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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

REACHING READERS

"Doesn’t a lot of junk get published? Sure. But it always has. And now readers—not self-appointed arbiters of literary merit—get to decide which books are worthwhile to them."

A while back I came to the conclusion that anyone who goes the old route of agent/editor/publisher through a big house is a sucker.  That they're giving away money and working hard to get scraps that fall off the publisher's table as their agent gets a bigger cut of the pie than they do.  I still believe this; if you have any doubts about that, many people have written about the topic, such as Robert Bidinotto at PJ Media.
The only problem you face as a self-published author in the new age of publishing is the same thing a blogger faces: getting anyone to notice you.  You can have the best book ever written with the most brilliant cover, title, and blurb conceivable by mankind and might never even get noticed.  The problem is, there's a million million other books out there and you're just lost in a sea of choices.  You might be the tastiest fish ever, but in that big a school, nobody is even going to notice.
I listened to a podcast recently from Your Guide to Book Publishing with Amy Collins as the guest, and Ms Collins pointed out a few things about publicity.  First, she noted that while non fiction authors benefit greatly from old style publicity, fiction authors do not.  A big tour on talk shows, interviews in the newspaper, radio spots etc are great for non fiction, because they publicize the writer, not their book.  You get to know about the author, you see them and might become impressed by them, and as a result wonder what they have to say on a topic or consider their expertise.
But with fiction, the author is really irrelevant to the reader.  Yes, you might have authors you like, but only because of their content not because of their expertise. I don't really care what an interesting person and expert Loren Estleman is, I care that he writes really interesting, entertaining books.
So she argues that to publicize fiction, you have to find readers, not consumers.  You aren't interested in publicizing the author, but the book its self, the fiction.  And the best way to do this, she argues, is reviewers.  Now, she says to get 500 copies of your book and fire those bad boys off to reviewers around the world, to eat the cost as a price of business.  And if I had that kind of money, I would do so without blinking an eye. 
The problem is, printing up 500 copies of Old Habits would run me about $5300 (with bulk and author discount) plus the 5 bucks or so to mail every book.  And I just don't have $7800 lying around to spend on that kind of thing.  Like I said, if I had it, I wouldn't hesitate, but that's a pretty fair stack of cash for anyone to blow on their own book.
She points out that even if the books end up being sold to the local used book store, that's still outreach for your book; you're still seeing it show up on a shelf and that's a plus for you as an author (she also suggests putting a bright sticker over the UPC barcode that says "Not for resale").
However, there's another option out there.  A lot of reviewers are electronic only these days.  Yes, you'll miss the New York Times and so on, but that's not necessarily bad.  There's a success story recently where an author couldn't get her book noticed by any old school reviewer, so she sent a copy of the e-book to a hundred of the top active reviewers on Amazon and became a bestseller based on their responses.
The truth is, there's a lot of reviewing going on with just e-books now, and since that's the place I expect to reach the most readers, that's where I want to aim my sights.  I'm a bit hindered right now because I can't get my book on Barnes & Noble to sell (soon, I hope), but once I get it on more platforms, I'll try the same thing.
I won't get the same results the woman I mentioned does.  My book is much more niche and not a popular genre.  Fantasy is a bit flooded right now, as every dork with an idea has written a fantasy novel like I did, but I do think it might help sales a bit.  I can hardly do worse than 1 sale a month, in any case.
I'll keep you posted as I work on this, hopefully by the end of the year I can see more sales and maybe another book out there.  In 2014 I think my PublishAmerica Snowberry's Veil contract lapses, which would let me put another book out then as well.  We'll see.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A STUDY IN LINES

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
-1 Corinthians 13:11

There's a cartoon going around the net which has a sort of gut level appeal to it, especially if you are younger.  It starts out with a baby being taught by an older man, probably an old man judging by the hair:
Baby doesn't know any better, so he repeats what he's been told and thinks along those lines, right?
So life goes on and he begins to meet other people and get introduced to new ideas, each one basically straight lines but of different patterns, and his thoughts begin to change.

The older he gets, the more varied and unusual these influences become, and his thoughts become more varied, more creative, and more challenging.  He's thinking deeply now, exploring new territory.

Now, graduated from college, his thoughts are wild and unusual, filled with tangents and fresh concepts.  He's free and unique, thinking outside the old lines of his youth!  And time goes on.

But as he gets older, he starts to become more predictable, more traditional.  All those exotic influences and creative ideas fade and his thoughts calcify.  Until finally as an old man...
He passes all those old ideas on to another child.  How tragic.
Now, if you're in college, this probably seems like genius to you.  But there are a few problems with this entire scenario.  
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Quote of the Day

"Nothing can take the sting out of the world's economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues."
-Billy Crystal, 2012

Friday, February 22, 2013

SIR HOLMES

"...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."
-Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

I remember some time in the early 80s, the Sherlock Holmes copyrights expired, leaving the stories and character open to the public.  This concerned me, largely because I liked the character and was worried more trash like The Seven-Percent Solution and would be written.
The last thing the world needed was more movies such as Without A Clue with Watson as the real genius and Holmes as a bumbling idiot, I thought.  I believe that some characters and settings should be treated with respect because they are ridiculous enough without needing to be mocked.  Still, some people just can't leave well enough alone, and others are filled with such bitterness in their own lives they feel the need to spread it around.
Over the years, the canon actually has been treated with a fair amount of respect, however.  There have been some poor attempts, but for the most part it has been a set of tales people do appreciate and want to give justice.  Jeremy Brett's BBC run as the great detective was so brilliant and iconic I doubt anyone will ever equal or come close.
There are still some stories which are under copyright, though.  About 10 of the stories are still protected and owned by the Holmes estate (mostly the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes stories) and will be released from copyright in 2022.  It has been nearly 85 years since the last Sherlock Holmes story - The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place - was published.
Still, people keep putting out various versions of Holmes, including two major television shows.  BBC's Sherlock has been a smash hit with 8 episodes over two years, and Elementary on CBS appears to be doing well enough to be renewed next year.  Both are attempts to reimagine the detective in modern times, with different settings.  The BBC version is the more successful of the two, although Elementary isn't as awful as it first sounded (a female Watson, set in New York, etc).  And, of course, there is the film version with Robert Downey jr doing his usual brilliant work.
Almost all of these new attempts to write Sherlock Holmes, however, are missing a key component to Holmes' personality.  They get his brilliant mind pretty well.  They get his analytical ability, his observational skills, his deductive discipline.  They write his eccentricities, which range from the colossal rudeness and insensitivity (in Sherlock) to childish tantrums (in Elementary).  They portray his arrogance and confidence well.  And all the actors involved are talented enough to make these characters interesting to watch.

MISSING SOMETHING
No, what they miss is critical to why Holmes was a likable sort, a hero rather than just a very effective detective.  You can admire these Sherlocks for their skill and intelligence, and often they are even amusing.  But they're missing something that Doyle brought to his character and few writers have been able to replicate.
To understand this, you have to dig a bit more deeply into the original stories and study the character. When you do so, you find a consistent pattern of behavior, a worldview that Holmes displays in each story.
Whenever Holmes is dealing with a truly weak, poor, and needy client or witness, he is incredibly gentle and soothing.  He seems to sense the delicate nature of these people and their need for compassion, and is careful to treat them delicately as well.
Examples of this in the books are numerous, but are most often when it is a woman in a position of little or no power mistreated by others.  The Case of the Golden Pince-Nez and others where a maidservant or woman in need comes to him are always shown where he has very patient and gentle with the helpless and seeks to soothe and assure them that all is in hand.
When he deals with the powerful, the rich, and the arrogant, it is the opposite.  He has little patience, no tolerance for their blustering, and cuts through their attempts to control the situation with immediate clarity.  Holmes has no fear of authority or position, and while he is respectful of due authority, he has no patience with arrogance.  When he deals with kings, he gives them their due titles and respect - but will not allow them to abuse their authority.
Consider A Scandal in Bohemia which he almost immediately forces his client to reveal his true title and position.  Or when he faces Lord St Simon in the Case of the Noble Bachelor:
"Good-day, Lord St. Simon," said Holmes, rising and bowing. "Pray take the basket-chair. This is my friend and colleague, Dr. Watson. Draw up a little to the fire, and we will talk this matter over."
"A most painful matter to me, as you can most readily imagine, Mr. Holmes. I have been cut to the quick. I understand that you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the same class of society."
"No, I am descending."
"I beg pardon."
"My last client of the sort was a king."
"Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?"
"The King of Scandinavia."
"What! Had he lost his wife?"
"You can understand," said Holmes suavely, "that I extend to the affairs of my other clients the same secrecy which I promise to you in yours."
Respect for the position, but no tolerance for arrogance.
Holmes also is very dedicated to justice, if not always law.  He is merciless against the unjust, tireless to protect the innocent and mistreated, and will bring a case to a resolution that brings justice, if not always legal satisfaction.  In several cases, Holmes found the truth and did not bother to tell the police about it.  In The Blue Carbuncle, he lets the thief go because he believes the man is scared enough to never repeat the crime.  In The Three Students, Holmes declines to follow through punishment on the student, telling him instead "For once you have fallen low. Let us see, in the future, how high you can rise." In fact, in the twelve stories that make up the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes book, only one actually faces criminal prosecution.
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TRANSLATING BRITISH

I can't honestly say how universal and accurate this all is, but I know some of it to be true.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

MEN CAVE, AGAIN

This is a post I did a while back that I started thinking about last night while pondering gender roles and what's happened to both men and women in the modern west. It didn't seem to get much attention at the time and I wanted to revisit it today.
"A man cave is a lair of refuge and escape where bros can be bros well into middle age, even when married and occupying a house with a female co-inhabitant."

Sweet Mancave Brodwag Wow, the Man Cave, can there be anything more masculine and manly? Have you started making your own? Maybe this Christmas you can get some stuff to put in yours, such as these suggestions from the website "Bro Bible"
  • A Urinal
  • A Pin-Up Calendar
  • Neon
  • Kegerator
  • A Humidor
  • Indoor Putting Green
  • Stripper Pole
...and so on. Apparently being a man is about sex, beer, and sports. At least, to Bro Bible.

I sympathize with men wanting a place they can call their own, a spot in their house they can retreat to and be in comfort and happiness. I remember well Al Bundy retreating to his bathroom on Married With Children to escape the family. It was the one place in the house that was truly his, instead of controlled by his wife.

And that's the problem, isn't it? Its one thing to have a game room where you can go to have fun, but its another to have a man room, because that's basically an admission that you have surrendered the rest of the house to the woman. If you have only one room in the house that really reflects your personality and masculinity, that means the rest of the house... doesn't.

Now, I'm not saying the house should look like a cross between a frat house and a hunting lodge. Women typically are better at decorating and its her house too, in a marriage. She should have her input too. But if you're shoved off into one room while she puts 15 pillows on the couch and teddy bears everywhere, there's something basically wrong not just with the relationship but you as a man.

I know its easy for me to say as a single guy but men: when a guy comes into your house and it looks like the set designer for Oxygen channel fixed up the place, that says a lot to us about you. Its fine to have her touches, but the place should have your touches too. I don't want men to turn into interior decorators, I just want us guys to have our say and our stuff in the house as well.

Every married comedian on earth has the same basic gag: when you get married kiss all your stuff goodbye. Now, some of it probably ought to go. You're married, its time to give up the milk carton shelves and that utility company spool you use as a coffee table. You have a wife now, so your massive collection of porn and the girlie posters are not necessary any longer (in theory), and probably insult and make her feel like she's competing with women she can't even yell at.

But then... women carry baggage from their youth that should be abandoned too. I know you adore that stuff you carried with you from teenage years, but... let it go. You expect your man to grow up and abandon the trappings of his single days, you need to as well.

And think about it. What does it say about our comprehension of masculinity when the entire concept of a man cave is about permanent adolesence? I don't have a problem with beer, video games, and beautiful women. I have a problem with that defining your gender. Men are not bigger and older frat boys. Masculinity is not defined by the word "brodawg" and how many beers you can chug.

The entire concept of a "Man Cave" is like some child's misconception of what dad's room was like, its a juvenile caricature of masculinity, surrendered to female supremacy. A man's study with books and hunting trophies, a good comfortable chair, and so on was about what a man accomplished in life and how he bettered himself, not about how he parties, pukes in a trash can and lusts after ever-younger women (relative to his age) that are ever more out of his reach while playing video games.

Its fine to have a room especially masculine in a house (like a woman might have a room that's especially girly), set aside for a guy to escape into. Believe it or not, guys need to get away from women once in a while, and that's not unreasonable - women need to get away from men too, and since the workplace can't provide that any longer, this is an aid. But this room shouldn't be an island in a sea of femininity and it shouldn't be some throwback to your early 20s single party years.

Rethinking this idea, I came up with a solution.  You want a man cave?  You want a special manly spot where you have stuff of your own and get away from the lady of the house?  Fine.  But don't make it a treehouse for teenagers, don't make it the frat boy version of the He-Man Women Hater's Club.  There's a reasonable "man cave" on television regularly, on NCIS.  Its the basement of Special Agent Gibbs' house.  Its  a workshop.

This is a place of masculinity that has a purpose other than distraction and entertainment; its a place where some work gets done, something is produced, and a man can focus on a pleasing task rather than a game or amusement.  To me, that's a man cave, not some boy's clubhouse.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SONGS I LIKE - Man In The Wilderness (Styx)

Another year has passed me by
Still I look a myself and cry
What kind of man have I become?

Its difficult for young people today to really grasp how big Styx was.  My niece loves the band, she's a huge fan as a teenager, and there are a lot of young people who are in the same boat, but its difficult to really understand the vast popularity the band had.  Styx put out album after album of incredibly great music for years and packed the biggest stadiums on earth.  When Grand Illusion came out in 1977, Styx wasn't as big as it became though.  They opened the previous year for Kansas on their Leftoverture tour.
Now, think about that a moment.  This was the time when Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, ELO, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Supertramp, Bob Marley, Boston, Yes, Rush, Queen and many others were at their best and at the same time new acts such as the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, The Clash, and Cheap Trick were just getting started.  It was really a golden age of rock and roll.
One of the best albums of 1977 was Grand Illusion, the 7th disc by the band who started recording in 1972.  Preceded by Equinox and Crystal Ball, both great albums as well, this disc launched Styx into superstardom and they carried that mega success into the 1980s.  Styx is still recording and putting out music and they just went on a tour in which they played every song in sequence from of Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight.
One of the songs on Grand Illusion is "Man in the Wilderness" by Tommy Shaw, one of their lead guitarists.  Shaw says he wrote the song based on his wonder at the incredible music that Kansas played on the tour they opened for, and he wanted to write something like that.  Something deep and thoughtful with a sweeping, epic sound.  He did well; "Man in the Wilderness" could easily have been recorded by Kansas, yet still sounds like Styx.
The song is about several things, among them the return of his brother from the Vietnam war and his sudden rise to immense fame.  Styx went basically overnight from a hard working rock band to a mega act and it takes some doing to get used to the change.
Shaw is examining his life, and wondering what it is about and what he's become.  Life doesn't seem to make sense, but he knows it should.  Especially put against songs about ho's and bitches and swag and YOLO and whatever these days it seems particularly deep and tragic.  I hope Shaw found some answers, because even today when he sings it he seems sad.  I don't have a lot of patience with super rich, successful people whining about how hard their life is (the 90s were full of this kind of trash, with emo groups moping about how miserable everything was for them) but this song is about more than just feeling low.
All the success he has, all the popularity, its empty and he knows it.  He recognizes that no matter how much money he makes or how many hundreds of thousands of people come to the Styx shows, or what hot chicks are waiting for him in the dressing room, there's supposed to be more to life and he wants that more than the fame and fortune.  And I think to some degree all of us feel like a man in the wilderness at times, lost and confused and knowing something isn't right.
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Thursday, February 14, 2013

CRAFTING SUSPENSE

"It was a dark and stormy night"

A very wise man once said there's nothing new under the sun; that everything we do and attempt someone has, in one form or another, in the past.  That's true as far as I can tell.  There's been billions of humans on earth and folks today are no more clever and inventive than those in the past.
Creative arts such as music, painting, writing, and so on are all areas people expect fresh new ideas and mock duplication and repetition.  The problem is at a certain point, we're all cannibals and thieves when we create: we re use what we've done before or what someone else has done before.  
Great artists repeated certain compositions and techniques.  Great composers repeated themes and chords, even entire segments were reused in later, more successful pieces.  Great writers use patterns and formulas to craft their stories.
The reason for this isn't sloth, it is not because an artist is trying to steal in most cases.  There's simply no better way to do certain things.  Mysteries can't be mysterious if you give too much away too soon.  You can't write a romance without at least two people becoming romantically inclined.  If you write a book without conflict or drama, its boring and pointless.  And after all, everyone has a style and a method of writing which is most comfortable and easiest for the writer to follow.
Attempts to make these sort of efforts "fresh and new" end up being lame and awkward at best.  Yet using the same patterns can become repetitious, boring, and can ruin an otherwise good tale.  The problem for a writer is that if you use all the same techniques, people will lose their "immersion" in a story.
What I mean is this; if you are reading a good story, most readers tend to become involved enough they ignore the outside world and their mind plays along with the tale, not so much deluding themselves they are actually in that tale, but pulled in enough to be like someone underwater, surrounded by the story being told, without realizing it.
If something jarring, sufficiently inconsistent, or obnoxious happens in the story it can damage that feeling of immersion and pull you out to where you recognize you're reading words on a page.  Instead of enjoying a story you feel like you're reading a book, to put it another way.
And poorly handling a situation can cause this.  Watching the incredibly awkward trainwreck of the "love story" in Star Wars Episode II (Attack of the Clones) was so painful all sense of being in a far away world or following the story was totally lost.  If you read a book and the writer employs tired, overused cliches or terms that everyone is sick of, suddenly instead of reading you're looking at words and hoping you get past that bit.
They've jumped the shark, and need to think outside the box, because their paradigm has become gay.  See that sentence?  Its horrible, because it simply uses terms everyone has overused to the point of producing misery instead of delight or interest.
And that brings me to writing suspense.  If you want to write a good, suspenseful scene, you have to employ techniques which will help the reader build in nervousness and concern for the people involved.  Writers such as Alistair MacLean were brilliant at this; you seriously feared for the lives and safety of everyone involved in the story, whatever it was.  He was a genius at keeping you guessing, wondering who was the bad guy, what was going to happen next, and slipping in treason and confusion into every stage of the tale with stories such as Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone among many others.
In the book I'm working on right now, the scene involves a Nazi officer being stalked by a werewolf through the dark, curfew-silent streets of Krakow.  The lights are out, the streets are empty and dark, and the whole world is cold and wet with earlier rain.  Now, the usual way to get suspense and fear is to have storms and scratching branches and so on, to emphasize things people are familiar with which set them on edge, and to use imagery which makes people nervous or feel dread.  Terms and descriptions comparing ordinary items to more horrible things are often used; the plain fence in front of a house looks like tombstones, the bush reminds one of reaching claws or spiders, and so on.
The problem is, this has all been used so much by so many writers, I'm not sure it even works any longer.  And since I know exactly what is happening and why, there's no suspense for me when I read it, no matter how its written.  I think this might be a problem for all writers, trying to craft a mystery when you know the end already can't be easy - where's the mystery?  Where's the surprise?  In both of my previous books I've had elements of mystery or at least a puzzle being solved, but they weren't the primary focus of the story so if it didn't work, it wasn't particularly damaging.  In the end I think it worked out okay.
The problem is, with this book, tentatively titled Life Unworthy, I'm trying to write a suspense-filled story with elements of horror.  This isn't a cuddly fun werewolf, this isn't a hunky werewolf you choose between for the sparkly vampire.  This is a horrific murdering monster under a ghastly curse.  And I want readers to be in dread of the killing machine while feeling even more dread about the cold, systematic evil of the Nazis.
Meanwhile, I'm trying to make the werewolf at least somewhat sympathetic and tragic while making the Nazis more complex and interesting than the usual caricature.  They aren't all goose stepping Jew-hating robots, they have varied reasons and goals behind their actions.  The trick is to make them human and even to some degree likable despite their evil, because to me that makes the evil all the more horrible.
A monster is just a monster, you don't feel bad or betrayed when they do wrong.  A somewhat likable person who does unthinkable evil is more shocking and painful, I believe.  And while it isn't fun to make Nazis nice guys at times, they were.  Its not like they went home and beat their wives, murdered babies, and made a shrine to Hitler out of the bones of old ladies, they had wives and kids and families, loved ones and pets and happiness too.  That's what makes what they did all the worse.
So I'm struggling, and maybe overthinking things a little.  In my previous two books, I just sat down and wrote, and ripped them out in about a month's time.  The words flowed and were easy to put on paper, the story just poured out onto my laptop with few hitches and hesitations.  The setting, the characters, the events were all simple to me after thousands of hours of role playing games set in my fantasy world.
With this book I have to research continually to try to avoid errors, continuity issues, improper references, and so on.  I struggle to get the right mood, to keep the flow appropriate to the events, and to move the plot to the story I want: to examine the nature of evil and its consequences.
And that's good, in a way.  I could knock out story after story of Erkenbrand running about in the wilds facing problems and overcoming them; chances are I will at some point.  But I'd like to do more than simple fantasy stories, little fun adventures.  I want the books I write to be more than just pulp fun for someone to read for a few hours.  I want people to think and maybe even learn a little in the process.
Louis L'Amour wrote hundreds of stories, and almost all of them at least at some point force you to think, understand, and learn something about the setting, events, people and ideas he wrote about.  His stories were simple and often followed a very typical pattern, but there as more to them.  He didn't write "great literature" but then, a lot of what people call great literature I'm skeptical of, to say the least.  I'd like to be more like that, to entertain and tell stories that make people think.
So I want to write something different, and this story follows a pattern of sorts I established for myself when writing the series of fantasy novels I'm working on: 2 fantasy books then something different, to break up my thinking.  But its not easy.
I'm not of the mind that everyone has to try to stretch and do something more 'serious' or different than they do well.  Groucho Marx never felt the need to do horror or serious drama, he stuck to what he knew and did it well his whole life.  If you're good at something, stay with it.
I'm just not sure what I'm exactly great at, and I have a story here I want to tell which is a twist on things in a way I have never read before, in a setting and involving themes that I think should be popular and should interest readers.
The challenge is to find a way to get it done, to plow through the difficulties without falling back on easy, all-too-common tricks.  If I can do this right, it should be pretty amazing stuff.  If I can't, well at least its experience that will help me write better the next project I work on.
And there's one thing I learned from a class I took on marketing and business of art: you're never going to think your work is good enough to sell unless you're deluded.  But if you have any skill and talent at all, your work really is good enough at a certain point, and you have to recognize that as an artist.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

GAMING BEEF

"Its dangerous to go alone!  Take this."

I play a lot of games, probably more than I ought to.  From old games like Age of Empires II to new online games such as World of Warcraft (WoW), I have plenty of options and take advantage of them.  Its something I can do sitting or lying down which it seems like lately I have to do a lot of.
They are all entertaining, or I wouldn't keep playing them.  Although WoW is getting a bit stale after all these years, its still a great game.  I've been playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) lately, and its a lot of fun, but it has its problems as well.  They all do, and I've noticed most of these games share flaws, particularly the Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) like WoW.
Some of the problems are inevitable in a game involving thousands of players at once.  You can't give everyone the same gaming experience without silly things happening, like enemies popping into place ("spawning") suddenly as if teleported in by Star Trek transporters.  People need to have a static, predictable location they can go find people at, so they don't spend lots of time just finding the guy that gave you that last quest.  People need to be able to communicate, even if it makes no sense, across vast distances without any rational means, backpacks that hold 497 bars of ore, mounts that vanish into your pocket, and so on.
But there are other problems, unrelated to the setting, that really drive me nuts some days.
LOOK MA, NO HANDS
For example, almost no game created on the computer assumes you have any arms.  You're a limbless stump with a weapon jutting out of your chest, effectively.  Oh sure, they'll depict you with arms, you look like you have hands, but all they are for is holding weapons.
In the old side scroller game Prince of Persia, there was for the first time a game where you actually had arms and used them.  You would leap up, grab a ledge, and climb up over it.  It was amazing, the first game that gave you that power.  Prince of Persia came out in 1989 on the Apple II, and was a pretty astounding game for its time.
But then the entire concept of using your hands was lost again.  If you cannot leap the requisite distance over an object, well there's no possible way over it.  Nobody can climb over anything, you simply bump up against it, hopping a short distance again and again in frustration.  The Thief series finally allowed you to climb walls in the 3rd game, but only specific, permitted walls, not just any.  And if there was any impediment, like a ledge in the way, well you bumped your head against it and stopped.
Its really obnoxious in most of these games.  You can see objects like ladders and rough walls, but you can't use them except in specifically allowed circumstances.  Why?  Well, there are two basic reasons.
The first is that they want to restrict where you can go; you can't be channeled into encounters and moving through certain areas like cattle into a boxcar if you can bypass it.  Everquest used to ban people for "avoiding content."  Throw you out of the game.
The second is that they aren't very clever about enemies and AI, so if you get to some locations and shoot, they can't shoot back and you are "exploiting" by gaining an intelligent tactical advantage.  Essentially, game designers are finding the simplest and least creative way to force you to get beat up while trying to achieve goals. 
Many of these games have no method of flying whatsoever, so you cannot get to many areas without passing through clumps of enemies.  Even Star Wars, with hovering cars and space ships, you can't actually move over impediments, you have to go around them.  Here as a side note I have a particular peeve with the Star Wars game: your speeder explodes if anything attacks you, even something the size of a house cat.  You're knocked to the ground and stunned a moment when that happens.  No bypassing threats, cheater!
VELCRO WORLD
Another particularly annoying thing in these games is that every object in the world seems to be covered with hooks.  Here's what I mean.  You see that nice lamp post, round and shiny?  If you walk too close to it, you bump into it and cannot brush past.  Sometimes you get so stuck against an object you have to back up the way you came, and move around it. 
Why?  Because they aren't actually the size and shape you see.  They're a square block that is not visible with the object "rendered" on it, like a block of transparent plastic holding the lamp post in the middle.  So what you thought was a few inches across is actually a foot or two and square.
Now I do understand that this saves significant space, loading time, and lag for the game.  If you gave every object the polygons (surfaces) that it appears to have, it would be much larger and slower.  See, computers can't actually give you smooth round objects, they are made up of many smaller objects, like a geodesic dome made of very tiny hexagons. 
If you get those "polygons" small enough, they can appear very smooth, but they aren't.  And the computer has to understand and draw every one of those separately and in the right place, sometimes in motion, to make the object look right.  And while modern computers are very, very fast, they still bog down if you have a large area filled with those, some at least in motion.
So its a shortcut to make the polygons fewer and paint them with what you want to give the appearance of shape.  Which means you get stuck on invisible cubes, and annoyed in the process.
CHALLENGE LEVEL
Something that is wearying for me is the challenge level. I don't mean that things are too hard, I mean they are unreasonably hard.  Here's an example; in Star Wars the Old Republic there is an encounter which requires you to fight one big tough guy and deal with regularly appearing bad guys who are generated by two objects on either side of a huge cavern.  If you destroy the objects, the bad guys stop showing up, like monster generators in the old game Gauntlet.
Except the game doesn't tell you and there's no indication of any such thing.  You just get overwhelmed with an endless series of bad guys until you die several times finding out what's going on, or read about it on the internet ahead of time.
Now, in this life, you only get to die once.  There's no reload, no resurrect, no internet to check whether the room has a bomb in it ahead of time.  What these games are doing is in the name of challenge totally destroying any sense of immersion and suspension of disbelief.  They require you to have advance knowledge of something you cannot possibly  have known about in order to survive.
I admit this is an easy and effective way to create a challenge, but it makes no sense in the setting.  As a GM I know that I should never throw a challenge at the players which will certainly kill them unless they have prior knowledge that they cannot possibly have attained.  But MMOG's do this routinely, especially in "dungeons" or similar settings.  It makes them more difficult but in the end, its just absurd.
CLIMB ABOARD
Something also done in the name of challenge is to force players out of their abilities.  World of Warcraft in the last three expansions - especially the latest - has gone nuts with this.  There's two kinds of these encounters.
The first is the "vehicle" type of encounter, where the character you've been building and playing all this time suddenly loses all their abilities and is given a new set to use which is tailored for the encounter.  This started in the Wrath of the Lich King, and the designers apparently looovved it.  Players?  Not so much.  Its kind of fun, as a side show sort of thing but in the middle of a dungeon, against a bad guy?  Forced into it?  Why did I work so hard to gain all this equipment and all these abilities just to hurl them aside when I fight King Gazdookie or whatever?
The second is the "cutscene" or ambush type.  This is where you see the bad guy, are ready to deal with the bad guy, and move up to fight him but either they are impossible to target and attack until after you've talked to them, or you have to go through a pre-scripted scene showing you some dialog (even interactive dialog, as in SWTOR). 
So if you are, say, a stealthy character who survives and deals with threats by sneaking up on them and attacking from surprise - well not any longer!  If you are a character who survives and deals with threats by staying back at range - well not any longer!  If you are a character who survives and deals with threats by controlling some of the enemies through traps or similar abilities - well not any longer!  You have to start out a fight face to face lacking any of your character's advantages.
This is otherwise known as "if you aren't playing the right kind of character, prepare to die."  It means you aren't using your character's abilities, you're yanked out of that and forced to deal with them in methods you are poor at.  Again, this is a cheap, easy way to create a challenge, but it is incredibly frustrating and often irrational.
RISK VS REWARD
Too often in these games, you're offered a reward that is greatly disproportionate either to the risk or what you actually end up with.  Over and over in SWTOR I am told by some mission giver that he'll bankrupt his company to pay me, or that they'll make millions and share it with me, or that they have some unique, one of a kind items to share.  And so you do the mission, come back and get... enough money to buy a candy bar, or some random item that might be slightly useful but isn't unique or special at all.
Balancing the risk of a given quest or task and the reward for that effort is difficult, I admit freely.  The problem is since these games are made by a lot of different people working together, the threshold of risk vs reward varies greatly.  one designer thinks its this much, another has a different viewpoint, and apparently there's nobody in charge of unifying or smoothing this out.  So two similar encounters can end up with greatly different rewards, which is frustrating and confusing.
Games like EverQuest (EQ) thought giving a dime for risking your life over and over was some kind of luxury; they despised giving any rewards for any amount of risk.  Others, like WoW seem to be going overboard the other direction with magic items raining out of the sky so badly that you end up selling or "disenchanting" most of them.
TRADING PLACES
Which brings me to another beef: trade skills.  Being able to craft and sell items to other players using trade skills is a common feature in all these games.  Its a pretty nice idea, even if in EQ it started out as a way to pull money out of the game from suckers who thought they'd gain somehow.  I'm serious, the game had an infinite amount of cash pouring into it from quest rewards and monsters, and one of the ways they pulled money out of the economy was with expensive trade skills with poor returns.
The problem I have with trade skills is that they make only a few specific items, and almost none of them are in the world except through trades.  In other words, you can't make the sword that monster dropped, you can only make trade skill specific swords.  Who actually makes all the stuff in the world isn't exactly clear.  They just show up, like dew in the morning, apparently.
Nowhere is this more blatant than in WoW with the Enchanting trade skill.  Enchanting allows someone to place a magical benefit on objects such as weapons and armor.  To do so, you use reagents, magical materials that are created by destroying existing magical items.  And you have to destroy a good 3-4 magical items (or more) to place one enchantment on an item.
Now anyone with any sort of mathematical or economics background can see the inherent flaw in this system.  Its like making a car tire by destroying several other car tires.  Eventually - in very short order - you're going to run out of tires.  But the world is full of magic items, they are quite common.  Stores are full of them.  Monsters have plenty.  You can even find magical stuff just lying around in the latest expansion.  Chests have magic items in them, sitting around to be discovered.
Where do they all come from?  I speculate that its dragon poop, that they fly over like pigeons and drop these enchanted items all over the place.  And it gets worse: you can't enchant items except with a very limited specific range of enchants, and magic items you find in the world have much different kinds of enchantments.  So where on earth is this stuff getting its magic from?
I do understand the headaches that allowing players to make just anything would cause, it would allow people to tailor specific, amazing sets of ultimate items which would give them enormous power.  The Elder Scrolls games suffer from this because of their flexibility (for example, eventually if you work at it, you can make a weapon that drains life from targets and gives it to you.  Once you have such a weapon  you become unkillable and unstoppable).
Its just weird and annoying to be in a game that lets you make some things but almost nothing you see in the world around you.  Where does that Ykesha enchantment come from?  Who makes this powered armor that mission givers hand out?
Everyone remember the original Legend of Zelda?  It was a fun little Nintendo Entertainment System game, you ran around a little 8-bit world throwing your sword at things and picking up hearts.  Remember the beginning of that game?  Its almost infamous now.  You start out on an epic quest to collect the triforce, save the princess, and defeat the evil Gannon.  To face the entire world full of monsters, save the kingdom, and save the princess, you're given...  a wooden sword.  To fight the world and save the kingdom.  And that's too common in these games.
You're told to go do something amazing and seemingly impossible, alone.  You save the empire alone, you stop the enemy army, you slay the dragon, alone.  Missions where its obvious you should have support, you get none.  Support you get is usually incompetent and useless, or worse. This has long been a problem in these games, with combat flight games giving you useless wingmen, WW2 games putting you in combat with a squad that dies off by the droves and doesn't help you in the slightest and so on.  You have to win the war yourself, you have to stop the plague yourself.  Sure, part of that is to make sure you are the hero and do amazing things, but its simply absurd.  In SWTOR I've saved the entire empire or stopped massive problems dozens of times with my level 29 operative alone.  It gets ridiculous after a while.
There are solutions to all this, but they require changing a lot of basic assumptions and patterns used in these games.  Each big, successful new game that comes out addresses problems in the previous ones and brings many new innovations, so in time I expect most of this will be fixed (and new problems arise).  As computers get faster and more powerful, they're able to handle display issues like the "world of hooks" one better and that should be lessened as well.
And don't get me wrong, I really enjoy these games still and despite little things like this I have fun.  Its just frustrating to keep running into this kind of thing, and since I have a platform to yell, I figured I would.

Monday, February 11, 2013

AN ANIMATED FUTURE

"And now, from Albany Oregon, its the Tales of Brave Ulysses!"

I've been enjoying listening to old radio shows for months now courtesy several online sites which have hosts of them available for free.  Shows such as Gunsmoke, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Information Please, and Jack Benny are as entertaining today as they were when they were first broadcast and typically are a refreshing break from modern entertainment.  Even the ads aren't so bad, if sometimes outrageous.
Listening to these shows, I have been forming a theory over time that is becoming more of a certainty in my mind.  When radio first came out it was pretty primitive, and largely in the hands of talented amateurs - nobody was an experienced professional in broadcasting, because it was too new.  Some pretty amazing stuff came out a long with a lot of awful stuff, and it took years to really get the feel for how to best use this medium.
Some stuff took off right away, such as music and sports broadcasts, they were easy and adapted well to radio (especially baseball).  Others took time to present and perfect, with a lot of shoddy work and confused efforts along the way.  By the 1950s, radio was pretty amazing; delivered smoothly and professionally by experts.
Now things develop a bit faster these days, but the internet is more or less in the same place as radio when it first came out.  Nobody knows exactly how to make it work best for money or how to work formats on it that are best delivered to the public.  Youtube and Twitter are huge, largely because they are driven by customers rather than professionals, and that's likely the future of the internet.  Rather than a small group of people creating content to deliver to the wide audience for pay, it seems to be a huge group of people creating content for each person to enjoy.
But something many people expect to see is for the internet, using this user-created content like Youtube videos, podcasts, blogs and so on to come up with their own entertainment rivaling other content providers such as television and movies.  The attempts which mimic existing content like internet radio shows are pretty entertaining, but aren't money makers and are not breaking through very well.
What I see happening, soon perhaps, is this.
It is already becoming easier and cheaper to create animated work online.  You can go to any number of various sites such as Sketch Star, Devolver, and Voki to create your own animation online.  Some even provide voices; if you give them the text the software will read for you.  They have preloaded characters, backgrounds, and settings to let you create your little animated clips.
Other software such as Sculptris lets you create your own 3D figures (useful for later printing off on a 3D printer), which would allow much more sophisticated animation if you desire.
What I would not at all be surprised to see is a combination of those radio show style storytelling with online animation, producing full programs for people to watch.  Like podcasts (and early radio shows) they would have little to no sponsorship at first, but eventually would pick up some advertising over time.
Its expensive and time consuming to create your own show using settings, costuming, cameras, and so on.  But voice acting is pretty easy and cheap and animation could give the visual side internet folks desire without the cost of live production.
All we're really waiting on is a useful enough program that lets you craft your own settings and characters easily (a cast of characters with a paper doll-like clothing system spanning a wide range of times and style, for example) and use a large library of settings and locations coupled with a standard array of sound effects.  With that, the future is wide open.
There are millions of potential stories to tell with a modern sensibility and twist, just waiting for a format to put them online.  And done well, these could easily draw as well as a television program.  You get a few hundred thousand viewers to your show and big advertisers will want a slot in your program, especially if you deliver it cleverly.  The advantage of visual animation is that you can stick billboards, product placements, background items, and settings tailored to your advertisers.  McDonalds sponsors your show?  The characters go through the drive-thru and order the latest new menu item with gusto.  Your show sponsored by Goodyear?  Everyone has Goodyear tires and the blimp is in the background.
A clever writer can slip the advertising into dialog without it being jarring and awkward, just part of conversation and the story.  Your characters have to get somewhere on time, and take Yellow Cab to get there.  They need a document delivered, so they send it through Federal Express.  They mention being hungry and a guy suggests Red Lobster.
And this is something any group of creative people could tap into without needing a million dollars and a cast of expert actors.  Almost all the radio shows used and shared a fairly small pool of actors and actresses, some of whom went on to be fairly big stars later.  Others were already big stars and did radio for a bit of extra, regular cash on the side.
And this would be the beginning of the internet age of entertainment.  Shows about what you want, when you want, on demand, without being tied to any network or company.  I wouldn't at all be surprise to see it happen - and I'd love to be a part of it.

Friday, February 08, 2013

FOOD SENSITIVITY

"Stop being so lazy and get to work like everyone else!"

These days it seems like everyone has some weird health syndrome, most of which showed up in the last 20 years and was unheard of before that.  Restless Leg Syndrome, Attention Deficit Syndrome, and so on all suddenly are plaguing the world - along with drugs to fix them, supposedly.  Now I'm not going to say flat out that this stuff is absolutely false, it may have some credence.  Having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I know what its like to have something crappy wrong with you and people think its just an excuse or all in your head.
But it seems like there's been a surge of dubious health and psychological diagnoses, usually tied to someone's book or medicine to make it better, and it is difficult for me to not smell a whiff of snake oil in the whole deal.
At the same time, I've been suffering from some health problems I can't quite work out over the last five or six years, problems that the local doctors were unclear on.  People said it was something dietary, and by changing my diet I certainly found some relief.
I've written about this before, but basically if I imbibe even small amounts of sugar (say, a brownie) or caffeine, my body reacts very poorly.  I get a burst of energy and feel good personally for an hour or so, then I start to feel awful for several days.  Eating a candy bar can put me down for a good week, but 3 days is usually enough to "detox" myself.  Here's what I mean by awful: 
  • My bones ache, every muscle aches.  
  • I have a horrific temper or mood, just snarly and mean and touchy.  
  • I feel like I've been running a marathon, tired enough I can barely stand up.  
  • I have a hard time thinking, like I'm drugged or something, even common words I have to concentrate to remember sometimes.
  • I have horrible coordination and manual dexterity, dropping things, cutting myself, slow reaction time, etc.
  • Because my heart is a bit weak, it hurts like someone is sitting on my chest with any exertion.  Walking up stairs makes me have to lie down and rest until my  heart stops hurting.
Now my doctor tried a few things like nitroglycerine when my heart hurt, and that was one of the worst experiences of my life.  As soon as I took that tiny pill it felt like my heart rate had tripled, I had one of the worst headaches I've ever known (like someone had pumped most of my body's blood into my head all at once) and I started sweating and shaking.  Whatever was going on, I threw the bottle away and never took any again.
The Oregon Health Sciences University and my own doctor noticed in tests that several of my body chemicals were out of whack, some by a huge margin.  My Triglycerides, for example, were double what they should have been.  In fact my doctor was baffled, my tests suggested I was a 400 pound cake gouger, eating sugar all day by the bag.
Well, by cutting out sugars in my diet and all caffeine (which was very sad, Iced Tea is my favorite drink, and its basically rat poison for my body) and resting heavily, I managed to "detox" and feel significantly better.  Now, I just have to avoid any sugary foods, even non sugar sweeteners of any kind (and that means any, not even your special kind you discovered - I've tried them all), caffeine, and too much of any carb like bread, and I'm much better off.
But its weird.  I never liked sugar much before.  As a kid my mom would offer me a cookie or some carrots and I preferred the carrots.  I didn't care that much for chocolate, sweets, etc.  But now I catch myself craving sugar.  When I see candy I want to eat some, and I have to restrain myself.  If I eat any I don't really like it (doing without sugar makes it sickeningly, overpoweringly sweet) but my body seems to be happy -- for a little while, then its miserable.  I seem to crave sugar, even though its horrible for me.
Well for years that was a mystery, but today reading up on things I discovered a couple things online.  Now, again as I said there's all these sudden health problems being "discovered" lately and I'm skeptical but these do really fit.
The first is called "Adrenal Fatigue."  The theory behind this is that really awful food and lifestyle can cause your system, especially your adrenal glands, to go out of chemical balance.  Essentially stress to the adrenal glands through poor health causes them to produce improper amounts of different hormones, particularly Cortisol.  This results in some odd combinations of symptoms such as these:
  • You feel tired for no reason.
  • You have trouble getting up in the morning, even when you go to bed at a reasonable hour.
  • You are feeling rundown or overwhelmed.
  • You have difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness.
  • You crave salty and sweet snacks.
  • You feel more awake, alert and energetic after 6PM than you do all day.
  • Sensitivity to bright light (always want sunglasses)
  • difficulty concentrating, brain fog
Now, other than the difficulty bouncing back, all of those things were true for me.  Some still are.  Proponents say it comes about due to high stress faced continually or a series of terrible events you go through, possibly combined with too much sugary food and bad diet.  Without going into details you don't care about, I can assure you that's what I went through before my body started reacting to sugar like this.  
However, I'm skeptical since there's little science behind the analysis, and the full list of symptoms reads like "I feel bad" and covers too much ground.  It just seems like bad science, or at best ignorant, poorly understood science.  Reputable doctors and institutions are highly skeptical or just plain dismissive.  Most of the people who consider this quite reasonable and diagnose it are "alternative" doctors rather than actual medical people.
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Saturday, February 02, 2013

SHAME AND AKB-48

"As a senior member of the group, it is my responsibility to be a role model for younger members."

A few months back I wrote about the J-Pop phenomenon, where big groups of teen girls dance, sing, wear silly costumes, and generally try to entertain for money in pop music.  They do little movies, advertise, put on shows, and so on, selling millions of CDs to adoring fans.
There's a price to all this, of course.  Yes, the girls are living a dream of singing and dancing for a living, yes, they are beloved by fans and idols to millions.  Yes, they make a lot of money and have wonderful things to wear and play with.  But they also sign a contract which has several stipulations and requirements.
For one, they can't publicly date or have a boyfriend, get pregnant, or get married.  In a nation where the age of consent in Japan can be as low as 13, a middle school girl could get married.  But the girls are presented as chaste virginal maidens for two reasons.  First, the  producers want the band to have an image of being made up of little virgins, and second, to maintain the fantasy for many of their fans.  Sweating middle aged men lusting after the members of the band would be disappointed if some other guy was dating them.
One member recently was caught having spent the night with a male friend - slept with a boy, in other words.  Minami Minegishi is her name, one of the primary members of AKB-48 and 20 years old (a bit old for the band).  A tabloid in Japan printed pictures of her leaving the 19 year old boy's house in a cap and surgical mask, and she was immediately attacked for betraying her band.
So she shaved her head in a traditional act of contrition and filmed a tearful apology and begged for forgiveness in a YouTube video.  Miss Minegishi is a pretty girl, but she's been demoted from her position from the main "A" group to the lowest, trainee rank of the band where new girls try to learn the moves and songs and demonstrate their talent.  I presume the pay is significantly lower as well.
Minegishi begs to be kept on the band in her video, and she might although she is getting a bit old for the group and they are cycled out as they get older, no matter how popular they might be.
In fact, given the competition to be one of the limited few who can be in rank A of the band, it wouldn't at all surprise me if the tabloid wasn't tipped off by one of the other girls, hoping to move up into the vacancy that would result.
Now, there's some controversy around the world regarding this.  Some are calling it barbaric and awful, some say its stupidly prudish and ridiculous, and not a few Japanese are aghast that this is getting such prominent coverage around the world, feeling it embarrasses the nation.
The thing is, while I think its probably humiliating for her, its pretty minor as these things go.  She signed a contract, she made an agreement to abide by some basic rules.  Its pretty simple: if you want all the goodies, you have to toe the line.  You want that money, that fame, those things, the chance to be a big time star, to dance and sing for a living?  You have to go without certain things, like a boyfriend a few years.
That might sound callous, and at the age of 14 I imagine it sounds like forever to go 6 years without a date, but it really isn't that long and nothing in this life comes without a price.  Was the public apology really necessary?  Well the producers of the band thought so, apparently.  Yes, people are trying to say this was spontaneous on her part, but I am confident she was ordered to do it (or, at least heavily pressured) to help fix the band's image.
What is creepy and disturbing is that AKB-48 promotes its girls as cutsey virgins, but at the same time has promotions where they give way a pair of panties with a calendar, sing songs with thinly veiled sexual references, and overall push the girls as sexual objects with panty-flashing dance moves.  These girls are often quite young and that's creepy to me.
Banning a girl from dating (or sex) then humiliating her when she breaks the rules might be odd, but its not nearly as disturbing as how the band is used.