Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Once Upon A Time

Not the opening phrase, the new television show from ABC. Consider this your spoiler warning for the first two episodes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Open Letter to the ACLU and the NRA

To the representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and National Rifle Association,

Let me begin by saying that I admire both of your organizations. I am a firm believer that the Constitutional liberties our country was founded upon must be protected, regardless of whether they suit the left wing or the right wing of our government better.

With that said.

When I support a charitable or activist organization, what I want to do is send a reasonable sum of money, either by mail or online transaction to the organization in question. For my trouble I expect a simple membership card where appropriate, or perhaps a set of inexpensive address labels, like the ones I just received from the wonderful Chesapeake Bay Foundation. (Keep up the good fight guys, I want my grandchildren to enjoy blue crabs as much as I do.)

I am open to an annual letter documenting your organizations' accomplishments over the past year, and a brief reminder that another simple donation would not go amiss. I would also not mind the occasional missive encouraging me to write my elected representatives if, by doing so, I can help your causes.

What I do not want and will not stand for is weekly letters and emails demanding more and more and more money in exchange for fucking tote bags, of all things. If you intend to shill for money under the guise of an annual membership fee, I intend to pay the fee and no more. The only thing you've accomplished by bombarding me with pleading missives is to convince me that your organizations aren't worth my fucking time or money.

If you are willing to abide by these terms, you have my contact information (do you, fuck), and I would be happy to support your organizations again. But only if you leave me the fuck alone.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Nail Your Novel

Dear readers: Can't finish writing your books? Do you habitually get stuck on word 5,000 of that 8,000 word short story? Is there a pile of abandoned manuscripts threatening to bury your dog? Then I have a solution for you.

Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, to give the full title, is a little book by Roz Morris, an author who runs a blog by the shorter name. It is not a manual on how to write well. It does not dwell on the best ways to improve your characterization, your settings, or your plot (well there's a bit of that, but not much).

What Nail Your Novel does do, and it does it very well, is give you a structure for writing a book or short story or whatever you want. It lists of series of steps you need to take, from before you put word one on paper to the moment you send a pitch off to the agent/editor, to get the job done. And it does it in a clear, easy to follow style that you can absorb and put into practice quickly.

I tried out the Nail Your Novel method for my latest short story pitch. Before, my writing process was something like this:

  1. Come up with an idea.
  2. Write an outline based on the idea.
  3. Write as much of the story based on the outline as possible - usually 2,000 to 3,000 words.
  4. Revise the text I need to include in my pitch.
  5. Mail out the pitch on deadline day.
  6. Pray. And drink.

Note the thing I wasn't doing: finishing the damn story. I'd get enough together for a pitch and send it out, undoubtedly overlooking massive structural problems I couldn't see in the parts I hadn't written yet.

After using the methods detailed in Nail Your Novel, I have a big pile of (virtual) index cards with character, setting, and plot points listed. I've got an outline, but also a beat sheet, which sums up every character's story arcs and the dramatic high and low points in the story. And most important of all, I have a finished first draft of my story, straight from beginning to end. It's rough (I haven't revised the whole thing), but it's complete.

I cannot overemphasize how much of an improvement I saw just from working out the structure of what I wanted to write in advance. I wrote out nine excellent short scenes, then cut them because I was able to recognize that they didn't connect to the rest of the story. And one of the major plot twists in the story became ten times better after I was able to look at the characters' story arcs properly. Prewriting and structuring don't raise your word count, but they are absolutely vital.

NaNoWriMo is coming up next month, and if you have trouble finishing your books, I recommend it as the ultimate motivational deadline (that doesn't involve money or death). You'll have fun, you might get your 50,000 words, and who knows, you might even publish the result. But if you want to learn good writing habits that will help you finish your work on a regular basis, pick up Nail Your Novel. You won't regret it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Read List

I'm currently putting the finishing touches on a short story pitch for Black Library. Yes, I said I'd be moving on to my own work by now, but they had a surprise submissions window open up, and I had an idea. Couldn't be helped, really.

Anyway, while I've been procrastinating on that last round of edits ("Tell me what you're feeling, Xaphan. I need to know."), I've put together a list of what I want to read in the near future, which is as soon as I have the time and enough money for the eBooks.

Matt Taibbi's tale of the Wall Street crisis isn't particularly fair-minded: he's out to get everyone he holds responsible, and he's not shy about saying so. Still, based on his Rolling Stone articles, I'm expecting Griftopia to be an engaging description of the some of the worst excesses of Goldman Sachs, Wall Street and our politicians. Plus he swears a lot.

The Chronicles of Prydain were some of my favorite fantasy books growing up. Honestly, who wasn't scared of the Cauldron-Born? They've recently been released for the Kindle, and as soon as I have forty dollars or so to spare, I'm snapping up all five.

The Outcast Dead is the latest book in the Horus Heresy series by Black Library, which remains on my must-read list every time something new comes out. This one looks especially intriguing, since it takes place on Terra and promises to deliver some soul-shattering revelations.

Finally, there's Moneyball, which I wasn't sold on until today, when I saw the movie. Brad Pitt had me rooting for Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager, and as with Goodfellas and Casino, I want to get the full story. Plus Michael Lewis is the author of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which I've read and found to be an excellent explanation of the 2008 financial crash, so I trust him to do a good job here, too.

Alright, then. Back to editing! Oh don't cry, Xaphan, don't cry...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

On Preordering

So there's a new video game coming out in a few days/weeks/months. You want to get the game on day one, because it's awesome, or you've got a friend who thinks it's awesome and you enjoy multiplayer. You've got three different places you can order from: Best Buy, Gamestop, and Amazon. Depending on what you pick, here's what you get to go through:

Amazon: You preorder your game the same as you'd order anything else. You aren't charged anything until the day the game is released. The game shows up at your door the day it's released.

Gamestop: You go into a store and pay $5 down (or more if you like) at the counter to reserve the game. On release day, you go into the store and pay the difference. The cashier hands you the game from behind the counter.

Best Buy: You go into the Best Buy store and ask someone in the video games section to preorder the game. He prints you out a ticket. You go to the front counter and pay $5 (and only $5) to reserve the game. On release day, you go into the store and hand your ticket to someone in video games. He tells you to go to the returns counter. You go to the returns counter and they demand your driver's license, because you're technically returning your ticket for $5 towards the price of the game you reserved. You hand them your ticket and your driver's license and verify your address. If it's wrong, the cashier corrects it, but the correction does not stick. The cashier walks over to the video games section to get your game, then comes back with it after ten minutes and rings you up, after you once again verify your address, which may be entirely different.

Hands up if you can figure out why Amazon is winning at business.

So why preorder anywhere else? Well, with the advent of XBox Live and the Playstation Network, video game publishers have figured out that they can sell little add-on packs for five or ten or fifteen dollars a pop to the games they put out. The biggest sellers are things like map packs or song packs (extra content), but you also see novelty add-ons like different costumes, weapons and paint jobs.

And as add-ons became more popular, publishers also figured out that they could use add-on packs to encourage people to preorder games (which means more money faster). So now games have special exclusive add-on packs you can only get if you preorder the game.

Fair enough so far, but then some bright spark came up with the idea of making these add-ons exclusive to specific stores. So, for example, you can order Batman: Arkham City from Best Buy to unlock Robin as a playable character, or order from Gamestop to get the Joker's Carnival challenge map, or order from Amazon and get $10 off and an exclusive comic book. And a whole lot more weird stuff: Gamestop stores in the United Kingdom get a Batman: Beyond costume instead of the carnival map.

Now here's the rub: None of this stuff is likely to be available for individual download, certainly not at launch, maybe not ever. Effectively, you cannot play the whole game, not unless you want to buy the game repeatedly, or else buy the codes on eBay at a premium.

And that sucks for the customer. But it's not really unethical for the companies involved; and let's face it, Best Buy and Gamestop could use the help. So I hereby propose the Video Game Downloadable Content Resolution:


That in the interests of fair play, no downloadable content will remain exclusive to a platform or retailer for more than one month, excepting cases where copyrights or technical problems make this impossible,

And be it further resolved, that no downloadable content will be produced which makes it impossible for people who do not purchase said content to continue to play the game, I'm looking at you Mortal Kombat, you know what you did.

I think that this resolution will be agreeable to all parties, and will cut back on the amount of nerd rage involved in ordering a video game. Because I like the animated Batman and Batman Beyond and Robin, and I don't like having to choose. Or having to buy games at Best Buy.