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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Writing Exercise: Darkness

"You, a grown adult, are afraid of the dark. Explain why this is a legitimate concern, so friends won't laugh at you."

All right, so this is the reason I'm scared of the dark. Now obviously I don't tell anybody about this, because I'm a grown-ass man. I should know better, right? But you all have your childish fears too. Some of you are afraid of showers or tunnels. If you think about it, there's no reason to be scared of spiders. There are three thousand species of spiders in North America and only two are poisonous. Two! Only four people die from spider bites per year. When you take that into account, getting out from behind a mack truck makes sense.

But darkness. We've been fighting against it since the caveman days. And even while we've mostly conquered it with fire and electricity and wind-up flashlights, it's still there. It's always there, in a corner, in a closet, under the bed, through a window. And the thing is you never know what's in there. You don't, you just don't. It could be a millipede or a duck or a railroad spike or some coat hangers. But my point is no one ever knows what's hiding in the darkness.

Well, I do.

See, the darkness is angry. Angry that we've taken away it's power, that we can remove it any time you want. It's not just staying there, it's creeping back in. It wants to consume you.

Case in point. Okay, you know how when you go to bed, you shut off the lights. And it seems like it's pitch black. That's because your eyes haven't adjusted -- they haven't dilated to let in more light. But after a few minutes, they do and the light from the window or the smoke detector or your alarm clock. Now you can see all the dimensions of the room where once it was all black.

But here's what I've noticed. It doesn't do that anymore. It's taking longer and longer for the light to come back. I've timed it. Yeah, it could be my eyes. I'm going to get them checked. But that's not it. And I know because there are corners of my room where it's all black. And it stays all black through the night. And those spaces are getting larger each time. There used to be an outlet near one of the corners where my dresser is. One night, the darkness was so big it covered it up. Next day, there was no outlet. It looked like there never had been one. Not even when I busted open the wall.

It's going to come for you if you're not watching it. That's what it wants. To be noticed. Which is funny because you can't see in the darkness. That's why I make sure I sleep with the lights on. I never go anywhere where I think it might get pitch black. That's not many places. But if it happens, it could be me next.

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness? Light a whole fucking barrel of them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Books I Read: November - December 2016

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by David Porath

I fell in love with this book immediately, which has never happened to me before. I am not an early adopter, and it's the onus of every book to entice me. Of course, by the time I know that, I'm usually victim to time sink fallacy. But look at this cover. It looks like all the books in the old Disney movies. You know, like in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty where a live-action book opens at the beginning and closes at "the end". Now I have a book like that. I can look like I'm reading an old timey volume of forgotten lore (quoth the raven). Look at me -- I'm gushing and I haven't even opened the book yet.

Inside is more than fifty stories of women who kicked ass and took names, folk tales you never heard of, tribal leaders, revolutionaries, women who outrode Paul Revere, outsmarted popes, outbattled kings, and outwitted empires. Each entry is about a page or two, so no princess outstays her welcome. They're like wikipedia entries, but don't duplicate the dry descriptions. Many include anecdotes and details that bring them to life as real people who existed. This is not a research/reference book. It's entertaining and informative like The Daily Show or CGPGrey or Extra Credits. The author adds a unique flavor/voice that gives away how much he loves this subject and how much he wants to share it.

Plus, each entry has a beautiful illustration of the lady therein, rendered as a kind of Dreamworks/Disney princess. Like each woman has her own movie poster. It even includes notes on how the art includes culture and tidbits not in the story.

Now this volume does have a fault: there are maturity ratings and content warnings for each story, ranging from one to five. But even the tamest wasn't appropriate for kids under ten (IMHO). In fact, just about all of them... well, this makes me sound like the most conservative of parents, but they acknowledge the existence of sex, use words like "plastered", and assume some historical knowledge. It's not that the content is vulgar or adult. It just brings up questions that I don't need to answers yet. Which makes it kind of strange that this book wants to highlight famous influential women, but the content is too old for when girls are their most influenced. Maybe they can release a PG version for the younglings? I want them to learn about these people too. The earlier the better.

Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I dunno. It's a basic quest story. The Peculiars need to get from Point A to Point B and they come up against obstacles in-between. The bulk of those obstacles take place in WWII London during the firebombings. It's hard to get invested in the characters again because they never stay in one place for long. There are no "quiet moments" where they talk about what they're feeling or their reactions or how they feel about each other. The kids bicker among themselves about where to go and what to do, but never about their relationships. They don't use their powers much, except for invisible kid, so I have trouble telling any of them apart.

It's more like exploring the "expanded universe" of peculiars. And this time around, the events are even more aimless. Like the author pulled out a photograph at random and had to write about it. As a result, this seems like random stuff that happened. Because by the end, it seems like it was all forced filler. No one has a plot arc and no one feels changed at the end. The bulk of what they learned is that World War II sucks (which I already knew).

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

These are all the speeches, articles, blog entries, and forewords Neil Gaiman has written over the years. A lot of them were about stuff I know nothing about -- old authors that he admired, music I don't listen to, stories from his youth I'm too young to appreciate. It's not a memoir, it's a series of essays. Most of them are gushes about someone. There's nothing about the writing process or creation in here, except the "Make Good Art" speech which everyone knows.

And it's long. His writing style is unchanged -- full of comfort and warmth, like when Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time, and you know that this guy is one of the good ones. But I am not the kind of guy who has found solace in any of Gaiman's influencers -- Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Will Eisner, etc. There are a few memorable ones, but as a whole, this is only for the most diehard Gaiman fan.

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

It's... all right. It's perfectly average. There are no groundbreaking ideas, no new techniques. It's aimed at a younger age group than YA (Percy Jackson, Underland Chronicles, et al). There's nothing controversial or gaspworthy inside. It's less about the robot and more about everything surrounding him. Like the AI that runs the school being super Big Brother. It's kind of like 1984 meets Double Dare.

There are some plot threads that taper off into nothingness, as if there were already sequels planned, which make me disgusted. I hate when marketers plan a series before anyone's seen it. The robot doesn't act much like a robot (I say that about every robot book, don't I?). There was a perfectly serviceable opportunity to present some interesting STEM topics here, like "what IS fuzzy logic?" "how does/could AI work?" WWW: Wake is a book that better explores these ideas, and I had no inclination to continue that series (too metaphysical).

I know I'm complaining more than praising, but the things that the book does right are basic and safe. Harmless. I could really only recommend this book if you've got nothing else that's flipping your cookie at the moment.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Kombatant Returns to the Arena

All right, I'm going to explode unless I get this out first. What was wrong with High Punch and Low Punch? Why did they get replaced with Front Punch and Back Punch? What was so wrong about the way you had it? You want to be technically accurate or something? In Mortal Kombat, of all things?

So I bought Mortal Kombat (2011) (a.k.a. Mortal Kombat 9, a.k.a. Mortal Kombat: The Komplete Edition, a.k.a the reboot cause our continuity makes as much sense as a plate of spaghetti). And it's always a crapshoot whether A) the game will work on PC and B) if the game will work with my hoggled controller. As with most things I buy, it was on a severe discount (thanks to it being five years old). Even the newest edition -- Mortal Kombat X -- has finished releasing all of its DLC.

But I have fond memories of Mortal Kombat days, so I picked it up. I should explain that I played exclusively during the digitization era. I mean it -- I even owned "MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero". It was always blocky photographed sprites dancing around, doing impossible moves, and generally looking unpolished. Once Mortal Kombat 4 came around, I got out of it. Not BECAUSE MK4 was in 3-D, but I was just maturing away. I did own MK4, but I didn't play it nearly as much as MK2 or MK3. Also, I should mention that I am terrible at the game. Sure, I know the moves, but I always had to play on "Very Easy" and enter the cheat code to give me more continues (and often those wouldn't be enough). So that's me -- on my SNES, playing an old & busted concept designed to suck quarters away.

That's right, I played this game. I owned it. I beat it. And I liked it, goddammit.

Now I boot up the new hotness. To my surprise there's no one new, but everything has been MASSIVELY upgraded. The cubist, badly animated sprites have been replaced with fully three-dimensional entities (though it's still a two-dimensional game -- good for us old fogeys who can't adjust to new things). These entities move smoothly, have expressions, don't look like puppet/dolls, and take damage.

Yes, whereas the original MKs had to make players gush out more blood (or oil) than a human body can possibly hold in great splotches, this version shows how you've turned into Rocky at the end of all the Rocky movies -- combined. Yeah, they show exposed bones and removed organs, but like I said, MK was never about realism. And the x-ray moves are proof positive -- you can get stabbed with an ice sword through the chest during a fight, and you can keep going like nothing happened. It's like a mid-fight fatality.

And here's my question: why did they change the button combinations for the moves? Scorpion's spear used to be Back, Back, Low Punch. Now it's Back, Forward, Front Punch. Sub-Zero's slide isn't Block + Low Punch + Low Kick + Back anymore. It's Back, Forward, Back Punch. Most of the moves are like that -- two directions and a button. It's the combos where things can get tricky. Nonetheless, why punish us veterans? Now I've got to learn a whole new list of moves, even though all the characters are old.

One of the new characters, a female ninja, appears to be made of blood.

There are no new arenas either (unless you count DLC), but I don't mind so much. The upgrades make up for it. It's like playing MK1, 2, and 3 at the same time. It's like Mortal Kombat: Special Edition. To wit, the first time I fought Kintaro I was verifiably scared. That four-armed tiger monster was most difficult enemy I've ever faced in a video game. I wish I knew how many hours I spent trying to get passed him -- if he didn't punch me across the screen, he was shooting fireballs or grabbing me or jumping up and down on my bones.

So it's kinda fun being put into cryosleep at MK3 and waking up now, seeing a reboot of some old favorites. And I didn't have to go through all that Deadly Alliance, Armageddon nonsense that dulled my senses. It's not too difficult and it's plenty of fun for both the nostalgic and the newbies.

And yet, they all still have the same silhouette

Friday, January 06, 2017

I Lack Empathy

I lack empathy.

I mean, I don't think I ever had empathy for people. I don't give one hoot if they're here or gone. I always assumed this was because I was bitter and depressed and angry for most of my life. But now that I'm on medication, I'm noticing that this not-caring is not going away.

It's not like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. I don't think I have Asperger's Syndrome or some sort of autism "thing" where just part of my brain is funny. I'm not sure I ever had it. Maybe this is why horror movies don't affect me in the same why. I never understood why people think "The Exorcist" is the scariest movie ever. I mean, you'd think I'd be all up in that -- possessed by a personality not your own. Even more now that I'm a father of a daughter. But it just seems silly to me. "Hello, Reagan, I'm Father Karras-" "-AND I AM THE DEVIL. Now kindly undo these straps." I mean, isn't it peculiar that the devil is constrained by leather straps. This is the guy who fought God -- the immortal creator of the cosmos. It'd be like me taking on Cthulhu. If I could win against something that turns you mad by looking at it, would straps really be that big a deal? I always thought I wasn't scared because A) I'm an atheist and B) there's nothing scary about Regan -- all she does is throw up and spin her head. She doesn't even get up. Someone like Jigsaw is scarier because he manipulates you into doing it yourself.

Oh no. She's in a bed. Someone save me.

I'm more scared by something like "The Shining" but not for the reasons you're thinking of. I don't care one whit whether or not Wendy makes it out of there. I can't sympathize with her plight. I'm more worried people are going to see me as Jack Torrance. Especially my wife -- that's why I won't let her watch it (not that she needs any encouragement on my part). We have way too many similarities to make me comfortable -- amateur writers who seem to have trouble getting inspired, like being isolated/alone with thoughts, maybe we drink a little more than we really should, bothered by the drudgery of our jobs, thinning hair, creepy smiles, liking the cold (although he liked it a little too much).

Well, I guess there's worse things than looking like young Jack Nicholson.
 So this lack of empathy makes things difficult sometimes when writing stories. Empathy means you feel for your characters and take them places where they have to triumph or fail. And then make the reader feel the same emotions about those triumphs or failures. Might be why I've been having trouble connecting to the main character in naga story, because she's nothing like me. It's mostly an action plot. So I guess we'll have to see what happens when the story becomes fleshed out.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Swimming Back to the Surface

In addition to problems with reading (that I mentioned last time), I'm also still struggling to stay writing (and not watch YouTube videos all during lunch hour). I think it has to do with two reasons. One is my new job. Don't get me wrong, I like it. It's very easy to hide here. They don't assign me much work (or know if they've assigned me work). I feel like a relief pitcher, kept around in case they need me for something.

But in this spatial environment I feel very exposed. There are "enclaves", but they have glass doors, like I'm in a zoo. And they're closed in so they get quite hot. It's very hard to find a private space in this building. So far, I've found a "huddle" room that seems out of the way, but it's all the way across campus. Also I use a Virtual Machine for my work now. So that takes away some of line-drawing between "it's writing time now" and "back to work (and YouTube videos)". I guess there's nothing stopping me from using one, but I'm not 100% sure my little laptop could take it.

The other reason is what a dismal failure "Defender" was. Even fewer bites than Merm-8. And I "designed" it for marketability. I planned it out for multiple books. I had humor, death, suspense, all that. But no. No one gave a shit. I know I've talked about this before, but this is disheartening. Reprise was written fast and hard because I didn't care what I was writing. I knew it was only going to be two drafts, even with a complex serialized storyline, because it was just fan fiction. I never thought about the story in terms of publication-friendly. Maybe that's part of my problem with naga story -- fear is crippling my ability to generate ideas.

It's weird because I feel like everything stoppered after I finished "Reprise". I haven't fulfilled any compositions. I cut the revisions of some short stories short -- only two drafts -- because I felt I couldn't revise them anymore. That means I've either peaked or I've got a short attention span. (Or I simply got bored and wanted to move on.)

One thing I'm going to do is start doing writing prompts. One every day. I've got a host of them programmed in my personal thesaurus to spit one out randomly. I don't have ficlets/ficly anymore to inspire me. So if I'm going to do any composing, it might as well be randomly. Maybe it'll help me kickstart ideas for naga story.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Quick Overview of My Reads for the Year

I hope whoever was in charge of 2016 got fired. For 2017, either you've got expectations set really low or are hoping high, thinking nothing can be as bad as that dumpster fire. But one always measures the future by calculating the past. And I calculate mine in books.

So remember last year when I resolved not to read so many bad books? Yeah, that didn't so much happen. Even the book I'm reading now -- "Geek Love" -- it's a good book, but it's just so long. I'm skipping it to read comic books or play games, just because I'm bored of the world. The writing is fantastic, glorious, stupiferous. The story is full of interesting characters and events and plots and WTFs that I love. But it's just so long.

Last year I read only 34 books. Now, it's not like I stopped reading. But I did increase my comic book content this year. She-Hulk, Powers, Deadpool, and a bunch of the classics I missed out on. Still that's no excuse for grinding on my whetstone.

My average rating for 2016 was 2.9. That means I rated more books under 3 stars than above. That means I probably read MORE bad books this year than good ones. I think it's because, especially for classic books, I have too high of a threshold or tolerance or attention span. Must be tempered from all those Star Trek Pocket books I read as a teenager. I read a lot of long ones too: "A Discovery of Witches", "Leviathan Wakes", and "Wool".

Most of the time it's curiosity or obligation: "A View from the Cheap Seats" by Neil Gaiman because it's Neil Gaiman, the second book in the "Peculiar Children" series because I read the first, "A Discovery of Witches" because my wife loves it, three of those Disney Gothic YA novels ("The Beast Within", "Poor Unfortunate Soul", "A Frozen Heart"), "The Book of Swords" trilogy because I had started them ten years ago but never finished. "Friend" because I thought robots and resurrected girl with super powers would be awesome. Le sigh. It was not to be.

So this means two things. I've got to lower my threshold for quitting books. I fell bad about it because I'm an author myself. But if I keep up at this rate, I'm going to start resenting the act of reading.

And I've got to up my average publication date. Too many old books that should stay lost to time. Yeah, they may be classics. But they don't help me with my writing career. They don't help me understand what's being written in MY time. In MY realm of publication. What editors/agents today are looking for.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Should an Author Change a Story for Commercial Viability?

So while I'm composing the outline for "naga hide" story, I thought I'd share this anecdote.

I was with my wife, walking our two poop-makers floor-destroyers inbred suicidal moronic pains-in-the-ass with fur dogs. And as I'm always desperate for conversation topics (being an introvert) I talked about the two novels I was planning -- seeing which idea she thought had more merit.

When I talked about "naga hide", she had qualms about the main character. She said "women don't like snakes" so that might diminish the marketability/commercial viability. That certainly got my attention. Commercial viability = people paying money to publisher = happy publisher = publisher paying money to agent = happy agent = agent wanting to buy book = happy me. And the idea that women don't like snakes isn't untrue. I don't know what the statistics are, but over the world, I think it's more common than not.

So I started thinking of different monster girls that could serve the same role. Something that is both repulsive but alluring. Something traditionally seen as fundamentally evil, like biblical, with elements of seduction and demonry. Like a vampire or siren. Centaurs were too large -- I needed something that could climb and be disguised. Spiders had the same problem (also there's no compromise with women when it comes to spiders). Mermaids -- I already did a book on mermaids and besides, the medieval period wasn't wheelchair-accessible. Succubi are too on the nose. Dragon ladies are too powerful. Slime girls -- too sticky. Sheep-women were too silly, plant-girls are too out there, demon girls are too cliche. Not even bunny girls would work.

I finally decided on werewolf, even though 1) werewolves exist either in the camp of cheesy Universal horror movies or "Twilight" and 2) "Ginger Snaps" planted the flag on "female sexuality as the beast within".

I brainstormed bandages to my existing story ideas, but before I began full-on dedicating the death of brain cells to this, I asked Reddit's writing forum if what I was doing was right. If I should change a fundamental aspect of the character I originally envisioned for the sake of marketability. I didn't get a very large sample, but the sample I did get was vehement -- don't change your idea to satisfy someone else.

In fact, not one response supported the counter-argument. Some of the more memorable quotes: "execution > concept", "art is not a democracy", "write the story you want to read", and the one that really got to me: "From personal experience, changing an idea I have loved based on what I think would sell better has been nothing short of crushing to me." Nothing convinced me more than that. Can't deny user experience.

Quite a few mentioned the idea that "women don't like snakes" is bupkiss. Lots of responders said they love snakes just fine. No one said they were afraid of snakes, at least not from a book. And no one said they liked werewolves more.

And from these results, I'm glad. I feel like a dodged a bullet on this one -- prevented a lot more work than I would have needed. I'm glad I asked for advice, because I had a feeling in my gut they were right. And overall, I would have been unhappy all through the writing process. I wouldn't have been spending my time with the character I fell in love with.