Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Sep 30, 2013

New Haircut

And here's a dorky picture of me with my new haircut.

Man of Tai Chi

Click on the post title if you want more info on the movie.  Anyway, I watched Man of Tai Chi a couple of days ago, and I wasn't really impressed.  The whole thing just came across as really wonky and simplistic.  Even the mystical Oriental-style gibberish about innocence and meditation and the purpose of martial arts was appallingly heavy-handed which kind of goes against the whole point of Oriental mysticism since it's supposed to be, you know, SUBTLE.

The fights were okay, I guess, but they were all set duels in arenas so there wasn't a whole lot interesting going on besides a ton of punching and kicking.  Don't get me wrong, the fight choreography was good (as you'd expect from Yuen Woo Ping) it just wasn't particularly interesting.

Keanu Reeves also played the villain and displayed more of his classic nonexistent acting ability.  He also looks really old and oddly decrepit in this film, which made the end fight between him and the hero look, well, dumb.  The only really interesting fight in the entire movie is the one between the protagonist and his master, but they didn't really make much out of it.

All in all, "Man of Tai Chi" comes across more as an intentionally corny "how to produce a martial arts movie" demo than a real movie.

Sep 28, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 33: Fort Secured

Bikendi Otongu faded from sight.

"Well," Reiko said, "That was interesting."  Ezikial nodded agreement.  "I am fairly certain he wasn't giving us the full truth about needing to take over one of our bodies to do this ritual, though."

"We will need to do something to get these spirits off the island," Feruzi said.  "All these risen dead will prove problematic."

"I don't disagree with this notion, but I am not willing to let something take over my body," Reiko insisted.

"We should not discuss it standing in this room, I think," Feruzi said.

"Aye," Chopper said.  "Let's be on our way."

"If you wish," Reiko said, following them back up the stairs, "But I don't care if the spirit hears me saying this."

"I have serious doubts whether we should entertain the idea of doing anything he requested," Feruzi explained when they were back outside.  "If he and his curse are tied to the Immortal Dreamstone, it might be best just to destroy it, assuming we can find a way.  There is a good chance Otongu would attack us, and it might anger that Hag Haetanga."

"Shoot the hag, break the Dreamstone, kill the Cyclopes and banish the ghost," Ezikial recommended.  "Then have a couple drinks and go to bed."

"I am all in favor, though the Cyclopes have done us no harm."

"No harm YET," Chopper said.  "They sound like a buncha savages to me."

"Savages like me, maybe?"

Chopper actually looked embarrassed for once.  "You know what I mean, Ruse."

Leila shrugged.  "If the hag is angry with Otongu, it seems like the only way we could anger her would be to steal her chance at revenge.  She might even be grateful, though who knows what form such gratitude might take.  It is hard to say with such beings."

"We are all injured from fighting these creatures," Feruzi said.  "I suggest we fetch the Crisis crew to help with securing the fortress and go from there."

Chopper made his habitual gesture of bumping his finger against his nose and pointing at Feruzi.  "Seconded.  C'mon, ramblers, let's get ramblin."  The crew were a bit shocked to see their condition when they returned to the ship, Sandara calling up healing magic to relieve the worst of their injuries.

"The natives are not very friendly," Feruzi remarked.

"I reckon they ain't, Miss--Missus Feruzi," Fishguts said.  He shook his head.  "Gonna be awhile afore I get used t' that, ma'am."  Feruzi shrugged.  They left a skeleton crew aboard Crisis, returning to the fort by early afternoon.

"I think it would be wise for us to return to the ship before sundown," Reiko said, "so let's get this done.  We're burning daylight."

Chopper rounded up Cog, Rosie, Conchobar and a few of the other crewmembers.  "We'll explore along the walls.  Reiko, you take everyone else and check the buildings we haven't seen yet."

"Aye, Captain."

Reiko's group had not gone far when Ezikial waved them to a halt.  "Pitfall there," he said.  "A cellar of some sort."  The ground ahead was unstable and would likely drop anyone attempting it thirty feet or more in an avalanche of rubble.

"There's something down there," Leila said, peering through the jumbled mess.  "A chest, maybe?"  She began to climb down.

"Be careful," Reiko admonished.

"Of course."  Leila slid past the broken beams and pilings and under the supports, opening the heavy chest and returning with several bottles, a spyglass, and a small bag of coins.

"Nice job," Feruzi told her.

The next set of doors opened into a rectangular room with a flight of wooden stairs leading to the floor above.  "Wait," Leila said.  She pointed to the stairs, where faint magical tracings could be made out.

"One of the apprentice's traps, I expect.  Let me see if I can disarm it."  Leila crept across the room and halfway up the stairs, pulling out tools.  They could not make out what she was doing, but after a moment she made a thumbs-up sign and waved them onward.  The upstairs rooms seemed empty at first, but the doors had numerous tripwires controlling other traps.  Leila disarmed them as well.

"Remind us to give you a raise," Feruzi said, stepping past some scythe blades.  Leila tested the next door, taking wire cutters to a line.

"That should just about do it," she announced, throwing open the door.  A hail of arrows peppered the room.  Feruzi ducked, but Reiko, Ezikial, and Leila were all hit, though fortunately not seriously.  "Oops," Leila said.

"Maybe I spoke too soon," Feruzi said, getting up and dusting herself off.

"Ow," said Reiko.  "It's all right, no one is perfect, and no one is dead."

"You did get away with shooting Ezikial," Feruzi said.  Leila winced and glanced over at the gunslinger, who gave one of his horrible face-mangling grins.

"Don't worry about it," he said.

Reiko tried the next door, one of two that seemed to lead into the same room, and found a heavy, soft resistance behind it.  She gestured for Feruzi to try the other, revealing the same thing.  Reiko gestured for Leila and Sandara to take up positions behind one door, while she joined Feruzi and Ezikial at the other.  At her signal, they forced the doors open, revealing piles of mattresses and a terrified man who screamed and threw a spell at Reiko, striking her with a lance of fire that set her clothing ablaze.  He then stomped on a concealed trigger that blasted the doors with electricity.  Ezikial leaned past Reiko's shoulder and fired both pistols, punching holes in Baines's armor and sending him reeling back.  Reiko sprang forward and slammed the hilt of her katana into his head, knocking him into one of the mattresses, where he lay senseless.

"Right, now that he isn't blasting us, let's tie him up and see if we can get some sense out of him," Feruzi said.  "Can you wake him, Sandara?"

"Aye."  Sandara said, digging into her kit while Feruzi and Reiko bound the wizard's apprentice, making sure to immobilize his hands and pull a length of rope across his mouth so that he could still, mostly, speak, but not precisely enough for spellcasting.  Sandara waved something vile-smelling under his nose and Baines's eyes snapped open.

"Get away from me! Get away!" he screamed, twisting violently against his bonds.

"Easy, friend, easy," Feruzi said.

"You're out to get me!  You're all out to get me!"

"We are not here to hurt you," Reiko said.

"Except Ezikial," Feruzi added under her breath.  Reiko shot her a reproving look.

"If you do not calm yourself," she said to Baines, "I will knock you unconscious again."

"Let him rant," Feruzi said.  "What's he going to do?  Eventually he'll wear himself out."

"Hells take you, ghost, or dream, or shade, or whatever you are!"

"Mr. Baines, we are living people.  Please, calm yourself," Reiko said.

"Assuming the hag didn't ride him and break his mind," Feruzi said.  "They do that."

"Or the ghost," Sandara added.  "Or both."

"Yes.  Could you try using restoration magic on him?  Perhaps it would help bring back some of his wits?" Feruzi asked.

"I won't listen to your lies!  And I don't know where your damned stone is!"

Sandara slowly shook her head.  "Madness like this takes magic beyond my abilities.  'E needs a miracle, and only a great cleric can produce one on demand.  And even then, it don't come cheap."

Reiko nodded and whacked Baines unconscious again.  Sandara winced.  "I'm sorry," Reiko said, "but our best bet is to get him off this island and to other help."

"Aye, I know.  Still."

"We'll turn him over to Chopper, if we can't cure him we can at least take him somewhere he might get help," Feruzi said.

They stashed Baines in a safe place and moved on to the last uncleared space, the massive crystal-topped tower.  A shrieking alarm went off as they opened the door.  The air stirred and a clicking, skittering noise echoed.  Sandara and Feruzi both cast quick defensive spells as two of the spider-creatures appeared, one vaguely familiar and the other much larger, bearing long reddish hair and fur.

"You killed my children," the red-haired spider hissed in a woman's voice.  "Now I shall have my revenge."  Both of the spiders vanished.

"Your children are ugly," Feruzi said as they reappeared, flanking Sandara, who went down under the onslaught of poisonous mandibles.  Reiko hacked at the lesser spider, injuring it before it could vanish, and Leila's ready arrow hit it somewhere in the abdomen.

"I've seen your like before," Ezikial grunted.  "Now piss off or die."  He readied his pistols while Leila scurried to check on Sandara.  Feruzi tossed her a potion and readied her bow.  The spiders reappeared to attack Reiko.  Ezikial shot the lesser spider full in the face, ending it, while Feruzi peppered the red-haired one with arrows.  Reiko's blade claimed two of the spider's legs and she screamed.

"Enough, I would rather face my mistress's wrath than this certain death."  The red-haired spider vanished and did not return.  They waited, on guard, while Leila helped Sandara to her feet and the cleric healed her wounds. 

The tower stairwell led up to a pair of balconies and from there to the roof.  Inside the vault, a fist-sized chunk of rosy quartz sat atop a silver pedestal.  Above them, the vault ceiling was capped by a similar chunk of crystal, only a hundred times larger, towering another twenty feet above the central spire.  Two large Cyclopean statues stood at either end of the balcony, overlooking the fort and the bay.

"I believe this structure can be used to project sendings to other, similar structures," Feruzi said.  "You would have to know and envision the destination and someone would have to be present at the other tower, most of which have probably been swallowed by the sea."

"Interesting," Reiko said.

"Still, even one other tower in a useful location would make this valuable," Feruzi added.

"I agree," said Reiko.  "I think I may know where one still stands.  I'm not sure of its condition though."

"We will have to look into it when we can."

The bottom level of the tower proved to be another domed chamber covered in spirals of golden glyphs and runes.  The floor held a circular dais that held a pale blue disc of some unknown material.  Beyond an immense brass door was an amphitheater with a gigantic statue of a Cyclopean warrior, a pool of clear water at his feet.

Sandara hobbled toward the disc. "It looks like a teleportation circle t'me," she said.

"Perhaps it works in a similar way to the crystals upstairs," Reiko said.

"Teleports you to another tower?" Feruzi asked.

"It'll take ye t' another disc it's attuned to, aye," Sandara said.

"In that case, I'm not stepping on it," Feruzi announced. "You could end up a mile underwater."

"Shall we report our findings to the Captain?" Leila asked.

"Sounds like a plan," Reiko said. "We need to get Mr. Baines off this island as well."

They located Chopper again.  He was sporting a black eye and a huge grin.

"What did you do to your face?" Feruzi demanded.

"Oh, we found some giant crawling hands.  Cyclops zombie hands!" he announced, miming spiderlike crawling with his fingers.

"Ick.  Well, we found Otongu's apprentice and we seem to have chased the last of the spiders off.  There's some magic stuff in the tower.  Also Sandara gets a bit by spiders bonus and Leila gets a trap disarming bonus."

"All right, then, everyone back to the ship. We'll set out for Sumitha at first light."

"Ooh, I can write to Merrill," Feruzi said.

Skull and Shackles Interlude: The Tale of Bikendi Otongu

"Millennia ago in that heyday of the Age of Serpents, before there was an Eye, before humans even came to these lands, the Cyclops of Ghol-Gan ruled here.  Many of their ruins still stand, relicts of a lost empire whose greatness few today can comprehend.  One such ruin, a mountain retreat known as Sumitha, stands on this very island.  Here the Cyclops constructed a hidden vault known as the Eye of Serenity to hold a sacred artifact, the Lens of Revelation.  The Cyclopean seers of Sumitha guided their fellows in war to survey the lands and even to know the will of the divine, but when their civilization waned the Lens turned dark and they abandoned Sumitha to be forgotten.  Many of them retreated to the Darklands, and those who stayed degenerated into savagery.  The men who came centuries later saw only the eyeless statues on the Island's shores and hillsides, the fist-sized gems that once decorated these monoliths long since taken and lost.

"The fort you stand within was built by Chelish explorers over a hundred and fifty years ago.  They explored the island and discovered the ruins of Sumitha, stirring up conflict with the few remaining Cyclopean brutes.  Eventually, the Cyclopes succeeded in driving the Chelaxians from the island.

"The victory was not without cost to the Cyclopes, though--a few years after, an earthquake shook the island, collapsing the few remaining entries to the Darklands.  As the survivors emerged from the vaults of Sumitha, they discovered that the island could not provide for their tremendous appetites.  They were forced to build vast ships and travel to nearby islands to capture livestock or simply raid.  The tribe descended further into savagery, led by a great Cyclops named Ishtoreth.  They pose a grave threat to any who seek to make this island their own.

"That is when I came to this island, a pirate like yourselves.  I restored this fort, using mighty illusions to conceal my people from the Cyclopes.  In the ruins here, I found the opportunity to realize my one true desire: to free myself from the shackles of mortality.  Some seek the power of undeath, but I knew this was a sham.  True power lies in the mind, in dreams, prophecies and the realms from which they come.  I sought the magic of the Night Hags, who travel freely in these realms, and at last learned of their greatest creation, the one that lends them their power: the heartstone.  Using such a magical gem, I could bind my soul in arcane ritual, preserving it so my mind would no longer be tied to the limits of the flesh.  I could leave mortality behind and become the master of my own dreams.

"But even Heartstones are physical objects, with all the limits and dangers that entails.  I could not rest easy, knowing I was bound to some unexceptional stone any chance fool could destroy.  In the ruins of Sumitha, though, I discovered what I needed; the Lens of Revelation, if made into a Heartstone, would supply me with the power and security I required from my vessel.  The craft to do so escaped me, however, so I made contact with the Night Hag Lodhotha and offered her any price she cared to name if she would aid me.  The Hag readily agreed, but I sensed treachery in her, and laid my plans with care.

"Then Ishtoreth, returning to the Island from a raid, discovered the Lens was missing.  He sent his warriors against me, but my men held on, though I knew it would not last.  I sacrificed much to meet Lodhotha's price and demanded the Hag complete the stone.  When she was finished, I sprang my trap on her before she could betray me and take my soul.  My apprentice, Edereigh Baines, stole the completed Stone from her, depriving the Hag of her most significant weapon and preventing her from escaping into the Ethereal plane.

"I realized then that without attunement, my new heartstone--the Immortal Dreamstone--would not long endure.  I withdrew to complete the ritual, but it proved more demanding than I anticipated.  Without my magical assistance, the Cyclopes began to overrun my defenses, sinking my ship and breaking the gates of this fort.  Rushed, I missed a vital step in the ritual, shearing my soul and mind from my body but failing to open the pathway to the realm of dreams.  Before I could correct my error the Cyclopes gained entry to my sanctum, destroying my preparations and reclaiming the Lens.  Now my spirit lingers in the Material Plane, bound to this place.  Lodhotha's sister, Haetanga, sends her minions here to seek for the gem.  They lurk here, ready to attack and interrogate any who come within.

"If you seek to end the curse on this fort, you must return the Immortal Dreamstone to me and enable me to complete the ritual." 

An Open Letter to Molly McIsaac

To Molly McIsaac:

I saw the Fangasm episode where you and your fellow fans were tasked with collecting signatures for Geek Pride day, and your reaction to the dancing girls reminded me of something that's been annoying me lately.  I'm not sure you realize this, but the only person there who was treating those girls like sexualized pieces of meat was . . . you.  YOU were the one who referred to them as "boobs and ass", not as women.  Not as people. Did you bother to talk to them before you went off and described their actions as demeaning?  Maybe they really are fans of comic books.  But you didn't bother to ask.  You just assumed, even though you complained bitterly about people making assumptions about *you* and how hard that has made *your* life.  Yet this hasn't taught you to extend the same courtesy to others?  The fact that they are attractive and like to show it off to whoever enjoys it does not somehow render them subhuman and beneath consideration.  The fact that someone enjoys such a display does not turn them into the enemy.

I know what it's like to hate your body and torture yourself over your perceived inadequacies.  I'm not saying that your feelings are trivial or that your struggle to overcome them is invalid, but cut people some slack.  It's very human to want to be appreciated, and when we are not it's so, so easy to imagine that it is someone's fault, whether ours or someone else's.  This is such an appealing fantasy, for it makes people out to be masters of the universe instead of simply people, all with our own struggles, joys, and pains.  Heck, if you think women have it hard, look at men.  They want us to appreciate them just as much as we want them to appreciate us, yet you went and complained about the guys in the hot-tub being the "least sexy hot-tub experience ever".  You're guilty of acting toward men the way you complain men act toward you.  Is it possible the real problem is inside your mind?

Let me be clear: you're not wrong to be angry about all the b.s. in the world, and there is a lot of it.  Feelings are not *wrong*.  But I think you can do better, turn your feelings into something more constructive for yourself and for others.  If you see something that bothers you, think about how you can turn the experience around into something positive.  Ask to go backstage and talk to the costumed dancers about the characters they're portraying.  Talk to the guys about your expectations.  They may surprise you by revealing their own doubts, loneliness, and craving for acceptance.  It doesn't have to be about men vs. women.  We can all be human beings together.


Jennifer Snow 

Blooper Reel

It wouldn't be a proper trip without some sort of mess, so here, for your amusement, is the Chicago Blooper Reel:

  • The hard drive in Adam's gaming laptop died, forcing him to re-download his games (WoW and SWTOR) so that he could raid as promised.  This took like, 2 days.  Seriously.
  • Google gave us some crazy-ass directions to the hotel, so we wound up doing 3 or 4 loops around downtown Chicago before we figured out how to get to the place.  I haven't dealt with real city traffic for some time, so Adam was utterly delighted by my squeals of protest every single time he slammed on the brake.
  • The hotel was apparently completely baffled by Adam's declaration that he wanted to pay for our room in cash, so they put the entire amount on his credit card, running it up to the limit.
  • Adam's credit union was basically offline most of the week, so he couldn't pay off his credit card.  Fortunately, he prepared by bringing a bunch of cash, otherwise we'd have been in some serious difficulty.
  • Adam forgot to leave me any cash on Sunday, so I didn't get to eat until 7pm and was consequently Grumpy As All Heck.  We then went to a steakhouse that smelled of damp carpet and they attempted to foist fried, breaded chicken fingers on me as some kind of upscale meal.
  • The Dell guy showed up to put a new hard drive in Adam's computer, which he did do.  However, he couldn't be bothered to map the new drive in (or simply didn't know how) so Adam had to do that.
  • SWTOR decided to bug out and force another re-download of the ENTIRE GAME on the hotel's incredibly slow "broadband".  At this point I was starting to think he would have been better off just canceling his gaming for the week.
  • I clogged up our toilet and had to call maintenance to un-clog it.  The guy they sent would not even make eye contact.  So embarrassed.  So, of course, Adam spent the entire rest of the trip teasing me about it.
  • Google's incredibly messed-up social media platform thing broke for no apparent reason right when my game was supposed to start.  It then "fixed" itself.  Kinda.  No clue what that was all about except it was spectacularly annoying.
  • Adam went out of his way to find this one particular sushi buffet restaurant in Indianapolis when we were on our way back.  Except they were closed when we got there.
  • Probably some random stuff I forgot.
We are SO organized. At least I didn't leave the notebook containing my novel first draft in the convention center or anything like that.  Nobody was seriously injured or robbed.  It's all good.

Sep 26, 2013

Ricardo's Shadow

So, this is a story by a (facebook) friend of mine, Brad Aisa.  I'm not really sure what to think of it.  The writing feels extremely clunky to me, and the entire story (inasmuch as there is one) reads like a recitation of facts.  There are a bunch of named characters but no characterization whatsoever.  I'm not really sure what Brad was trying to accomplish here.  Thinking about humans replaced by androids in the workplace?  Okay, but why this clunky jumping around?  Just makes it hard to read.

I don't really have a lot of thoughts about humans eventually being replaced by machines.  I have serious doubts as to whether true "AI" will ever actually exist.  Nor do I think having machines take over most economic tasks would be a bad thing.  That's another problem I have with this story--it talks about changes to corporate structures, sure, but what happens after that?  Sure, people lose their jobs, unemployment skyrockets, maybe, but androids don't need the products that big corporations make, and the androids don't get paid.  So that leaves the corporations eventually with no market to sell their goods while the unemployed who can't afford androids resort to manual labor and barter.  This isn't a functional setup.  It's kind of ridiculous, in fact.

So, I guess, if anything, this is a story of how the traditional corporate narrative leads to hilariously irrational decision-making in the face of certain kinds of changes.  Or maybe not.  Hard to say.

Had Beens

Okay, I've come up with a bit of concrete writing advice.  Please, please, for the love of sanity PLEASE don't use "had been" for past tense.  If you can use "was" or "were" DO SO.  I've encountered this a lot lately and it's so ugly and clunky and even a bit pretentious.  It makes you look like a blowhard, and it makes your writing harder to read.

It's not a HUGE deal, but try to save the "had been" for passive voice only, which you should generally avoid unless there's just no other good way to say something. Please don't use it for past tense.  Here's an example from the story I'm currently reading, by Brad Asia:

"There had been few major dramas, few crises, and no major catastrophes."

See, there's absolutely no reason to use "had been" there instead of "were".  I can't guess what brings this about, but I seem to encounter it mostly when people are writing in the past tense already (like you do) and the characters begin to reminisce about the past.  So they start using "had been" instead of the "was" and "were" they were already using.

This isn't necessary.  You don't need to have some kind of super-past tense and mangle the language in the process.  Just use regular past tense.  My memory is bugging me, saying that there's a special name for this type of verb conjugation--ah, here it is, past perfect tense.  I don't think it's necessary to use past perfect for events that occurred prior to the (nominal) "present" in a novel, even though you use past tense to refer to that present.  It may be grammatically correct, but I think it's a poor habit to get into when there are other, equally correct ways to say it that aren't so horribly clunky.

Now, there ARE cases where you legitimately WANT to use past perfect, as in that link, but don't overdo it.  You can legitimately confuse people into thinking that a past situation is no longer ongoing (and that there ought to be some kind of other explanatory event in there somewhere) by overusing past perfect.

Sep 25, 2013

Some Sightseeing

So, yesterday and today have been fun for me and not so fun for Adam.  I got a bunch of writing done yesterday and then went out to dinner with Uncle John, Aunt Titi, and my cousin Sean (ooh, I hope that's how he spells his name).  We went down to Chinatown for (what else) Chinese food and smoothies, and then drove across town to visit Grandma in her new apartment.  She seems to be doing well, although she is having trouble remembering things on occasion, but she still gets out and about on a regular basis.  Sean spent most of the visit setting the grandfather clock that Grandpa built well before I was born.

Today I got lunch and hiked down to the Art Museum and spent quite a while examining various impressionist paintings.  I also went across the way and briefly toured the 15th century art exhibit.  The contrast between the two periods is really stark--the 15th century art is all religious in nature (in fact, most of it was panels from diptychs) with ultra-precise lines, nearly invisible brushwork, and little to no perspective or value.  The 19th century impressionists, on the other hand, have visible (and often quite abstract) brushwork, but their paintings are filled with life, light, and perspective.

The one thing that really struck me was this statue by Rodin of the author Balzac:

It's a fantastic statue, particularly in the stance and the musculature of the arms, legs, and neck.  You can almost feel the living power and authority of the man.  It also, amazing coincidence, looks EXACTLY LIKE ADAM.  Even to the lack of pants.  Adam hates pants.

Most of the sculptures were really amazing, in fact, even if some of the paintings left me kind of cold.  It's strange to think that most of the artists I saw were working around the time of the Civil War or shortly afterward.  It really brings home the fact that the horrors of slavery and the terrible slaughter that followed existed alongside a culture that was not all that dissimilar from our own. 

Sep 24, 2013

Solar Clipper Trader Tales

So, I've been reading this series by Nathan Lowell.  The first book, Quarter Share, is quite enjoyable, unfortunately it becomes somewhat erratic after that.  This is somewhat of an odd series and I think that's where the erratic quality comes from.  The first novel is a type of story I really enjoy but I'm not sure it's for everyone.  There's no actual conflict, it's just a story of someone cast adrift and establishing a new life for themselves.  I generally call stories of this kind "survival stories", but this is because most of the ones I read involve people going one-on-one with the wilderness.

This particular series takes place in a sort of generic futuristic space setting where goods are shipped from one system to another on solar clippers--ships that sail on the charged particles of the solar wind because they only have to get far enough out of the system to, basically, teleport from one to the next.  All right, I'll buy this.  Of course, the setting is full of the standard planet-that-is-all-one-climate trope.  It's basically fantasy with science fiction trappings, there's no real science to be found.  That's not a criticism, though, just a description.

So, the general story is about trading, which Lowell manages to make interesting and fun.  My main difficulty with the series (apart from the fact that the writing quality is only so-so) is that the characterization of the main character is, well, annoying.  He's basically a Mary Sue with no real flaws (although he's excessively humble about flaws he does not, in fact, have).  There's a real dearth of showing and a lot of telling going on here, particularly when the protagonist is supposed to be experiencing some kind of emotion.  Lowell has to tell you four or five times that the protagonist is sad, but he never actually *does* anything.  The third book (Full Share) just DRAGS, particularly toward the end where there are multiple pages in a row that read like this:

I met with some people and had fun.
I'm so sad that I'm leaving my ship behind.
I had some sandwiches.  They were tasty.
I met with some people and they gave me presents.
I'm so sad.
More sex.

This goes on for PAGES.  It should have been ONE PARAGRAPH.  I do not need to know about every. single. time. the protagonist takes a shower, goes for a jog, or eats a meal.  In fact, if it has no plot significance I shouldn't have to know about ANY time he does this.

I could do without all the superlatives, too.  Protip: words like "wonderful", "magnificent", "perfect", etc. are not actually descriptions of anything.  When you use them pretty much exclusively in your descriptive passages, you just make your protagonist look fatuous.  Which, by the way, is a perfect description for Mr. Ishmael Horatio Wang's relationships with women.

Still, I have read as far as Double Share, which was actually decent and introduced a villain of sorts,  although the Mary Sue protagonist magics him away with Tai Chi after numerous showers, meals, naps, etc.

Take home point:  I've enjoyed reading it, but won't read it again.  You probably won't enjoy it at all unless you really enjoy rags-to-riches type stories a LOT, enough to overlook the flaws.

Rating: 2.5

Sep 23, 2013

Getting the Hang of It

Feeling significantly better today than I did when we first arrived.  Not sure why the drive up here stressed me out so badly, but it did.  I went for a walk yesterday and found a nice little diner where I got an omelet for lunch, then I located a CVS pharmacy so I could get some bottled water.  I get dehydrated a lot when I travel and it's pretty miserable, so I like to make sure I always have something to drink on hand.

After Adam got through with his conference, we went to this little Mexican place called Mezcalina which was extremely pleasant.  I got a salad of beets and some ceviche that was really quite spicy and extremely good.  I don't think I've ever had ceviche that I remembered, so that was a fun experience.  I spent most of the day reading instead of getting any work done, but I did go for a nice long walk in the park and enjoy the nice weather.  I also had some fun visits with staircases to remind me of just how out-of-shape I am.  I need to get back into exercising.  I'm not sure how well lifting weights was really helping me--I didn't make any progress that I saw even over the course of months--but I can at least start doing something to help improve my wind and get the blood pumping.

Most people would probably make more of their trip, but for me just going down to the park for a while is about all the excitement I'm looking for.  There's an art museum around here somewhere that I could visit--not that long of a walk, it looks like.  Maybe I'll check that out tomorrow.  Currently I'm just waiting for someone to call from Dell because the HDD hard drive in Adam's laptop decided to sputter and die, leaving only the SSD drive working.

It's funny to me, given how expensive this hotel room is, that the shower leaks (and the shower door handle is loose, too), and the bed makes my back ache.  It always makes me think about what could be done to help people be more comfortable while traveling.  Heck, I'd give a lot to have a microwave in here, although I can't actually eat most ready-to-eat microwave meals.  Guess I'll just have to wait until Adam gets back tonight.

Sep 22, 2013

Too Rich for My Blood

So, here we are in Chicago.  I'd post pictures, but I have no camera.  Adam has one on his phone, but he ran off with it before I could upload anything.  What a schmuck.

Anyway, we somehow wound up with a room in the extremely ritzy Swissotel.  There's supposed to be a carat thing over the o in that name, but I'm too lazy to figure out how to add it.  Even the hotel restaurant is swank, but in my mind it's the bad kind of swank (everything is hideously overpriced) not the good kind (everything is really awesome).  We went there for dinner last night because after driving up here neither of us had the energy to look further afield.  Two salads and an appetizer almost broke the bank.  We often get two entrees apiece when we eat at Bob Evans in Kettering--an omelet and a salad--and it still runs us less than the price of ONE entree at this restaurant.  Yet it's not really a "nicer" place than Bob Evans in my mind--my salad was *full* of flavorless beefsteak tomatoes.  At Bob Evans I get grape tomatoes, which are much tastier.  Just something about life I don't understand.  It's a salad.  Iceberg lettuce is iceberg lettuce.  I don't care how well-trained your lettuce cutter is, the salad shouldn't cost twice as much.  There are only so many Michelin stars you can inflict on a SALAD.  The service is better at Bob Evans, too--the staff there are friendly and relaxed, while the ones at the hotel restaurant are twitchy and even a little pushy.

I'm almost afraid to leave the room, since all the other hotel guests I've seen are a.) thin and b.) extremely well-dressed.  Oh, I've seen a few in t-shirts and jeans but they are STYLISH t-shirts and jeans and I'm used to stylish people being not at all polite to big dumpy persons like myself.  Everyone I've actually run into has been extremely nice, but one day is not going to clear up a lifetime's worth of impressions.  Even if I dropped another hundred pounds to get down to a normal weight for me, I'd still be substantially bigger than pretty much everyone I've seen here.  What is it with big cities and tiny people?  I feel ridiculously overbuilt, like a Hummer at a compact car convention.

I kind of wish we were staying at the Hyatt next door--our window overlooks an extremely nice rooftop pool that I would love to take a dip in if I had a swimsuit and could miraculously drop another hundred pounds before tomorrow.  I should quit being so self-conscious.  At least I can sit in the chairs in our hotel room, although the shower is pretty confining.  I'm not sure why they decided that it'd be more luxurious to have a narrow shower and a smallish tub instead of having either a really big tub or a really big shower.  Do that many people like to take tub baths?  If they were going for the urban European effect they should have installed a bidet.

One thing I have noticed about this whole ritzy upscale thing is a real dearth of wastebaskets.  I didn't want to leave our trash in the car, so I wound up carrying it through basically the entire hotel before I could find somewhere to get rid of it.  Apparently eating out of packages is something only lower-class people do around here.  Even the WATER is expensive--we have a couple of jugs of water in our hotel room (NOT complimentary) and they cost $8.  I brought a couple of similarly-sized bottles of sparkling water from Meijer that were $0.89.  I know hotels are generally overpriced but yeesh.

Sep 20, 2013

Skull and Shackles Session 32: The Hold of Nightmares

The first building they entered proved to be a chapel, only a handful of the simple pews still intact between the others that lay scattered and broken on the floor.  A golden symbol hung from the ceiling, a winged eye in a ring, the symbol of Aroden.  Once the patron deity of Cheliax and a number of other major countries, Aroden had disappeared nearly a century ago when all of Golarion was wracked by terrible storms, ending in the formation of the Eye of Abendego.  Aroden's former worshippers had mostly abandoned him, converting to other faiths or, in the case of Cheliax, to the worship of devils.  This chapel could have lain abandoned for decades or centuries, there was no way to tell.

"Is that real gold?" Feruzi asked, eyeing the symbol.  Leila studied it for a moment.

"I believe it is, Feruzi," she said at last.

"That much gold undefended for this long?  It must be cursed," Feruzi continued as Leila looked around for some way to reach the symbol.  Four large, spider-like creatures with eerie humanoid faces suddenly flashed into view, snapping their mandibles.  Chopper knocked one away before it could poison him and it tore a long gash in his wrist.  Leila shouted as another one clamped down on her leg.  Then the spiders vanished as suddenly as they appeared.

Ezikial waved his pistols furiously, seeking a target, while Feruzi pressed her back to the wall and cast a protective spell.  The spiders burst into existence again, clawing and biting at everyone.  Ezikial shot one in the abdomen before they could vanish a second time.

"They are passing in and out of the Ethereal Plane," Feruzi explained.

"And how do I shoot them while they're doing it?" Ezikial demanded.

"You can't, unless you have force magic," she told him.

"What the hell," Chopper complained, waving his blades through the air.  "When did you go all Witchy Woman on us, Ruse?"

"That's what you get for ignoring your crew," Feruzi said.

"Ignoring?  Ignoring?!  I was at yer bleedin' weddin', wasn't I?  What more do you want?!"

Reiko shook her head.  "Of all the people he ignores in this crew, Feruzi, you are most definitely not one of them."

"So he thought all those books were for TP then?"

"You can read?" Ezikial asked.

"A novelty for a savage, aye," Chopper said.

Reiko's eyes rolled.  "Feruzi has done lots of writing.  It has even been legible."

"Hardly activities befitting a pirate," Chopper said breezily.

"Yes, but none of us started out as pirates, did we?" Reiko said.

"Um . . . are we fighting here or not?" Leila asked.  The spiders reappeared.  Ezikial blasted the one he'd already wounded, getting the aim right this time, and it exploded all over Leila.  Feruzi shot the one that jumped on Ezikial in retaliation.  The others slashed and spat, then all three vanished again.  Ezikial started to grin.  Another spider became a cloud of gore at the end of his pistols.  One began to squeal and shriek in an unknown language, throwing itself on Reiko.  The other one scurried away and disappeared as Reiko's blade cleaved through the squeaker's body.

"I suspect the one left to get reinforcements," Feruzi said.  Everyone had bite and slash marks.  Chopper broke out the bandages, hoping no one was seriously poisoned.  He could do little about it short of going back to the ship.  Even Leila submitted to his ministrations.

The forge, kitchen and mess hall showed signs of recent use, or at least, more recent than the chapel.  The kitchen was ransacked, the debris scattered across the floor of the mess hall.  Feruzi kicked her way through, headed for the stairs, when Chopper suddenly called out, "Ware."  A pair of indistinct figures faded out of the air, shifting like smoke, and took on nightmarish forms, not quite human, animal, or fiend.  One of them raised an appendage that could not really be described as an arm and Reiko felt weariness settle on her like a great weight of cotton.  She shook it off and attacked, but her blade found little purchase on the vague monstrosity.  Ezikial fired, blasting holes in the shape that did not instantly seal and the other threw a spell at him, making him cringe and yell in startled horror.

Feruzi filled the air with arrows and one of the monstrosities keened.  The spells flew thick and fast while Reiko and Chopper attacked, driving the creatures across the room.  Chopper screamed and hacked at his own arm with his axe.  Behind them, Leila fled in panic.  Ezikial finished reloading and fired both pistols; one of the shapes dissolved into smoke.  The other reached out almost casually and grasped Ezikial's arm.  He recoiled in agony even as Reiko's sword cut it down.

"Besmara," Ezikial grunted.  "It was like being sober."  He was sweating furiously, his skin turning an ugly, mottled purple.  Chopper continued to babble, swinging his axes around at random.

"Um, Captain?" Reiko said, approaching him cautiously.


"Should we . . . restrain him?" Leila asked.

"Probably a good idea," Reiko said.  Feruzi edged around behind Chopper and all three women grabbed him.  He struggled and shouted nonsense and attempted to kiss Leila for several long, bizarre minutes, then the spell, whatever it was, seemed to wear off.

"Are you well, Captain?" Leila asked hesitantly.

"Little . . . groggy," Chopper muttered.  "So we got blinkin' spiders and ruddy mind-ghosts?  What other 'treasures' await us in this paradise we've been blessed with?"

"No one said this would be easy," Reiko said.

Upstairs from the mess hall they found several women's bedrooms.  Judging from the clothing, now scattered around in disarray, they were practicing the only profession to predate piracy in the Shackles.  Leila poked a brassiere that was more lace than support with the point of her dagger, her expression a mix of curiosity and disgust.

"Who needs all this stuff?" Feruzi asked.  "Overkill."

"It does seem superfluous," Leila said.

"Black is better and black leather is even better than that," Ezikial muttered.

"What's that, Mister Hands?" Chopper asked him.

"Speaking to myself, Captain."

They explored the guardhouse, finding a set of stairs leading downward.  A sense of presence began to grow around them.  Where is it?  Where is the immortal dreamstone?

"No, what is the immortal dreamstone," Feruzi corrected absently.  Chopper's eyes widened.

"You mean I didn't just imagine that??" he said, sounding shaken.

"Your head must be a very strange place if you can't tell," Feruzi said.

"Well, a guy can hope, aye?"

"I heard it too," Reiko said.

"I did just try to hack off my own arm because I thought it was a sentient salami planning to betray me," Chopper complained.  "Cut me some slack."

The immortal dreamstone. Where is it?

"Bloody flaming hells!" Chopper shouted.  Another nightmare creature materialized in front of him.  Feruzi promptly shot it.  Repeatedly.  Chopper screamed and stabbed violently with his cutlass.  It slid away from him and reached out for Feruzi, touching her with its terrible hands.  She winced and struggled to shake off a vision of Merrill dead at her feet.  Reiko charged, her blade catching something solid in the mass of dreamy substance and ending its sketchy existence.  Feruzi wiped sweat off her face.

"I am beginning to think that burning this place to the ground might be a better option," she said.

"I don't think scorched earth was what the council had in mind when they sent us," Chopper said.

"They didn't specify."

Reiko nodded.  "Not the whole island, but this fort, perhaps."

"Would fire kill a living dream?"  Leila asked.

"I'd lay odds that Ezikial could create a big enough explosion to kill anything, given enough time and materials," Feruzi said.

"I ain't burnin' down the closest thing to a house this place seems ta have," Chopper growled.

The basement housed a prison of sorts, with three cells and iron bars.  The keys hung on the eastern wall.  There was a door of sorts on the south wall, concealed but not well enough.  Leila frowned and examined it.  "I think it is safe.  The catch to open it is here, but you may wish to step back anyway."  Everyone backed cautiously to the other side of the room.

"Hit it," Feruzi said.  Leila did.  The door opened into a short passage that turned west, ending in a door that opened on a small room.  A variety of small chests, crates, and sacks filled it, surrounding a corpse that lay on the floor.  Chopper squatted to examine it.  The man had been dead for months, maybe as long as a year.  Chopper didn't see any gaping wounds or obvious cause of death.

"Bafflin'.  He's just dead."

"Suffocation?" Feruzi asked.

"Witchcraft, more like, considerin' our recent experiences."

Another presence manifested out of the air, but this one took on the spectral image of a Mwangi man.

"Greetings," Feruzi said.

"Greetings to you.  I am Bikendi Otongu," said the ghost.  "Why have you come to this accursed place?" 

Feruzi smiled slightly.  "Seeking to end the curse, of course."

"Then you have brought the immortal dreamstone?"

"This is the second time we've heard of it," Reiko said, "but we don't know what it is."

"If you can give us information we may be able to help," Feruzi said.

"I will share its story, though it is a long one.  The cyclopes have taken it back to the ruins of Sumitha.  If you bring it to me and willingly allow me to possess one of you I can complete my ritual and end the curse."


So, Adam and I are going up to Chicago for the next week.  He has a technology conference thing to attend but I'm pretty much planning to work on my creative projects.  This means that the majority of my packing involves getting things together so that I can work on my projects.

Why projects?  Why not just work on the novel?  Unfortunately I've discovered that there's a pretty strict limit to how much creative work I can do on a single project in a given day, particularly when I'm churning over new ideas.  So I want to have multiple things I can switch between if possible.  So, here's my list:

  • The Novel (Ratbreed)--this one's pretty straightforward.  I just need to bring along my USB stick with my Word files, the notebook I use for my first draft, and a pen.  I'm also taking my Kindle so that I can read some books for research.  Which means I need my charger.
  • The Game System--I FINALLY came up with a name for this the other day.  I'm going to call it "The Waning Lore".  I even created a Facebook page for it although at the present time it contains no information.  Once again all I really need to work on this is my notebook, a pen, and a computer.
  • Hospice--this is the game that I want to run once I get my system to the alpha testing stage.  Or beta.  Whichever.  The stage where it's possible to make characters and run combats.  I'm not too far off from that, actually, considering I've written an entire gaming system basically from scratch in a week before.  Was it balanced?  Hell no.  But it was fun.  Pen, notebook, computer again.
  • The webcomic (Dream of Sagris)--I think I finally have enough of this idea put together in my head that I can start working on it.  I've also decided on an art style that a.) makes me pretty happy and b.) doesn't require insane amounts of work.  I need a stack of drawing paper (I will probably be using regular old printer paper for this--I like the texture), a pencil, and an eraser.  Colorizing will have to wait until I get home, but I think I should be able to get at least a few pages done on the trip.  Then I can start posting it.  I want to get several weeks of updates done before I start posting, though.  I know my own habits and I've also well seen that one of the best ways to get and keep your webcomic going is to be clockwork-regular in posting.  Even people who love your work beyond all reason will start to drift off if you don't update.  I'm not planning on running a perpetual comic--the story I have in mind has a definite end and is self-contained (so kind of like a web-based graphic novel), but I ALSO have another story lined up that I'd like to do.  I'd like to take the story that I started on this blog as "Epic" and turn it into a webcomic as well.  It ties in with my game system and thus with my novel.
So, that means I need: Kindle & charger, pen, pencil, eraser, 2 notebooks, USB stick with files, big stack of drawing paper, drawing BOARD (almost forgot that part, but you can't count on having a good surface when you're on the road) and Adam's laptop which I am totally commandeering.  He has a spare.  Oh, and I should probably bring my iPod and its charger so I can listen to music while I work.

Um, and some clothes and underwear and toilet articles might be useful as well.

Sep 19, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: Rise Headless and Ride

This is a brand-new, self-published novel by Richard Gleaves.  I've encountered several first-time, self-published novels over the past few months, and I have to say that this is the first one that was any good.  Except it isn't just good.  It's really good.

It's not perfect--there are a few odd turns of phrase here and there that I think a professional editor would have cleaned up--but it doesn't matter.  The style creates an otherworldly atmosphere that is perfectly suited to the subject.  As you continue to read you are pulled into this world and find that it is richly detailed and ancient with modern touches that firmly ground the more fantastical aspects.  The characters are all highly individual and engrossing, each treated with care as to their motivations, goals, and personality.  The book even manages to be genuinely suspenseful and creepy at times.

One of the best aspects of this book, I think, is that it is multi-generational.  Too many novels that focus on a young adult protagonist (sixteen in this case) treat older people as if they were a different species and only the shallow, transient interests of the young protagonist are important.  In this case, while Jason Crane does exhibit youthful preoccupations, this is shown more as a stage of development, a striving toward adulthood to take on adult concerns without being a faux adult.  It also lacks the Lord of the Flies-style situation where the young people are abandoned by their elders to degenerate into savagery.  I much prefer this treatment to The Hunger Games and even Harry Potter.

I highly recommend reading Rise Headless and Ride.  If I had one criticism to make, it's that I wish this was a stand-alone book instead of the forerunner of a series, because now I have to wait in order to read more.  Oh well.

Sep 18, 2013

Adjective Triangles

Continuing on from yesterday, here's another bit of writing advice that I think is misdirected: don't make lists of adjectives (or things).  Yet again, this is a common thing for a reason, but it's easy to misuse because people just starting out don't really know the purpose of it.

To be clear, this is what I mean: a list of adjectives or "adjective triangle" is when you use three terms to describe something.  Like calling a man "tall, dark, and handsome".  As an aside, that one's a staggeringly awful cliche, particularly since "handsome" is a meaningless throwaway term that does not, actually, describe anything.  If you ever read the word "handsome" in a description of a male character this is basically a way of screaming "it does not matter what this character looks like other than that he's kind of generically good-looking in a conventional sort of way".  Handsome, far from being a compliment, is highly dismissive.  Funny, huh?  Same for pretty or even beautiful on a woman.  Now, if a woman is handsome and a man is pretty, that's a different story because these terms actually have some slight specificity when attached to the other sex.  Anyway, I digress.

What makes an adjective triangle (or any other kind of list like this) a bad one is when you just throw out any old random qualities.  Lists like these have a very specific purpose: they zero you in on a very specific combination of traits or aspects or whatever. Or, for another example, it's like creating a sort of description Venn Diagram:

The three descriptive terms need to all lean together in some sort of connected way to add up to something.  It's hard to get really specific here because the connections can be pretty tenuous and what feels randomish to one person may not feel that way to another.  For example, you might describe a man as being tall, blond, and Swedish.  To me, those are reasonably well-connected because a lot of Swedes are tall and blond.  It makes a triangle because the traits are often found in company.  Blond and Swedish is a more specific type of tall man . . . tall and blond is a more specific type of Swedish man.  They lean together.  What you wouldn't do is say a man was "tan, confused, and sweaty".  This is not a triangle.  You're not creating a diagram of interrelated traits (although confused could go with sweaty and tan could go with sweaty, just the three of them together doesn't work).

There's another example of this that's worth looking into, however.  You can subvert this triangle-building by adding in a term (or terms) that not just doesn't relate to the other two but actively contradicts them.  Neal Stephenson in particular does this a LOT, and it adds a sort of edginess to his writing, making him look subversive.  For example, he might describe a part of California as being full of hotels, golf courses, universities, landfills and prisons.  The first three set you up for a sort of pleasant, unexceptional middle-class sort of landscape.  The other two break this up and suggest that there's a seedy underside to all this pleasant homeliness.

Sep 17, 2013

Declared, Affirmed, and Averred

I read a lot of writing advice of one stripe or another and one thing that I've run across more than once recently is the insistence from multiple sources that you should just say "so-and-so said" instead of trying to use more creative terminology like, "so-and-so demanded" or "so and so declared" etc. etc. etc. 

This is absurd.  Those terms exist for a reason and any writer worth their salt can and should make use of them.  Oh, sure, if you're only using them for variety, you're probably being unnecessarily redundant, but it is just flat out not possible to exercise the highly desirable qualities of brevity, clarity, and eloquence while adhering to a single manner of phrasing.  Take these examples:

"You should come with me now.  There isn't much time," he said.
"I don't think that would be wise," she demurred.

Okay, see, that one is redundant.  "I don't think that would be wise" is a clear denial.  Said is a fine thing to use in this case.  Here's another:

"You should come with me now.  There isn't much time," he said.
"How much time?" she demurred.

See there?  NOT redundant.  That's concise and clear.  We see that the woman is questioning him in order to raise an objection and stall for time with absolutely no wasted words and with absolute clarity and precision.  THAT's an example of what you SHOULD do in writing.  Here's a third:

"You should come with me now. There isn't much time," he said.
"How much time?" she said.

This is not clear.  Using "she said" in this context is bad (and not only because she asked a question--at the VERY least it should be "she asked") because it makes it sound like she's asking the question in order to get information.  Oh, sure, you could append some nonsense like this:

"You should come with me now.  There isn't much time," he said.
"How much time?" she said, drawing back and looking around as if unsure of his purpose.

But holy cow that is WAY more words than you need to indicate that she's stalling when you could just say, "she demurred".  How in the WORLD is that BETTER?

So, take-home point: writing well is way more complicated than a bunch of concrete-bound rules like "use said".  You have to learn to understand what your goal is and what you're trying to convey instead of just following the "rules".  If you're not using your judgment, you're not writing well no matter how many rules you follow.

I think advice like this arises because everyone learns to write through imitation at first, but imitation without judgment is what leads people to think, say, that an author is throwing in terms like "demurred" for variety.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that early on in my writing career I was told to do exactly that--add some variety.  I had no judgment at that time, so how could I know?  And later in your career some editor will see you doing this and they will be able to tell that you are doing it without any judgment.  So they'll tell you "use said" because they don't want to be distracted from the parts of your writing that do demonstrate judgment.

Me, I'd rather at least try to help people develop some judgment.  Three examples won't cut it, of course, but if you take your own writing and start asking questions like "is this redundant?" and "can I say this with one descriptive word instead of a phrase?" you'll start to pick it up.  There's a good chance that the people who told you to add variety or use said won't even notice which route you picked--because they'll be too  busy enjoying your story.

Sep 16, 2013

Creation and Distribution

When I was younger (say, around 1990) and I had the tentative first stirrings of the idea that I might want to write novels one day, there was basically only one road to being a novelist.  You wrote your novel and submitted it to publishers and hoped and prayed that one of them might decide to accept it.  I know that's a bit of an oversimplification--even in those days there was self-publishing and networking and other complexities I'm not going to go into but in general terms the process was extremely straightforward.  Self-publishing was pure vanity that some very few wealthy folks could indulge in. Creators were a dime a dozen and the distributor had the power in the relationship.  Every novelist I'd ever heard speak on the subject had some kind of horror story involving titanic battles with their publisher over who owned the rights to what and the constant pressure of deadlines and book tours and editorial requirements and a laundry list of soul-sucking horrors that they had to put up with for the privilege of being allowed to get their work into the hands of the general public.  A laundry list that was nearly always followed by some recommendation not to quit your day job.  This is not exactly inspiring stuff for a timid would-be novelist.  What kind of a future is that to look forward to?  "You will work like a galley slave and if you are extraordinarily fortunate you might earn enough money for this to be your full-time career."  Blech.

Of course, nowadays things are different.  Self-publishing isn't only for vain rich people any more.  Pretty much every industry that had this kind of creator/distributor relationship is radically different: movies, music, video games, books, who knows how many others.  But despite this, the distributors still carry a lot of clout.  There's still a lot of prestige and mystique attached to the distributors and the creators still flock to them so in many cases that poisonous atmosphere still endures.  I'm not sure it will go away until there's another, subtler shift that exorcises the last vestiges of this mystique and turns the distributor into an equal who provides a service to creators instead of an aristocrat who patronizes creators.  A lot of the current mindset still needs to change in order for this to happen, and change on the creative side of things.  For instance:

1.  Creators need to take more heed of the fact that someone offering to buy their work or the rights to their work is not a beneficent friend raining down largess--this is someone offering to enter into a business relationship and regardless of what they're offering or how delightful it seems in relation to your current penniless state, you need to vet them like you would vet a stranger offering to watch your child.  In fact, if they come to you the chances that they are the equivalent of a pedophile are rather higher than you might expect.  They are not doing you a favor no matter how much money they offer you or how apparently generous the terms.  Getting the attention of a big distributor is not the success endgame state.  It could be an express ticket to legal hell.

2.  Creators need to shed the last of the "AAA" mindset.  This pertains particularly to video games where "AAA" is actually a Thing and everyone talks about it.  I went and browsed the Bioware job boards, for instance, and I saw a posting for a Lead Writer (which I am totally not in any way qualified for, just so you know, this is an example only).  One of the requirements for said Lead Writer was that they must have already shipped a "AAA" game.  This is the "AAA" mindset, that there is some kind of significant and meaningful difference between a big-name major distributor-backed title and one that was released by a team that lacks such backing.  Yes, there IS a difference between a title that is worked on for 3 years by 50 people and one that was made by one guy in his basement over the course of three months.  A single person working alone is not to be scorned--creating by yourself requires a staggering amount of drive, discipline, willingness to face criticism, refusal to give in to self-doubt.  There's a huge and impressive skillset in working alone that is not any less than the skillset of working with a group, it's just that if you're going to apply work with a big team yes, you should demonstrate skill in doing just that.  But what does the "AAA" part of this description bring to the table?  It doesn't mean you have teamwork skills or creative skills or drive, discipline, focus etc.  You know what that particular qualifier means?  It means you have experience sucking up to a big distributor.  This is not a creative skill or a business skill.  This is attribute that is of value to exactly one participant--the distributor--and only if they are looking to maintain a specific type of working relationship with the creators in their stable.  "AAA" mindset should be a massive red flag to creators everywhere that a distributor is in the market for peons, not partners.

Just those two changes will go a long way to cleaning up the rotting remains of distributor mystique.  The funny thing, though, is that I don't predict this will be the dawn of some kind of fantastical age for creators where absolutely everyone can get the perfect audience they think they deserve.  Far from it.  I think it will be good for creators AND distributors, but I'm not sure it'll make either of them really happy, because the people who will really profit from it is the ones who drive themselves to acquire both sorts of skill sets.  To be creative AND to understand business.  To work alone AND with a team.  To self-publish AND partner with distributors.  I think the future belongs to those people, and they are few.  Just doing ONE of those things is an undertaking that can consume your entire life.  If you can do both, I stand in awe of you.  I need to remind myself constantly that THIS is what I'm ultimately working toward.  Doing the creative work is HARD, but by itself it's not enough to get me all the way to where I want to go.  I need to pay attention to opportunities to grow in BOTH areas if I ever want to stop being just a hobbiest.

Sep 15, 2013

Skull and Shackles: Feruzi's Journal Part 2

9 Rova 4712 AR

I really should have expected something like this but I wasn’t expecting it quite so soon so I was a little horrified when I woke up and found that my mother (at least, I assume it was her) FILLED the hut with fertility idols. Merrill thought they are just what he calls “knickknacks” and he turned the oddest color when I explained. He said the thought Chopper was just joking so I told him, well, Chopper maybe was but my mother is DEAD SERIOUS. She probably started planning out her grandchildren when I was two years old if not sooner and it is only a mercy that she waited this long to start her campaign. Merrill told me “I don’t want to upset your mother but . . .” and I interrupted him and said “It doesn’t matter what you want” so he says “Pardon me, I think it does!” so I was all, “no, you don’t understand, I don’t mean we should actually, well, make a baby RIGHT NOW just to make her happy but for goodness sake don’tSAY anything like that to her. If she wants to give you advice, you just smile and nod and wait until she talks herself out. DON’T antagonize her or who knows WHAT she might do she is NOT in her right mind about this.” I could see he still did not believe me so I told him to at least ask my father before he went and did anything stupid and got himself turned into a frog or worse. Well, she would turn him back eventually but I don’t think Merrill spending the rest of our visit as an amphibian would help matters any.
Merrill asked me did I want to have children and I said, well, of course didn’t he want children? and he got really quiet and stared at the ground for a long time and I started to get upset then he said he’d never really thought about it before. Not seriously, anyway. I didn’t understand and when he tried to explain we just got all tangled up and now both of us are confused and upset and I’m starting to wonder if frog wouldn’t be the better option. Father came in and asked if Merrill was going to come do Man Stuff with the other warriors. I could tell Merrill was about to ask me what he should do so I said “well, here’s your chance to avoid my mother until dinner time” and he got the hint and went along. I wish I could go along but I don’t want to be an amphibian, either. I was tempted to let Merrill stew all day but I changed my mind and shooed Father out and spent some time making sure he knew I wasn’t angry with him.
I do not think Mother has stopped giving me advice for five solid minutes, which is actually somewhat amusing because she keeps asking me questions about Merrill and Chopper and everyone and then interrupting the answer before I’ve really started. Ukele is here and has taken to mimicking Mother behind her back so I have to keep making excuses to go outside so I won’t start laughing and bring down the wrath of frog on both of us. Fortunately Mother seems to think that my scribbling means I am writing down her sage advice for later so now she is pestering Ukele instead. Mother seems to have decided that Ukele is not going to settle down (what a shock) so now she’s talking about sending her (Ukele) to become a Sacred Woman which I think would be a good thing but I know better than to give my opinion so I will just have to see how this turns out.

The men came back finally and Mother started right in on them. Merrill put up with this for about three minutes, then he walked over and put his hands on my mother’s shoulders and said “Thank you for trying to help us, Madam, but I love your daughter too much to take anyone’s advice but hers,” and I thought, oh, no, here we go but Mother just got all teary-eyed and patted his cheek and now Merrill can Do No Wrong in her eyes and she even told off Ukele for criticizing him. How does he DO that?! So unfair. Although I suppose I should not complain because so far he only uses his powers for good. Mother even left off pestering me she said I was in good hands and she’s not worried any more. Unbelievable. I asked Merrill though and he said he’d been working on that line all day and he was relieved it went over so well so maybe it isn’t as easy as he makes it look.
Of course, next what does he do but say he wants to talk to me and finish our discussion from earlier and I don’t know what to say so we go out for a walk to get some privacy and he says, “Feruzi, do you love me?” all serious. So I thought about it for a while which I could tell was not helping matters and I finally said “Not exactly” and Merrill says “I see . . . so why did you marry me, then?”. I said “It’s complicated and I don’t know how to explain” and he said “Try.” So we ended up standing there for maybe five minutes while I tried to think and failed so Merrill kissed me and started to head back and I said “I don’t know how I feel about you but I know marrying you was the right thing to do because you make me . . . be myself, somehow. Properly. Better than I was. I don’t know if that’s love or not but I didn’t want to say it and have it not be true,” and I started to cry which was stupid but Merrill didn’t seem upset he just came back and kissed me again and said he didn’t understand but maybe it didn’t matter and he would eventually. I told him Mother always says that you can’t really know if you love someone until you’ve already married them and really learned who they are but the way you start to know is that you find out things about them that you never thought you wanted but it turns out now you do. Merrill said “That is EXACTLY how I feel about you.” so I told him “I know, I’m just slow,” and he smiled and now I’m not upset any more.

10 Rova 4712 AR
Mother snuck in and woke me early this morning so I could go along to the crater with her and Ukele. It took me a while to figure out how to get up without waking Merrill who is not exactly a heavy sleeper but I managed somehow and we set off.
The crater is not really something anyone in the village talks about very much although all the women go there a few times a year to pay their respects to the Sacred Women and Zuneraali if he’s awake and in a mood for visitors. I have not seen him myself as he’s been tetchy for the past decade or so due to an unfortunate geyser incident that Mother refuses to discuss apart from saying that blue dragons don’t like it much when half of their scales turn bright orange and fall out leaving the most absurd-looking bald patches all over them. I wouldn’t even know about this development but Mother told us not to mention it which we couldn’t have done even if we wanted to before she told us about it but there’s not much use in pointing out this lapse of logic to Mother so if we see the dragon we will just have to remember not to comment on his appearance in any way whatsoever.
Some people would think living this close to an evil dragon would be dangerous, but Raali is a surprisingly good neighbor and doesn’t even bother our livestock as long as he has some women around to keep him entertained. That’s what the Sacred Women do, study sorcery and keep Raali occupied so that he doesn’t eat anything important or blow us or himself up. There’s not really anything sacred about them, I suppose, but some ancestor must have thought it sounded better than “dragon-sitter” and Raali likes the idea that we worship him so it stuck.
The crater isn’t much to look at, just a big sandy pit where a star fell a few centuries ago. You can’t even see it until you almost fall into it but you had better not because it’s quite deep and if you fell in nobody would ever find you because the trees grow right up to the edge and make it so you can’t see or hear anything until it’s too late. The crater has probably claimed more lives (or at least, incautious goats) than the dragon over the years.
We didn’t even get to go meet with the priestesses because Raali was out sunning himself and came thundering over the minute he spotted us which, if you’ve ever met a dragon, you know was before we ever spotted him. We were just walking along the path when all of a sudden WHOOM there’s a big blue dragon looming over us. Ukele screamed. To be fair, I almost did too but nobody heard me squeaking over the dragon and Ukele. I suppose I should be grateful if Ukele makes me look tougher than I actually am. Raali was delighted by this greeting and found Ukele utterly fascinating, what a surprise. I was surprised, myself, because he was smaller than I thought he’d be but I suppose dragons don’t really need to be big in order to be dangerous although they are more impressive when they are of course. I thought that was going to be the end of our trip but Mother had to tell Raali that I was studying sorcery too (although I’m not very good and it shows) so he had to look me over and make me cast a few spells (and I only KNOWa few spells) and then he just spontaneously decided that if Ukele was staying I might as well stay too and learn some proper magic.
Have you ever tried to argue a dragon out of something? No, of course you haven’t. They have you over a barrel and they know it so there’s almost never any use to arguing but I wasn’t going to be taken off by some overgrown patchy self-exploding lizard and I told him so and he put his claw on the top of my head and mashed me into the ground just to show that he could. I remember thinking, Merrill is NOT going to be happy about this when Raali spotted my bow and said “oooooooooh is that an Azlanti bow?” and I thought gods, now he’s going to want that too when he suddenly let me up and ran off. I just had time to ask Mother what the hell was going on and for her to say she had no idea when he comes thundering back with two of the Sacred Women on his back and this burned and broken staff thing in his mouth. Which he then has to tell us all about. For THREE HOURS. Apparently it also was some kind of Azlanti artifact and when he attempted to study it to find out how it was made that ended in the “unfortunate geyser incident” we weren’t supposed to talk about. Lovely. Ukele was fascinated. Or, at least, she pretended to be fascinated and kept urging Raali to explain more and more and more until he finally lost interest in me and Ukele signaled Mother and me to leave and we snuck off. What a relief. Ukele seems to be pretty good at her new job. Merrill was horrified when I told him where we’d been all day and we’re leaving first thing tomorrow morning. I told him it wasn’t anything serious because Raali is probably the laziest dragon in the world but I don’t think he believed me. Still, it’s pleasant to be fussed over as long as he doesn’t take it too far.

11 Rova 4712 AR

All right, so I was wrong. I’m a big girl. I admit it. Fortunately all we got out of it was a scare. Thank goodness for Ukele is all I have to say.
Raali came to the village at the crack of dawn and tore the roof right off the room where Merrill and I were asleep. I thought for sure he was going to eat both of us but all he did was shove his nose into the room and demand to know which one of us was Captain Pegsworthy. Merrill spoke up before I could stop him and admitted that he might answer to that name, so Raali said, “Good, I have a job for you.” So Merrill said, “What sort of job?” like this sort of thing happened every day and Raali says “Ukele is your sister, right?” and Merrill looks at me like what the hell and says “sister-in-law, actually,” so Raali snorts which almost makes the rest of the roof fall in on us and he says “Close enough, anyway I’ve decided to keep her for my mate but she is going to need some . . . things. Keep the change.” And Raali wrinkles his nose and spits out a scroll case and a star sapphire the size of my two fists together. Then he put the roof back down and left.
Merrill and I just sat there staring at the half-collapsed ceiling until he finally said, “I guess she finally found a male big enough to satisfy her,” in this awed voice and I couldn’t help it I laughed until I couldn’t breathe and Merrill did too and Mother came storming in and declared we were hysterical and dumped a bucket of water over both of us which helped a little but not quite enough so we had to take turns telling Mother what happened while we sat there stark naked and dripping wet. All Mother had to say when we finished explaining was “Well it’s about time.” Merrill had a look at Raali’s shopping list and said that it looked doable and he wouldn’t be surprised if that sapphire was worth two or three times what he’d need so I was relieved. He said to me, “You have a much more interesting family than I was expecting,” and I said “It’s not normally quite this bad, but yes.”
So now we’re back on the Bonaventure headed back to Tidewater Rock so I can go embark on my exciting new career as Deputy Assistant Pirate Lord and Merrill can go shop for Raali. I think life on the Crisis is going to look almost ordinary after this little trip. I’m glad to have Ukele all set, though, and it was fun watching Pinch’s eyes bug out over Merrill’s sudden new wealth. Merrill made me promise to send him letters as often as I could manage and he would do the same. I’m going to miss him terribly.