, or even spell-checking.  That is unfortunate, but with the ebook format gaining popularity and millions around the world having a device capable of reading anything at the touch of a button, being on a shelf in Borders no longer seems a requirement to be taken seriously as media to be consumed.  Which is handy, since Borders no longer has shelves.

So it is with this in mind that I have made my first foray into self-publication with my story Diminished.  It is not for the sake of vanity, though I must admit having my proof sitting on my desk does give me a warm glow somewhere inside.  It is to see how viable this process is for a little-known but experienced writer.  Can one really make it on their merit, if they put in some work and publicize their own work?  And what of price?  It's not free, but it's not expensive, certainly not compared to some publications out there, electronic or otherwise.  It is not very long either, but by no means were corners cut in the quest for a quick upload.  The story is one I am proud of, one I want to share, and one I hope will herald a new beginning as a self-published author in a world where 'self-published' does not have to be muttered in shame.

For the TL;DR crowd - I've published a novelette (all on my own this time) that I'd love you to give a try.  It's available for Kindle as an ebook and in paperback.  And it's cheap!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Know Your Limits...


I don't even know where to begin.  All across the United States, women are being used as pawns and proxies in a cultural war.  You can probably gather by now which side I'd align myself with, but the fact that there is fighting at all, still, is troublesome and exhausting.   In 2012, one would think that to get to political office you would have to be a little more adroit with your tongue than to say to women forced to undergo an unnecessary and unwanted medical procedure to just close your eyes.  And in 2012, one would hope that the entire national conversation would not be about whether or not women deserve to have their medical needs covered.  Sadly, even a bitter old cynic like me was stunned to discover Arizona's plan to drag up this issue again and defy the man in the White House: a law has been proposed in the state legislature that would make it legal for employers with religious objections to fire women for using birth control, whether or not the woman's company health insurance is paying for it, unless she can prove that she is not using it for 'sexual purposes'.

This won't stand up to any kind of judicial scrutiny for a whole host of reasons, but the problem is that it could well pass and women and their families will be hurt by it until it is torn a legal new one by (presumably) the ACLU.  The greater problem, though, is that supposedly educated men and women (it was introduced by a woman, as it happens) think they somehow have the right to try to pass this kind of law.  They think it's ok to kick female workers in the teeth, as long as it is done in the name of religion.  They think it's ok to violate HIPAA, the Health Care Reform Act and the US Constitution, because they do not like women having access to contraception.  They don't mind that the law will never stick, that it's a complete waste of time and resources that could be better spent on something important and constructive.  They don't even mind that it makes them look rather evil and demented, because everything is apparently secondary to punishing women for being women.  Even women who are using such contraception for 'non-sexual purposes' would be punished, having to pay out of pocket until their employer agrees that their pleading of "I'm not having sex" is to their satisfaction and being charged a fee for the company being kind enough to look at their claim.

I could write a diatribe on how awful this all is, but it is rather self evident.  Just reading about the Arizona bill made me sick.  I was fortunate enough to be born after segregation and after the Civil Rights era, at a time where racism was by no means gone but it at least was not open policy.  Today, misogyny is startlingly palpable in the political world.  It is chilling to find myself in a world where a large section of the population (the largest, actually) is seen as something lesser and it is not even kept quiet.  It's clear that the political ruling class, largely but not exclusively in the Republican Party, are reaching very far to grab women around the neck.  It's a war on women, and they feel entitled to the territory between each and every woman's legs.  Hopefully public backlash will soon show that they are reaching well beyond their limits.

And here is today's moment of zen:

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


One of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs to those who were reared on the Internet and txt spk) writers receive is: "Where do you get your ideas".  I was fortunate enough to be asked this even before I was out of school.  Back then I described myself as enjoying writing rather than as a writer, but the effect was the same - telling stories had become part of my identity, and on occasion my stories were read to the English class since it shut them up for ten minutes.  According to my peers, at least, I was greater than Shakespeare.

But enough ego-stroking.  The question somewhat baffled me because, like many writers I have subsequently witnessed struggling to answer it, I had no bloody idea.  Inspiration just seemed to hit, but I was reluctant to admit that - it might make it sound like I was cheating.  The cliche runs that talent is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but I would argue with those measures.  Yet it does seem apt when one considers the inspiration is what seems to hoard all the credit...

Struggling for an answer, I turned the question around on my classmate.  "Where do you look for inspiration?" I asked.  I had met many students who struggled significantly with what to say when it came to essays and the like, and their struggle was generally not out of ignorance.  They knew the answers if prompted, but bearing it out in a narrative form that, as we were always instructed, came to a balanced conclusion was a hurdle they had great difficulty surmounting.

"I just sort of sit and think about it," they'd answer, "And nothing happens."

I did sort of answer along these lines, but not nearly as clearly as I would have liked, as I myself did not fully understand it yet.  But, in short, I told them that this was perhaps the problem.  Inspiration comes to me when I'm not thinking about it, it comes when I am almost making an effort not to think at all.  Sitting on the bus, listening to music, zoning out from the world, I might be struck with a scene that just screams to be fleshed out into a story.  It might make me anti-social, but who am I going to talk to on the bus anyway?  Another flash might occur shortly before dropping off to sleep, which is really annoying because I never did get in the habit of keeping a notebook with me and even if I had, the scrawl of my damaged hand at one in the morning is unlikely to make much sense come tomorrow.  The shower is another favourite place to come across a good idea, and I find it plays out as Stephen King describes, like a palaeontologist stumbling across a fossilised bone by chance, and gradually uncovering it with careful work.  Perhaps even 99% work, but that should not discount the weight of the 1% in this equation.  An 1% may begin in luck, but it requires action to put a writer in the position to strike it lucky.  Consuming stories as much as possible (not just reading, but in film and television and video games and every opportunity that presents itself) and thinking about the craft a lot will help a writer focus, but it is also important to take the time to not focus, to relax and decompress, and just let the imagination go for a stroll.

My core advice would be to never be afraid to write an idea down.  No matter how stupid it might sound, it can always lead to another idea, or seem a much better one from a slightly different perspective.  Not every good writer sits on the train and has their story pull into the station of their mind fully formed by the time they get from London to Edinburgh, but no one should feel that they are expected to pluck pure genius from thin air if they want to be considered creative.  Believe in yourself, believe in your ideas, and believe that you can actually find them without straining your brain trying to look.

Now unwind with today's moment of zen:

Thursday, 8 March 2012

A Man Who Trusts Women

I trust women.  I like women.  Most of them.  Well, most of the ones I know.  The rest I largely have no ill-will towards, and those I might dislike, I do so because of rather specific actions of theirs.  Like threatening to nuke Buenos Aires, turning international politics into a joke or failing to use their indoor voice for my entire childhood.

But even these women that I might not like so much, I do not feel any sense of ownership over.  I do not have any power or responsibility to guide them or cajole them, to judge them or to denigrate them.  What they do, while I might dislike it and I might complain about it, is up to them.  It has never even crossed my mind that these women, even the ones I don't like, should be subjected to my whim by force of law.  So why is it that millions of women, across the United States and the world, are finding their choices limited and their motivations prejudged and second-guessed?  Why is it that women's health care is a divisive issue that the entire country is talking about?  Why is it a bargaining chip, seemingly requiring a shrewd poker player to keep it in the stack.  It seems baffling to me that it was on the table to begin with.

Today is International Women's* Day.  I don't know if there is an International Men's Day, and I don't care.  While there are always issues that affect men that are worth talking about (social pressure to conform to the constructed concept of 'masculinity', fear of getting probed in the butt to check for prostate cancer, etc.), it isn't often that the entire gender finds itself the subject of political humming and hawing over whether or not they deserve access to basic health care.  Lots of men don't get access to basic health care, because they are poor, unemployed or already sick ('born this way' doesn't fly with Republicans for this issue either).  But they don't get denied because a certain segment of a certain religious sect firmly believes they should.  Viagra isn't something you need a trans-urethral ultrasound before you're allowed to get it (except maybe in Ohio).  Women are, as ever, the ones punished for daring to have a sexuality, and are shackled by the idea that they are somehow too fragile or stupid to make decisions for themselves.

Rubbish.  I know plenty of women who are perfectly capable of making decisions for themselves.  I also know a handful I wouldn't send out for a sandwich, but that has nothing to do with what's between their legs.  And the same goes for men, and for anybody else who might consider themselves trans or whatever other gender.  Individuals are different from one another, and every individual deserves the opportunity to make their own health care choices without a third party's religious or moral convictions interfering.  That men largely get this and women do not is a scandal and a stain on the reputation of the faithful.  Faith, if it is to be anything, is to be a help to oneself, not a hindrance to another.

Your moment of zen today is a video involving some women who do not appear to be fragile at all.  As I have mentioned in the past and in my bio, I'm a fan of professional wrestling, and one of my favourite companies right now is Shimmer Women Athletes.  While I find the name a bit daft, and the DVD covers make my mother think I've ordered a stack of porn, this product is incredibly refreshing for a jaded wrestling fan.  It involves people (who happen to be women) with talent, enthusiasm and a little bit of fun, mixing all that together in the ring to make for a solid wrestling show.  It's entertaining, it's engaging, and it's not "good for women's wrestling"; it's plain good.  As it should be, there's no reason women cannot wrestle just as well as men.  Some of the women happen to be attractive, but that's besides the point.  Plenty of male wrestlers are attractive too.  What matters is that I appreciate and enjoy their work, and I trust them to have their own agency and make their own choices in life, without myself or anybody else throwing hurdles in their way.  Would we really accept trying to force John Cena to watch a brain scan of a football injury victim before allowing him to get into the ring? 

*That apostrophe is in the correct place, despite it being a plural.  Don't ask me why.  The English language was never meant to make sense.  Its arbitrary absurdity is probably why the English invented Monty Python.