Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Reader Net

I've decided that writing is like fishing. No, not that kind of fishing. Not the kind of fishing where you get up really early on Saturday morning and sit around in a boat all day long with your beer and your line dangling in the water. Although it can be like that. The kind of fishing where you just catch one fish at a time.

Most of my middle school writers do that kind of fishing, in fact. There's a few of them that write and share stories with each other all the time. The only problem is that they are the only ones that "get" the stories because they're full of all kinds secret language and stuff. Some of these get turned into me in the creative class, and I have to always say, "this is great but no one else will understand it." And I know, because a few of them have been read in class, and the students not in that group always respond with "I don't get it."

See, they are dangling their lines in the water in their secret fishing hole with their special bait and catching a few fish. One at a time. So, yeah, you can do that kind of fishing, but you'll never be able to do it as more than just a relaxing way to spend a Saturday in your boat if that's your route.

A real fisherman needs a net, and that's where it's like writing, because writing is like weaving a net to catch readers. But writers have to weave their own nets, which I kind of doubt that fishermen have to do anymore, although they did used to have to do it. And the smaller the fish you want to catch, the finer you have to weave your net. Stories have to be that way, too. Woven so as to catch readers.

And, well, size matters.

You have things like Harry Potter that end up being pretty finely woven and catch hordes and hordes of readers. And there are things like Twilight that also catch hordes of readers, a lot of the same kinds of readers, but it's not woven quite as tightly (because, hey, sparkly vampires?), so a lot of potential readers slip through. And, then, you have nets that are built for particular types of readers (like sci-fi or historical fiction or horror) and most everyone else slips through. [And I don't actually know to what degree or if fishing nets differ, but I suppose they must. I'm not looking it up, though.]

But my real point is this (and I've arrived at this mostly because of the discussion around Looper this week): Holes in your net are bad.

Fishermen spend a lot of time repairing their nets. They know having holes is bad. Too many holes, and the fish just swim right on through the net. When your livelihood depends upon catching the fish, you have to weave that net tight and make sure you take care of the holes. And this is the part that is liking writing, because anytime someone says "But why..." or "How come..." or "What...," you've made a hole in your net and some reader has slipped through. If there are enough holes, they pretty much all slip through.

I suppose that's why so many writers like to resort to "magic," and I don't mean actual magic, because anything can be used as "magic." For a long time it was computers. A lot of people are using nanotech as "magic" these days (there's even nano "magic" in Looper, although it's never mentioned in the movie (it was, however, in the writer's head)). If you can't use magic as "magic" because you're not writing fantasy, science as "magic" is the next best thing. At any rate, when a reader says, "But why...," the author can wave his hand and say "magic" and believe that closes the hole in the net. It doesn't always work that way, though, because, readers will only go for that so many times. Of course, different readers have different limits.

The best way to deal with those holes is to make your story as plausible as possible (not as possible as possible, although that's not bad, too, but  the story hinges on plausibility, not possibility) and make sure the details are there so that people never have those questions. Basically, if you have the question, someone else is going to have the question, so you better just go ahead and answer it (again, this is from listening to the writer/director of Looper who decided over and over again not bother with the 15 second answers to the questions that even he had (as he said, he didn't think it was worth spending the time to answer those things in the movie)). Never believe that the reader doesn't care or won't notice, because a lot of readers are out there looking for holes or are just good at finding them.

As for myself, I'm not out looking for holes, but I'm a pretty slippery fish, and I ask a lot of questions. All the time. It's in my nature to question, well, everything, so, if you have an unanswered question, there's a good chance I'm gonna find it. I do get that other people aren't quite like that as much, but there are other people out there like me. And worse than me. I mean, you think I'm bad, you should see my wife and the way she treats books and movies. I'm way more accepting of handwavium than she is.

All of that to say: Weave a strong net. Weave a fine net. Weave a large net.
Then throw it out in the water.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Going Neverwhere

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about commas and what they're for and what they're not for. It's a good post and one that's absolutely true. The fact that people are constantly starting sentences with a conjunction and, then, throwing a comma after it to show me that they are pausing after they say it drives me crazy. I don't care if you're saying, "So," and taking a breath; that comma doesn't go after it. For instance:
It is not:
"So, do you want a piece of pie or not?"
It is:
"So do you want a piece of pie or not?"
If you want to indicate the pause to the reader, use, "So... Do you want a piece of pie or not?"
The point being that the way we say this culturally, right now, is just that: it's the way we say it right now. Five years from now, we may not throw those pauses in all over the place while we speak, and I don't need you to show me how you're saying it. I just need you to convey the correct meaning.

Anyway... The post about the commas coupled with this more recent post about following the rules when you write serve as the backdrop to this review.

Neverwhere was the last book by Neil Gaiman that I hadn't read. I'm not sure why I hadn't read it; I just missed it somehow and, then, kept not getting around to it. But, finally, I did get around to it. It has displaced, surprisingly, The Graveyard Book as my favorite Gaiman novel. I say surprisingly because, at first, I was a bit confused by it. Not the story. I was confused by Gaiman's sudden inadequacy with the comma. They were all over the place and in places they didn't (and shouldn't) need to be. What the heck? None of Gaiman's other books have comma issues; why would this one?

Have you ever heard Neil Gaiman read one of his stories? Well, I have, and he has a particular cadence when he reads, when he's doing any public speaking (heck, for all I know, he always talks like that), and I realized by the time I had finished the prologue that the extra commas were there because Gaiman was, in fact, telling me how to breathe. Where to pause. When to go on. In effect, he was creating a particular atmosphere, a rhythm, that was just as if I was sitting here letting him read it to me. And it was awesome.

But, see, that's what you can do when you know what you're doing with the rules. It's knowing the rules and taking them and bending them to your purpose. Sure, probably more than half of the commas (actually, I'd bet more like 2/3 of the commas) don't belong. They're in places where they shouldn't be. But, then, you'd read too quickly and lose the atmosphere, the creepy, of the story. Gaiman wrote it to give you the effect of being underground, in tunnels, lost, confused. Of not knowing what's going on, whether your sane, or, even, if you are who you think you are.

I loved it.

And, now, I've flipped. I've gone from having his most recent novel as my favorite to having his first novel as my favorite. I don't think, either, that it's just because it's the one I've most recently read. I don't remember ever reading anything where the author paid so much attention to the atmosphere he was creating through his use of punctuation. Not that he necessarily did it on purpose, of that I have no idea, but he did do it.

And we haven't even started talking about the story yet. Which is great. Disconcerting. Full of interesting characters. The marquis. Croup. Vandemar. Things are rarely what they seem. Even when they are. "I've saved  his life four times today already." [Or something like that. I couldn't actually find the quote in what I felt was a reasonable amount of time.]

Best of all, though, it doesn't end the way you expect these kinds of stories to end. The way they usually end. And I would talk about that, but I don't want to talk about the ending, so I'm not going to. All I can say is that you should go read it. I'm fairly sure I'll have to read it again one of these days, and I really don't do that rereading thing, so that's saying quite a bit.

"...if this is all there is, then I don't want to be sane."

[If, by chance, you do want to listen to Neil read, you can go to here. I've only listen to the first two so far, but they're worth it. (The January one reminds me of something Briane Pagel would write.)]

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thrown for a Loop

I finally got around to seeing Looper. Hmm...
I'm not actually sure what I think about it. There are parts of it, like the acting, that are pretty great, although I'm not the big fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt that everyone seems to be. I'm just not seeing what the big deal is. Bruce Willis, on the other hand... Well, I like Bruce.

Time travel stories are... difficult. Star Trek is proof of that. I think two things play into it: 1. No one can agree on how time travel would actually work if it's possible. Or if it's possible. 2. Because of that, writers like to use it as a magic wand. It's one of those things I kind of hate in science fiction, when the writer uses some bit of science like it's magic just because no one knows how it works. If you want to write magic, go write fantasy.

Still, all in all, I don't think the time travel was handled too poorly in Looper other than the constant paradoxes that were never addressed. What I have a problem with is being lied to, and, in essence, the movie hinges on a lie, and that really bothers me.

Now, I don't have a problem with being deceived through sleight-of-hand and trickery. The Sixth Sense is so great because Shyamalan  never lied to the audience. He laid everything out there for us to see and allowed us not to see it. A couple of movies that are very similar except that one lies and one doesn't are The Prestige and The Illusionist (which I talk about for a bit here). The Illusionist achieves its climax by lying to the audience (through omission) all the way through, which is the only reason we are unable to piece the plot together. I really have no respect for that.

Now, if you haven't seen Looper, there will be spoilers.

The whole story of Looper hinges on  the belief by the audience that young Joe dies when he falls from the ladder. At that point, the movie jumps back as if that is the moment that causes the reset. When it starts over, we accept that we are seeing a different time line because of the presentation, and it's not true. It's not like in The Sixth Sense when Crowe gets shot. Afterward, the audience just assumes that Crowe didn't die even though Shyamalan tells us several times, "look, this guy's dead." We just can't see it. In Looper, the truth is never offered until the end, when the lie is revealed, and that's just a cheap way of doing it.

To make matters worse, the director or the writer or someone comes out and tells us that the movie isn't going to make any sense and not to think about it. Young Joe and Old Joe are sitting in a diner together, and Young Joe asks Old Joe about time travel, and Old Joe says, "I don't want to talk about time travel because, if we start talking about it, then, we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." Rough translation: "Don't think about it; just watch the movie. We can't explain it either." On the one hand, I'm glad they're honest about it. "Look, we just want to tell our story, so don't go trying to logic it, because it won't make any sense." [And it doesn't.] On the other hand, I'm kind of insulted. It says to me that they didn't want to bother with telling a story that makes sense, which devalues me as the audience. And, then, they lie to make it work.

The other thing that really bothers me is that the movie didn't happen, and I hate stories that didn't happen. I hate getting to the end and finding out that it was all a dream or a vision or a whatever. I mean, this was as bad as Next with Nicolas Cage. You get to the end and find out that, really, the movie ended right there when Young Joe kills Old Joe at the beginning of the movie. That's it. End of story. Everything else is just "closing the loop" and doesn't actually exist. I really felt cheated.

Even so, there are some good moments in the film. When Old Seth is trying to get to Young Seth and losing body parts all along the way... man, that's just freaky. It doesn't make any sense from a paradox perspective, but it's creepy enough that you don't care. The horror of that moment as his fingers start disappearing is gut wrenching. Also, I really liked Paul Dano as Young Seth.

There's a lot of humor, dark humor, in the fact that Old Joe keeps beating the crap out of his younger self. There's the urge to slap Young Joe for not listening to his older self, but, then, that's how all kids are, right?  And there's the fact that the good guys don't win. How could they? There are no good guys. But there aren't a lot of movies these days where the protagonist (hero or anti-hero) fails, and that's almost enough to make Looper worth watching all by itself.

If you're willing to just turn your brain off and watch and if you don't mind being lied to, Looper is definitely worth your time, just don't ever say, "But why...?"

Oh, also, a big part of why Looper works is the inherent belief of the audience (and that includes me) in the badassness of Bruce Willis. There is nothing in the movie to support Joe being any kind of badass. In fact, he's more of a loser, drug addict than anything else. However, because our image of Willis is that he's a badass, we don't question him single-handedly taking down a criminal organization even though there is nothing in the movie to support this.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Rules of Grammarization

[Let me point out that this post actually has nothing to do with "grammarization." I actually made up a word to go in that spot that was supposed to be a play off of another word, but, when I looked it up (just to be sure), it meant something... well, it meant something that has nothing to do with any of this. "Grammarization" was the best substitute I could think of, and, at least, it has to do with grammar.]

Some of you newer people may not know about the rep I've developed with grammar, especially commas. I'm like the comma police or something, or so people seem to think. But, you know, one thing is true: I do think rules are important, especially when it comes to grammar. How we speak and what we type say so much about us. And it may not be what we're trying to say. But people make decisions about the kind of person they think we are based upon our ability to communicate. It may not be fair, but that's how it is. [In fact, I just saw a survey, recently, showing that grammar is the #2 thing that people use to evaluate a potential partner (after teeth). At least, on paper it is.]  So I think it's especially important for writers to know the rules. [If you don't, learn them, or, at least, get someone that does (know them) to help you make your manuscript look like you do.]

But all of this gets kind of sticky. Why should we, any of us, follow the rules? Aren't they there to be broken? To be ignored? Aren't they all subjective anyway?
Not really, no.

I'm gonna bring Picasso back up (not for the last time). The reason he was able to "break the rules" of painting is that he had mastered them. He was possibly the greatest classical painter of his day, but painting the way everyone else painted didn't interest him, so he explored new territory. He broke the rules. It was only possible because he knew them so well.

What it comes down to is how on purpose your disregard for the rules is. So, on the one hand, when we write, it may be okay to break some rules here and there, but, when we're breaking those rules on accident because we don't know the rule or don't know how to apply the rule, it makes us look amateurish at best. Haphazard. Inconsistent. On the other hand, when it's purposeful, it suddenly becomes artistic and meaningful.

One of the things I see most often is long, run on, sentence fragments. Yeah, that sounds oxymoronic, but it is what it is. I see it both in the manuscripts of the middle schoolers I teach, which is to be expected, and from adults, which shouldn't be happening. But it's easy to get lost in a long thought and forget to include a sentence. Let's try to put together an example:
"When I got up for school, brushing my teeth and eating breakfast, though I dropped toothpaste on my shirt and didn't notice and missed the bus when I went to change."
See, that looks like a run on sentence except that there isn't a sentence anywhere in there, so what you have is a string of fragments. I expect to deal with this kind of stuff with my creative writing class, but it's more than a little distressing to see it all over the blogs of (supposed) writers.

And don't even start me on commas.

Look, I know a lot of the rules are arbitrary and some of them are even kind of stupid. For instance, I was just reading last week about how the rule about splitting infinitives came into being, and it was, really, more like an misinterpretation than anything else. Some guy (no, I don't remember his name) was translating some Latin, and he realized that in Latin they don't split infinitives, so, he thought, we shouldn't either. The thing is, though, in Latin, the verb is always one word due to the way they conjugate, so you can't actually split an infinitive. Prior to that, splitting an infinitive, "to boldly go," was perfectly normal in English and in all of the Germanic languages. But, suddenly, this one guy decides it's wrong, and we've had this rule, now, for a few hundred years that no one can follow. Is it, "boldly, to go" or "to go boldly"? The problem is that "boldly" only modifies "go" not "to go," so only "to boldly go" sounds right.

And, yeah, I hear you all screaming about why, then, should we follow grammar rules?

I'm not saying that you should. Necessarily. If you know the rules and know how to use the rules, do whatever you want to with them. If you're just busy writing "like you talk" or saying "well, that's just the character's voice" just so that you don't need to bother to know the rules, well, then, the likelihood is that your writing is busy being juvenile, inconsistent, and, well, unreadable. Except by other people who can't tell the difference. At least, not on a conscious level. Meaning, they can't look at your writing and tell you what's wrong with it, but they may be able to set it against someone else's writing and say the other one is better.

To put it another way, hordes of people might like Twilight, because they can't evaluate the grammar (or the story), but people that know the rules tear it apart. The fact that Stephen King ripped Twilight a new one while praising Harry Potter ought to tell you something.

Anyway... All of that to say you need to learn your rules and, probably, you ought to be following them. Actually, it's kind of like driving. If I'm gonna get in a car with someone that's gonna speed, I want it to be a Nascar driver or a cop or someone that's had training and knows how to do it safely. I don't want it to be my college roommate who's doing it just to see how fast he can get the car to go (going over 100 mph isn't as fun as it sounds). All I have to say is that a lot of you (meaning no one in particular) need to slow down, maybe take some driving classes, and follow the rules of the road.

Now the disclaimer:
This post is sort of a prelude to a book review I have coming up. I don't want to spend the book review talking about rules and such, so this will be here to refer back to instead.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Unexpected Applause: CassaFire

Instead of doing a cover reveal, today, for Alex Cavanaugh's new book, CassaStorm (due out this fall), I thought I'd review the second book in his trilogy seeing as how I just finished reading it. As it turns out that's going to be a bit harder than I thought it would be. Harder because I just didn't enjoy CassaFire

the way I did CassaStar (follow the link to the review).

The main reason is the time jump. I've decided that I just don't tend to like stories with huge leaps ahead in time. Like in The Dark Knight Rises. Of course, I realize that I was nearly alone in my lesser opinion of that movie, so maybe this is not a thing that bothers other people. However, it does bother me, and I had a difficult time reconciling myself to the fact that 'Fire was supposed to be nearly 20 years after 'Star. The character didn't seem any different. It was like he just stepped ahead 20 years into his future and was still wrestling with the same issues. At no point did I feel like I was reading about the cares and concerns of a 40-year-old man. He still felt like the same 20-year-old from the first book. If the story had been set, say, two years later, I don't think I would have had many of the issues that I did.

To make that issue worse, Byron seems to have not advanced in his career at all in the 20 year interim. We know that he planned to quit being a fighter pilot at the end of the first book, but, here, 20 years later, he's just flying a shuttle, and I had a hard time buying into that even if it was by choice. Again, I could see that after two years, but 20 years later was really stretching my suspension of disbelief.

There are some other issues with details about the world setting that niggled at me a lot, too, but I can't really go into most of those without the risk of giving things away, but I will say this one thing: Where are the rest of the Tgren people? They entire race seems to be totally existent within the one city of Ktren. A whole planet, but all of them live in this one city? Maybe, that's not how it is, but that is how it's presented, and it just... bothered me. In some respects, it reminded me of episodes of Star Trek or Stargate because of that, and that works in a 40 minute TV episode, but I kept waiting for some mention of the rest of the people and, other than the Bshen (who seem to be another race entirely), it never came.

In the end, I think I was looking for another 20,000 words or so to fill out the story some. I do realize that the focus of the story is Byron and his relationships, especially with the new woman in his life, and that was well done, but it felt too much as if it was being acted out upon a cardboard stage rather than a real 3-D environment.

That said, I may feel differently about this book once the next one comes out as it seems it is going to build on what was done in CassaFire. If, in retrospect, 'Fire serves as a good building block for what happens in 'Storm, I could end up with more positive feelings about it despite the sparseness of the background.

Oh, and I wouldn't be me if I didn't mention the editing. The editing in 'Fire wasn't quite as good as the editing in 'Star, and there were some repetitive errors that bugged me, which distracted me from the story. Some missing words here and there, repeated lines of text a couple of times, and misspellings. Mostly things that other people won't notice, since other people seem to have not noticed them, but there were enough this time around that it's worth noting. That said, in comparison to a lot of other things I've read, even novels published through big, traditional publishers (>cough< Snow Crash), it was pretty clean. [I mean, in Snow Crash, it was like he sneezed commas, and they just left them on the page wherever they landed.]

So, in the final analysis, I really like CassaStar. It's a good read, kind of a buddy space opera kind of book. It deals with the bonds of friendship and how important they can be. CassaFire is okay. If you really like 'Star, it's worth giving it a look, at least. It's a romance, and the romance is pretty well handled. There are themes of friendship, also, but, really, it's about the girl. Looking forward, CassaStorm has an intriguing plot and, just from the summary, a lot of world details that haven't been revealed before. I'm intrigued, so I will certainly go on to the next one. It's possible that 'Storm could make 'Fire completely worthwhile. I guess I'll find out this fall.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How To Win at Magic: Part 3: Playing the Deck (or "It's All in the Timing")

Okay, so you've collected your cards, and you've built your deck, now you need to play the game. Now, it's time to win! Right? Right! That's what this is all about.

There are two basic schools of thought about winning at Magic:
1. It's the deck.
2. It's the player.
As with most extreme positions, it's a combination of the two. The best player in the world can't win with a crappy deck, and the best deck in the world isn't going to help a crappy player. But, since we've dealt with the deck building (on a very superficial level), let's deal with the crappy player. Um, I mean, let's deal with playing the game.

There are, of course, too many different deck types and styles to go into any specific detail about how to win with any particular deck, but there is one general reason why people lose with even the best decks possible. That reason is bad timing. Yeah, playing Magic is more than a little like being good at telling jokes. Jokes are all about the timing, too. But, then, so are books.

Here, let me give you an example:
There is this card:
Before this card was removed from the game, it was the most common first turn spell in the game. I'm just gonna say that there is no reason to throw a "Lightning Bolt" on the first turn of the game. That's what's called bad timing. Despite its appearance, the bolt is a very versatile card, and using it on the first turn is a waste of something that could turn out to be more useful later on.

In similar fashion, players of blue tend to be very prone to using
at their first opportunity. I don't know about you, but the first spell I play is never my best card, so you wasting a "Counterspell" on it only helps me out. What I really used to love watching in tournaments is when someone would throw a "Lightning Bolt" on his first turn, and the other player would counter it. The most amusing thing about that was that one of those players was still gonna win.

So I want to jump back to my "Mr. Suitcase" example from the last post. Specifically, I want to talk about Mr. SouthLA. He waltzed into the store sometime during the summer of '94, literally, with a briefcase full of the top cards. I'm talking, like, 20 or "Black Lotuses" and everything else that implies. He had just moved up from south Louisiana to open a law office. No, I don't actually have any idea whether he was a good lawyer or not, but I will say I would never have hired him based on his Magic skills. Or lack thereof. See, he thought that merely the fact that he owned all of these cards that rest of us could only salivate over (it actually took me a really long time to build my complete collection of Beta/Unlimited and Arabian Nights (because we never got those sets in Shreveport, and it didn't take long before they were impossible to order) made him the best player in the city.

Oh, how wrong he was.

See, he had a timing problem, and, although he could build decks that only the rest of us could dream about, he didn't know how to play them. He never really got it, either. The fact that he had all of  these amazing cards often allowed him to play through his whole hand, or pretty close to it, on his first turn. The problem was that, once he'd done that, he had nothing left to play, and everyone knew it. There was no reason to wonder what he might have in his hand or anything, because we all knew he had nothing.

Of course, he started complaining that it was the fault of his deck. So he and I did a little experiment. We switched decks. Let me make it clear, here, that my decks were mostly composed of common cards. There were a few rares here and there but, mostly, commons, and I would just beat the stuffing out of him, and he couldn't understand why. I mean, his cards were better, right? That must mean his deck was better, too? Okay, his deck was pretty good. Anyway, we switched decks, and I proceeded to kick the snot of him with his deck. Which made him mad, so we switched back. And I knocked the stuffing out of him. I'm sure you get the idea.

The point is that winning at Magic is not all in the deck. It's also in the playing of the deck. The biggest issue most people have with being effective players is patience. You can't just play through everything in your hand as you draw it. There's lots of waiting and knowing when to use specific cards.

Which is a lot like writing. It doesn't matter how good your story idea is if you don't know how to plot it out. You can't just throw everything at your reader at once and expect people to want to keep going.

A while back, I read this particular paranormal mystery book, because, for some reason, people love the series, and I figured I may as well see what was up with it. Did I say it was a mystery? Well, that's what it said, anyway. So I was reading this nearly 300 page long book, and I hit about page 85, and, bam!, there's the killer revealed right there. But I'm thinking "no way" because I'm only on page 85, and there's no way she'd just lay it right out there for us and in front of her protagonist, too. So I kept reading, and it was increasingly apparent that I'd pinpointed the killer, but I kept thinking "no way" because it couldn't be that easy, right? There must be some kind of twist that I couldn't see coming! These books were popular, so it just could not be that easy. Her protagonist could not be that dumb, right? Well, it was that easy, and her protagonist was that dumb, and I never read another one of those books. And I'm still not sure how, after reading that first book, anyone would ever continue on to read a second one. At nay rate, the author cast her "Lightning Bolt" on the first turn and, then, continued to play through everything in her hand in the same way until she had nothing left to play but 200 pages left to write. It's the holding back that keeps the readers reading, not the giving away.

Like telling a good joke, timing is everything. In Magic and in writing. Seriously, I always loved when my opponent would go first and hit me with a "Lightning Bolt" on his first turn, then, on my first turn, I'd drop a
and a
And, yet, the same people would do that same kind of thing over and over, because they could not resist playing the card just because they could play the card. That's seldom a good reason for doing anything.

Here's the thing, people don't fear an empty hand. Because I was known for holding back, for always having something ready, I was able to win games even when I had a big hand full of nothing. They'd hold back in fear of what they were scared was in my hand; all it took from me was, "Are you sure you want to do that?" That's the same kind of feeling you want your readers to have. You want them to have that tension over what might be coming, even if what's coming isn't really that bad. It's the tension that keeps the reader going, and it's the release of tension, the relief or the horror, that gives the reader enjoyment.

Contrary to the evidence I've given (with the Kird Ape deck), my favorite types of decks were the ones that were slow builds and allowed me to control the game.  As a writer, I want to control the game in the same way. Keep the player going just enough to allow them to think he had a chance and, then, slam! killing blow! I mean, keep the reader going... yeah, that's what I meant.

And some cards:
The deck I built around this card was so powerful that people forfeited to me (in tournaments) rather than play against it. I even won one because my final opponent refused to play against the deck. It was another of those decks that I made because the card was considered useless, and it's one of my favorite decks ever. I was actually banned from playing it, because so many people refused to play against it.
Land destruction was always one of my favorite deck types.
As were decks designed to do away with my opponent's library.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Something funny happened on the way to the forum...

Okay, well, I was going to say it wasn't actually a forum, but, technically, it is. Well, it's supposed to be, because the definition of forum includes "place for open discussion" (stress is mine), but this was clearly not such a place. It was just supposed to be.
And what happened definitely wasn't funny. Except, well, it kind of is; it just also made me really angry. Who says there's not humor in anger?

Let me explain. All back story is so that you will understand the surrealism of the actual event.

Several months ago, I was invited to join an authors' group on facebook. Against my will. Let me re-phrase that: I was added to an authors' group after I told the person that added me that I did not want him to. The group was the Author's Think Tank. I didn't want to be added, because he just wanted me in there so that he could flame me as he had already done in that forum once before and on his page once before and who knows where else. All of this was over a bad review. This incident where he added me was many, many weeks after the initial review, but I had posted about reviews, and, for whatever reason, he took my post about my view on reviews as a personal attack and added me to the authors' group so that I could see the "discussion" that was going on about reviews.

Mostly, that discussion included a lot of people calling me names, the most popular of which was "douche bag," because only a douche bag would leave someone a bad review. Or something like that. [If you want to go back and read the posts about reviews, they are here and here.] I want to point out that at no time during this thread of calling me names did anyone ever say anything about it. No said that the Think Tank was not a place for being negative; no told anyone to stop behaving in the manner they were behaving; no one took the thread down. It was, you know, "all good." And, honestly, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have mine regarding the leaving of reviews, and that's that being honest about the review is the way to go. [But, then, really, if you want to know more, you should go back and read those two posts.]

Just to be clear, I did not get involved in that "discussion." In fact, I didn't say anything at all in there for a couple of weeks. I almost removed myself from the group, but I didn't. I mean, it was a group of 500 other authors, so I figured it might be worthwhile to stay. It really wasn't, not for me. Mostly, it was a bunch of people asking things like, "What's the difference between 'lay' and 'lie'? I can't figure it out," and watching people argue over it and coming to no conclusion. That's why you look things up.

Needless to say, I didn't say a whole lot in the group other than, occasionally, answering someone's question about something or pointing them at a source if no one else had responded. That and posting links to what I felt were applicable blog posts and links for when my Shadow Spinner pieces were available. In that sense, I did get a benefit from being in the group, because I know there were some people downloading my pieces.

All of that changed last week when I was unceremoniously kicked out of the group. Not just kicked out but not even notified. I just hopped onto facebook, and the link to the group was missing from my groups. I thought it was a facebook problem. At first. But, wait! Let's go back...

Here's what happened:
Someone posted something about how Stephanie Meyer had written Twilight with a screaming toddler in her lap while watching Barney, so, maybe, that was the way to go, because look at how awesome Twilight is. [I'm paraphrasing, but that is the gist of what she posted.]

I couldn't resist, so I responded with, "I don't know. I think Twilight screams Barney."
1. It was a joke.
2. I haven't read Twilight (and I don't intend to), so it was just a joke.
3. People thought it was funny and said things like, "I like Twilight, but I thought the Barney comment was funny."
4. I stated after several other comments that the comment had been meant just to be funny.

But here's where the problem started, I guess:
Some other guy stated that he didn't like Twilight and gave legitimate reasons as to why he does not.
[I want to add that this is what it means to be a forum: having an open discussion about something.]
A can of worms ensued and there was a huge back and forth between this guy and, well, I lost count, a lot of women about the merits of Twilight. Evidently, he was a bad person for saying he didn't like Twilight.

He and I were kicked out of the group for being "negative," and the thread was taken down. Neither of us was informed of what was going on. In fact, as I said, I thought there was some problem with facebook for about half a day, then I asked in another group that has some overlapping members if anyone knew what was wrong with the Think Tank. It was fine for everyone else, and that's when I started asking around about what was going on.

Finally, there was an admission that I had been kicked out of the group, but the admins wouldn't say why. And, then, finally, someone who is friends with one of the admins was able to find out that it was because I was being "negative" and that <other guy> had also been kicked out for the same reason. So much for the idea of an open forum. Instead, what we have is a group of Meyer fascists where it's okay to call someone that's basically in the room lots of degrading and mean names, but it's not okay to say, "I don't like Twilight."

I find the whole thing just wrong. The whole situation makes me angry, because it is just wrong. It's screwed up. And the thing that angers me most is that everyone else was just okay with it. Not that it was advertised, but there was a thread brought up about it in the group as one person was trying to find out what happened. The response was definitely a "ah, well, tough luck for you" response. If I had been in the group and this had happened to someone else, I would have raised all kinds of hell over it and probably been kicked out to. BECAUSE IT'S WRONG BEHAVIOR. If one of my kids had behaved like this, there would be consequences and forced apologies, long discussions and reparations. Seriously, I'm not entitled to my own opinion? (Although it's perfectly okay for me to call someone IN THE GROUP a douche bag.)

And, as Bryan from A Beer for the Shower said to me about all of this, "If they can't take someone not liking their favorite book, imagine how they'll take it when they get a bad review for one of their own works." [paraphrase] No kidding.

Which brings us to our two hands:
On the one hand, I'm not upset about not being in a group that's run like this. If I had known, I wouldn't have participated in their little Meyercult to begin with. I would have left all on my own if this had happened to someone else and nothing was done about it.
On the other hand, it cuts off an avenue I had been using to promote my work, especially my Shadow Spinner serialization. Probably, it won't have any discernible impact, but I won't really know for a while. That part kind of sucks.

But the main thing about all of this is that the behavior is too indicative of a screwed up cultural mind set we have right now. A mind set that says it's not okay to express any opinion that says "I don't like that" or "That's not good." A mind set that says that is okay to actually be mean to someone that says something isn't good, but that's the only time it's okay to be "negative," because, for some screwed up reason, that's not being negative. And I'm not saying we should go out of our way to leave bad reviews or anything, but I do believe we shouldn't say something is great or awesome or whatever if it's not true, and I do think it ought to be okay to say "I don't like that" if we don't, especially if we actually have reasons for why we don't like it. And <other guy> had solid reasons why he doesn't like Twilight.

So that's my rant. I see the funny in it, but I'm too busy being outraged to laugh.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Softball and Food

It's softball season again. For my daughter, that is. Well, for all of us by extension. The fact that she had her first practice this past Saturday was all she talked about last week. About the fact that it was coming up, not that she'd been to her future practice and was talking about it, although that would have been pretty cool, because, then, she could have gone to practice twice, and she would have loved that. Practices this year are at the most inconvenient times possible for us, which has meant, for starters, rearranging her accordion lessons.

Practice is also much more organized this year due to her leveling up. Or, maybe, it's upgrades? No, I'm sure it's "Level Up!" She's a "10 and under" this year instead of an "8 and under." Her team name, though, took a hit, and she's gone from being one of the "Dragonflies" to being one of the "Ducks." I don't know about you, but I can't, in my head, associate ducks with softball. It's probably because of those movies, but I just can't do it. Although... maybe there was a Donald Duck cartoon with him playing softball? I can't remember. Maybe, I'm just thinking about the wrong kinds of ducks...

Like I said, her first practice was this past Saturday. I wasn't there for the whole thing (because I had to make a coffee run (9am softball practice requires coffee for adults (just sayin'))), but, from what I saw, she's easily one of the best (if not the best) catchers on  the team. Keep in mind that she hasn't picked up a softball since a few weeks after the season ended last year. That's, probably, my bad. I intended to facilitate her keeping up with her skillz during the off season, but, man, it's tough to hold that in my head with all the other stuff that's in my head, especially when it's not something that's happening RIGHT NOW, like it is now.

Opening day is about a month away. I don't watch sports, but I am looking forward to her games starting back up. I'm sure there will be progress reports.

The kids are also out of school this week. Well, two of them are. It's just their school, though, so this week promises to be one of ambivalence for me. On the one hand, I don't have to the school routine for the younger two, but I will still have to be up at 5:30am for the oldest one two of those days, because he does have school. And, since it's just their school, all of my daughter's neighborhood friends will be at school, so she'll have no one to play with, which means she'll be in the house all day bugging me or fighting with her brother neither of which is happy making for the writing. Or anything else. But, you know, no school routine. If I quit posting after this week, you'll know it's because my head exploded.

In other news, today is "Part Fifteen: Food of the Garden"!
Tib gets hungry, and he's in a garden! But, well, there are... issues.
It's FREE! today, Monday, February 18 and tomorrow, Tuesday, February 19 for the Kindle or Kindle App. Make sure you stop by and pick up your copy. I'd say to click the little "like" button, but those seem to have gone missing from Amazon; I'm wondering if it has to do with the lawsuit against facebook over their "like" buttons, but I haven't seen anything about it anywhere.

Also, FREE! on Monday:
"Part Fourteen: Anger and Laughter"
"Part Thirteen: The Clearing"
"Part Twelve: The Gash in the Floor"
"Part Eight: The Cold and the Dark"
"Part Seven: The Moth and the Shadow"
"Part Six: The Man with No Eyes"
"Part Two: The Kitchen Table"
"Part One: The Tunnel"
"The Evil That Men Do"

Charter Shorts

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How To Win at Magic: Part 2b: Collecting the Deck

As I mentioned, when we first started playing Magic, we didn't have a lot of cards. My one friend brought back, basically, a handful of cards from his trip to California, and we all ooh'd and ah'd over them, mostly for the art. We didn't even really know for sure how to play, because he didn't have a rule book, and he didn't even have enough cards to make more than one semi-serviceable deck. The first order for cards that we made was slightly conservative, because we hadn't played yet and didn't know what it would be like. When we got that first order, many of us (me) didn't even get enough basic land cards to be able to choose what color we were going to play. We had to play based on the land we had. You can't make a blue deck if you only have 4 islands, you know? Sure you do.

In some ways, those early games were the most fun. We had a limited card pool to draw on, everything was new and exciting, and there was a lot of sharing of ideas and card trading and all sorts of things so that people could try to get enough of whatever color they wanted to play in order to make a deck.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, from the point of view of walking into a tournament, those decks sucked. Hard. It didn't really matter to us, though, because we were having fun, and, in all actuality, we were learning to really play the game because we had limited tools to play with and had to be innovative. In short, it was a good learning environment. And, well, tournaments weren't really a thing yet, anyway.

But we, all of us, continued playing and increasing the number of cards we had little by little. We increased our tools and we increased our skills and we got more competitive with what we were doing, which only lead to more card buying. There were two schools of thought about this ought to work:
1. You buy packs and you play with what you get. Trading with other players is okay, too.
2. You go out and buy the cards you want on an individual basis. You pay more per card, but you're assured of getting the care you want rather than buying 10, 20, or 50 packs without getting that one card you need.

I was (and am) more of type 1. I really don't like buying cards individually and would much rather buy packs to get the cards that I want. I ended with, well, everything I needed that way. Most of the time. That's how I built almost all of my collected sets.
We had a guy in our group, though, that was a type 2, and he started special ordering all sorts of individual cards through the mail. It wasn't very happy making for a lot of people in the group. Several of them (one of them being my cousin) really gave him a hard time about it.

There became a nickname for that kind of behavior: Mr. Suitcase. That was the general term given to anyone that bought up all the "most powerful" cards and carried them around with them. We had one of those guys at the comic shop. He'd come up from south Louisiana with a briefcase full of the "power 9" and other top cards. The thought, by a lot of these people, was that owning those cards and putting them in your deck insured that you would win. We'll talk more about that later.

But it was true... to an extent. Having better cards, increasing the tools you had at your disposal, allowed you to build a better deck. The more cards you have, the more options you have. The more options you have, the better your deck can be. Having a better deck is the first step to winning at Magic. I mean, before you can play, you have to build the deck, so building the best deck you can is the first step on that journey. I've known a lot of good players that couldn't build a deck that was worth spit, whether they had the cards for it or not.

Anyway, what I found kind of interesting about the whole "Mr. Suitcase" thing is that it was only applied to people that cherry picked their cards. I would have many more cards and, actually, sort of needed a suitcase for mine, because I'd buy boxes of cards all at once, but, since I was relying on the "luck of the draw," it was okay that I had that many cards. It always seemed a distinction without a difference to me, but, you know, oh well. I wasn't derided for it like Mr. South-Louisiana or the guy in my gaming group.

All of that aside, if you did tournament play, there would come a time when you ended up having to buy a card or two to make a deck ready for a tournament. Here is the very first card I bought all by itself:
It was another card I was known for. The limit for any individual card in a deck (other than basic land) is, generally, four, and I only had three of these guys and wanted a fourth for a big tournament and couldn't find anyone willing to trade one. I'd been making hard trades for the three I had, so, really, there just wasn't anyone left that had extras they wanted to trade, so I broke down and bought my fourth one. I won that tournament, too. Ironically, a few weeks later, after I'd gone to all of that effort to get four "Forks," the card became "restricted." A restricted card was limited to only one in a tournament deck. I still have those four Forks, though.

Writing is a lot like this process of collecting cards. You start out with a very limited tool set as a kid. As you grow, you add to your collection which allows for greater innovation in your writing. You can do more. There are two ways to increase the size of your writing tool kit:
1. Writing
2. Reading
I suggest both.

To be a good writer, you need to increase the size of your collection. That's all there is to it. You're not ever going to have anything worth reading (to a larger audience), if you don't go beyond, "See Spot run." That's a very limited collection, and you can forget making it in a tournament with a deck like that. If you see what I mean.

Here are a few other cards that were highly sought after in the early days:
This used to be the second highest priced card in Magic and certainly had a time when it was the most sought after. I think it's fallen a bit, but it's still in the top 10, I'm sure with prices in the $1000.00 range.
I always preferred this one, though. Better art and could go in any deck.
Speaking of going in any deck, the Sol Ring was a must. It was restricted, of course.
This was another card that was common in every deck. At the time, it was the most sought after card from  the Arabian Nights expansion. It's dropped to second place, these days, though, and is only worth $250.
The Nightmare... just because I like the art.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So You Wrote a Book...(an Indie Life post)

This post is a part of Indie Life. You can find out more about it here.
Well, I don't know if you wrote a book or if you're still working on it or, maybe, you're not working on one at all and just like to stop by and read my stuff. Whatever the case, today's post is related to what it's like to be an independently published author, because that's what Indie Life is about.

Writing is hard. Wait, no, writing is easy. Writing a book is hard. Up to the point in my life when I wrote my first book, it was the hardest thing I had done. I think I thought it would get easier after that, but, no, all the stuff you have to do with your book once you finish writing it is much more difficult than actually writing the book. Which is hard; I mentioned that, right? Most of that other stuff would fall under the heading of "marketing." Let's call it what it is: selling. Selling your book is much more difficult than writing it. Well, for most of us writer people, at any rate. Let's face it, selling takes a certain amount of extrovertedness, and most of us writers don't fall into that category, so trying to convince someone else to read the book you just wrote isn't the easiest thing (for us) to do. That's why we need those people that are good at that stuff, except, when you're doing this stuff on your own, you don't have access to those people. Generally speaking.

Not that those people necessarily do that great a job, because knowing what's going to be appealing to other people is a lot of guess work, so there's a lot of variability in it. But, hey, at least it wouldn't be me doing it (which is why it's my (not so) secret dream to be able to hire someone else to do the marketing of my novels and stories and tall tales). But all of that is kind of beside the point.

The point is this:
There are tons of ways to go about bringing attention to your work. There are people that will tell you two dozen "best" ways to do it. You have to be here. You have to go there. You have to be on this. Or on that. Or drinking a soda while standing on your head. Or walking around with an egg clenched in your butt cheeks. Hm, well, maybe that last one would work. Heck, I'd at least look into what kind of stuff you write if you used an egg like that as a marketing tool. The point is that everyone, EVERYONE, will tell you something different.

And, so, how do you choose?

You don't. You want to know why? I mean, do you really want to know why? You're not a marketer. Not a seller. That's not your job.

Oh, yeah, okay, I hear you. "But how will anyone ever know about my book if I don't get out there and sell it?" And I hear, "Well, you have a blog!" And I hear all sorts of other things most of them starting with "But!" So, yeah, I'm not saying to do nothing; I'm just saying that you shouldn't let the selling of your book become THE priority of your life. Especially if all you have is just the one book.
It's not your job.

Did you become a writer just so you'd get the chance to do some marketing? No, I didn't think so. [And, if you did, you can come market my book for me and skip all of that writing stuff. See what I mean?] You became a writer because you wanted to write, and that's what you need to be doing. Primarily.

Let's take a peek at the numbers. I wrote my first draft of The House on the Corner in about six months. That was 125,000 words. Yeah, it's a longish book. I spent another six months working on it after that and cutting the word count to all of 120,000 words. In the two years since then, the two years I've been blogging, I've only done a little over 100,000 words of fiction writing. See, the blogging takes a considerable amount of time and a lot of my words. Granted, I've written way more in total considering that I have something around 300,000 words of blog entries, but, still, the marketing has taken away from the writing.

Which is not to say that it's not necessary, because some amount of putting yourself out there for people to find (beyond just sticking your work on Amazon) is absolutely necessary. However, the best way to market your work, and the way that no one in marketing is likely to tell you about, is to go and write another book. Seriously. The greater your body of work, the more seriously readers will take you as a writer and the more likely they are to buy your books. So, as it turns out, your best marketing tool is to do the thing you want to do anyway: write.

So... what are you waiting for? Go write! Do it! Now!
Oh, but, um, first, go read my book! Trust me, you want to. Because that's the kind of seller I am. Now, excuse me. I have some writing I need to go do.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Tucker, Dale, and Evil

I just want to make it clear that I am NOT a horror movie fan. At all. They don't do anything for me. Probably, it's the lack of any real story in them, because, really, what kind of story do you need for a guy to go around killing people in the most gruesome ways possible? And, then, there's the gore, which is not something I need in my life. I mean, I went to see Punisher: Warzone (at the theater!), and that may have scarred me for life. Of course, that may as well have been a horror movie considering the lack of story and the excessive gore. I can count on one hand the number of horror movies that I've seen and thought they were pretty good: Halloween (the very first one, which I saw when I was a kid (I'm pretty sure it was an edited for TV version) over at a friend's house) and April Fool's Day (which I didn't want to watch, but I was kind of stuck at a party, so it was either watch the movie or go sit in a room by myself), which is worth it  for the ending. Okay, so that didn't even take a hand.

That being said, I love Alan Tudyk. Even before Firefly, I thought he was awesome as Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball, and that's where I recognized him from when we finally watched Firefly. Besides, how can you not love a guy that was in Spamalot? As Lancelot, no less, the Cleese character in Holy Grail (or one of them, anyway). So I was really torn when I saw he was in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, but what a great title, right?

I'm glad I finally broke down and watched it. Yeah, yeah, it has plenty of gore, but it's not exactly the mindless gore of your typical horror/gorefest movie. I mean, in Tucker and Dale, you're busy being shocked or trying not to laugh while it's going on. Like when [spoiler] the "stupid college kid" throws himself into the wood chipper. Trying to laugh, or not to laugh, while being horrified is maybe not as easy as it sounds.

Alan Tudyk is, of course, awesome, but so is Tyler Labine as Dale. They have a great buddy chemistry going, but, really, the success of the film is rooted Labine's performance as the best friend and the romantic lead as he chases after Katrina Bowden (from 30 Rock) as Allison, who is also quite good. Jesse Moss pulls off the preppy jerk and could have walked right out of any number of 80's flicks.

The true genius of the film is that it takes the idea of a "comedy of errors" and mixes it up flawlessly with the horror genre. It makes me wonder why no one else has ever done this. Or maybe they have, and I just never heard of it, but I'm more inclined to think this kind of thing hasn't been done before. All of the classic horror movie pieces are there: group of college kids going off into the woods, spooky warning from a creepy cop about how "you shouldn't go there," and a "ghost" story as a backdrop. Really, I was all set up for the typical horror movie and wasn't actually sure I'd watch the whole thing, even with Tudyk in it.

But you can tell there's something else going on from the beginning, you're just not quite sure what it is. Tudyk and Labine are saying "buddy comedy," and the group of college kids are screaming "the horror! the horror!" What you get... well, if you can take the gore, it's definitely worth the watch.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Deliberate vs...: A Post About Thinking (Part Four)

Thinking, and thinking about thinking, has long been a subject of fascination for me. Keeping this series to just four parts was actually pretty difficult, because there's just so much more I could have said. Nothing that would really matter, though, if you understand what I was saying in part three. For the most part, nothing I say here is going to change anyone's mind. About anything. Not that I'm actually trying to change anyone's mind. The point is just to think. To evoke thought.

That's been something I've tried to do all along on this blog, though, not just in this series of posts. Thinking is important. Stopping to think about things is important. Being deliberate in your thought processes is important. And most people... well, most people just don't ever bother to stop and do it. At all.

Most people just spend their lives reacting. Like B. F. Skinner's pigeons. Stimulus. Response. Stimulus. Response. But here's the thing: That's it for the pigeons. The pigeon can not stop and think, "Hey, why am I pecking this button? Why am I spinning in a circle three times and walking up this ramp and pecking this button?" It does what it's been trained to do. People, though, do have the ability to stop and think. They can look at their actions and say, "Why am I doing this?" They just don't. People don't stop to think. [And, if you read part one of this series, you will know that we, as a culture, don't like people to stop and think. We want them to "take charge!" "be decisive!" "take control of the situation!"] That, to me, is the sad thing. People do not stop to think. And, mostly, they don't want to.

Businesses count on it, in fact. So do politicians. Get people to react. Stimulate us and get us to give them the response they want. Appeal to us on an emotional level, because (at least) 80% of us won't bother to consider anything; we'll just react. That's why we, as a culture, buy so much crap. Emotionally, we believe we need it. We don't have any idea of want; we believe we need it. It's emotional.

As I mentioned, it is possibly possible that thinking can be taught. Maybe. I had classes on thinking when I was in 5th and 6th grades, or, I mean, we covered it in class, but, then, I didn't have the normal schooling experience. This is really part of the nature vs nurture debate about whether we can be taught or teach ourselves to think. I think we can. If we stop long enough to do it. If we care enough about doing that. We don't have to be simply a reactionary culture. Not that I think we'll change. Because I don't think that, and I don't think that because we do not believe in it emotionally. If we did, we would already be doing it.

However, there is hope that we could, at some point, have it in the future. Have children or grandchildren that stop to think. It will mean big changes to the education system, changes I don't think we're ready to make yet, but maybe we'll be ready to make them one day. It's just so much harder to teach kids to think and to keep thinking than it is to teach them to just accept the answers that they've been given. Right now, our system actively teaches kids not to think. We're not willing to invest the resources into anything else. But maybe one day...

I hope that one day we are ready to be a people, not just us here in the Western World (where I am) but an entire people, a Race, that is willing to put down its guns and prejudices and its -isms and be a people that think. A people that dream. A people that will look at the data and be willing to see the truth about any given situation. A people willing to put aside individual wants and desires for the sake of the overriding good of the people. A planet where we really do view all humankind as created equal.

But we're not there yet.

Right now, we're too invested in being "right." Even when we are totally and completely wrong. Like my dad (from the story in part 3 of this series). We're a culture about taking sides instead of coming together. You're not like me, so I don't want you near me. You crack your egg on the big end, so you need to be dropped in the river. See, these things are not new. But... but...

IF! we ever stopped to think about it, stopped to look at the data, stopped to see that people really are pretty much the same with only a few variations... yeah, probably wishful thinking, but, still, I like to have those thoughts, because the way we draw lines just makes me sad. But, really, I digress.

The point is that we are a people capable of thought. We are capable of thought. We are capable of thought. And thinking. And deciding. And weighing. And measuring. And listening. And understanding. Of sympathizing... and empathizing. What are you going to think about today?

[News blurb:
I have an interview going on today over at Melissa Lemon's place. Stop by and check it out.]

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How To Win at Magic: Part 2a: Building the Deck

As I mentioned last time, the first thing you need to be able to win at Magic is Magic, but I guess that's really kind of obvious. Still, I felt like the point needed to be made. Basically, in a lot of ways, anything has the potential to be "the next big thing." Richard Garfield only developed Magic because he was trying to sell some other game. Rowling was just trying to make ends meet when she wrote Harry Potter. George Lucas thought Star Wars was going to be a flop because sci-fi had been out of fashion for over a decade and no one cared. Still, they all had a vision for what they wanted to achieve with their separate projects and worked to make those visions as close to reality as possible.

But, now that we have Magic, what do we do with it? [I suppose, really, some explanation as to what Magic is and how it works is probably in order, but that would be a whole other blog post and I still couldn't get all of it in, so I'm not doing that. Let's just say it's a card game (a CCG (collectible card game), as they used to be called; the first CCG, in fact) and leave it at that. If you want to know more about how it works, you can look it up.]

Building a Magic deck is a lot like writing. No, really, it is. Sure, it's nothing like writing in that there is no actual writing involved, but there is that level of construction that is very similar. You could say that the cards are like words and the colors like genres. So let's get some basics down. There are five colors of magic in Magic that each use a specific (basic) land type:

  • white/plains -- life magic
  • blue/islands -- mind magic
  • black/swamps -- death magic
  • red/mountains -- chaos magic
  • green/forests -- nature magic
There are also some forms of colorless magic such as artifacts (machines) and some other stuff that was introduced after I mostly quit playing. At any rate, before you can build a deck (write a story), you have to decide what kind of deck (genre) you're going to build. Yes, you can mix colors (blend genres).

The basic building block of any deck is your land. You have to have land; it's where the power for your spells comes from, and you have to have the right mix of it to not get stuck not drawing any or drawing too much. This is rather like word balance in your story. There are some words that you just have to use, but you don't want to use the same words so much that your readers get tired of seeing it. For instance, don't start every paragraph with your characters name; that's like having too much land. The balance of your land mix is one of the most vital parts of making a deck.

Actually, this whole land mix, achieving the proper balance, could be analogous to any number of things in writing, so we'll just look at it as having your writing balanced properly for whatever it is you're doing.

I used to do a lot of helping people build decks, and the most prevalent issue was not enough land. There was this one kid that couldn't ever win a game, and I mean never, so he brought his deck to me for help (a black deck). For one thing, he played with about 80 cards (sometimes more), which was too many (but more on that in a moment), but he only had about 15 lands(swamps) in his deck. Land concentration is dependent upon the type of deck you're building, but, as an easy way of dealing with it, let's just say 1/3 of your deck needs to be land. He was playing with less that 20% land, so it was not surprising that he couldn't get any land into play and always lost. I upped his land count to about 22 and dropped his deck size to about 62, and, guess what, he won some games. However, the next time he came in, he brought his deck to me again and told me that it had "quit working" and wondered what had happened. Had he done anything to it? Only added in a few cards. So I took a look at it, and it was close to 100 cards, and he hadn't added any more land to it, so he was, basically, back down to that 20% land mix he'd had before. He was so stuck on using particular cards (devices) in his deck (writing) that he couldn't make it work. (I think this is not an uncommon problem for writers.)

Jumping back to deck size... the minimum deck size is 60 cards (except in some variations), and, generally speaking, you want to stick to something around that size. Your deck should be designed with a purpose, a selection of a few cards or card types that the deck works around with other cards to support that theme (you can think of those as your cast of characters, if you want). When you get too many cards in the deck, you can't depend upon getting to the cards you need quickly enough for the deck to do its job. There are, of course, exceptions in increasing deck size as long as what you're adding is still working toward your purpose and you continue to keep the deck balanced as you do it.

But let's say you want to break some rules. You're a writer, right? Who needs to follow rules? Oh, wait, no, we're playing Magic, so let's break some rules. One of the guys I worked with and I were discussing unique deck constructions one day, and I suggested making a landless deck. I bet even those of you that have never played Magic are thinking, "What?!?" at this point. Let me clarify: non-basic lands were okay, but many of those only give colorless power (mana), so it was going to be a stretch. So we talked it out, what specific cards would be needed, non-land sources of mana, cards that didn't require mana, that sort of thing. I helped him get a few of the cards that he needed, and he built the deck, and we tested it. He played it in the next tournament, and it was worth it for the shock value alone. People couldn't believe he had a landless deck. It was great even if he didn't win with it. Admittedly, it was a difficult deck to play, but it was a lot of fun because it was something different. So, yeah, sometimes, it's good to break with the conventions.

To recap, here are the steps to building a winning Magic deck:
1. Decide on your colors. (Choose a genre.)
2. Choose your theme. (This is like a plot.)
3. Balance!
4. Don't put in too many cards. (It clutters your plot and throws the balance off.) Likewise, put in enough to support your theme (or your plot).

And, now, we'll talk about the deck I became known for. Now, pay attention, this has all kinds of good lessons.

When we first started getting our cards, I was drawn to blue. Blue is about controlling what your opponent does, rather than simply pounding him until he's dead, and manipulating your own deck so that you can get cards faster. To put it simply. It was my first intention to focus on blue... BUT!

It was early '94 before we were really starting to get our cards, and, by that time, the first expansion, Arabian Nights, had come out. This card was in the set:
One of the guys in  the group looked at the card and said something like, "well, it's okay, but you couldn't build a deck around it," and everyone seemed to agree with him. He tossed the card on the table, and everyone dismissed it. Except me. I knew exactly how to build a deck around it, and, so, I abandoned blue as my color of choice right then and there and picked up red and green instead.

Red/green is still my color combo of choice (Not that I really ever play anymore. I probably haven't built a deck in ten years or more.). It's what I became known for playing, and it was the red/green deck I built around the Kird Ape (or variations of it) that took me to being the top ranked player in north Louisiana throughout 1994. Not that I didn't play other things, too, but red/green was my standard. And I never quit playing with the Kird Ape despite the monkey boy, ape boy, and worse nicknames.

The point here is that you shouldn't listen to what other people say can't be done. Everything is worth trying. Even building a deck with no basic lands was worth trying. Some things just take a little bit of imagination and effort. If you believe in something, don't let people tell you it won't work. Figure out how to do it. You might also just discover something you didn't know you'd like.

For fun, here are a few of the other cards from the deck:
The Taiga helped make the Kird Ape even more powerful. With an ape and this land in the initial draw, you could drop a 2/3 creature on turn one.
Once Legends came out, Blood Lust went into the deck. Potentially, you could hit your opponent for 6 damage on the second turn with this.
The Elven Riders was just for fun. It was one of my signature cards that I included in pretty much every green deck I played.
Palladia is one of my favorite cards ever. He's expensive, and, mostly, he'd just sit in my hand if I drew him; however, I never lost a single game when I got him into play.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What Writing's All About

This is going to be shorter than I want it to be... it's late. I'm tired. I'll have to come back to this topic another day. But...

See, here is why you need to learn your own voice when you write:

I held this contest, the Great Chocolate Contest, for people to write stories based upon the Imagination Room from The House on the Corner. It's hard to know what you'll get when you do something like that. But, see, that's part of the cool of doing it. Seeing what you get. How will someone else interpret what you've done, and how will that be different from what the next person does. Seeing the different voices of the different stories that all come from the same place. It's cool.

I had hoped for better participation, of course, but I'm learning I'm not really very good at hosting the contests. I mean, if the BEST chocolate in the world (that I've ever tasted) can only get two people to enter, then I don't know what else to offer. Well, I suppose there's cash, but, man, that's so... uninteresting. Or something.

So, yeah, two entries:
You can find Briane Pagel's entry here. Okay, you can't actually find it there, but you can find his link to it there along with an introduction. I have to say that Briane's story is so Epic. It's nothing I ever would have thought of. And I'm completely saddened over the fact that I did not think of Seal Team i, because that idea is just awesome. You should go read it; you might recognize some of the characters.

You can find Rusty Webb's entry here. He really gave it the full on horror movie kind of treatment, and darn if I don't want to know what's gonna happen with Ricky and Dale. He has another take that I never would have thought of, because he steps backward with the story of the Imagination Room rather than forward, and, now, I want to know how that interweaves with my story.

Seriously, it's really cool to see what people will come up with when you let them, and now I really do understand why Lucas let's all those people write books in the Star Wars universe.

Because there were only two entries, I was able to pick a winner rather more quickly than I thought I would. They both get to win... the chocolate. Well, Rusty will get a proof copy of Shadow Spinner, anyway, since he's doing the cover, and he's already let me know that he wants one with the cover, not the proof cover I have on them at the moment, so he gets chocolate. And Briane doesn't like "real" books; he just likes those new-fangled e-doodads, so he gets to have chocolate, too. The BEST chocolate in the entire world (that I've ever tasted)!

Go read their stories. You won't be sorry you did.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Blog Traffic (an IWSG post)

It seems that every few months there will be a string of blog posts about how blogs are dying. I've seen at least three in January, one of them by Nathan Bransford. This worry about the "death" of blogs kind of interests me, because it's so irrational. But, then, most fears are irrational. And emotional (and, if you've been following my "thinking" series, you'll know where emotions can get us).

The truth is, I have no idea about how blogs are doing in the overall landscape of the Internet. I do know, though, that they are not going away. Blogs are, at this point, an integrated part of the Internet and some have gotten so big and pervasive that we no longer even think of them as blogs. Which doesn't change the fact that they are. People just don't treat them that way anymore, so it sort of removes them from the blog landscape in our minds, thus shrinking our own, personal blogosphere.

Here's the real issue as I see it: it's a matter of perception. See, the blogosphere is a constantly changing landscape. It's kind of like this exhibit that was at the Mid America Science Museum, a hands on museum, when I was a kid. It was this topography thing, sort of like a big box of dirt, that you could make mountains and rivers and stuff in. There were water pumps on the side to run water into it, and air pumps to make mountains. The thing is, though, that you had to keep working the pumps to keep whatever it was you were doing operating. If you stopped with the water pump, the river would dry up, and, if you stopped with the air pump, the mountain would slowly shrink. That was kind of the point, too, to show how those things eroded over time. But all of that is kind of how blogs work...

When you're working on your blog, posting (interesting things) regularly, visiting other blogs and commenting, responding to the comments on your own blog, it's like working that air pump and the mountain that is your blog rises. As soon as you stop doing those things, your personal blog landscape begins to shrink. It has nothing to do with how the blogosphere overall is doing, but, since your own landscape is shrinking, it feels like everything is shrinking.

To continue to use Mr. Bransford as an example, he was complaining about how his comment count is down. Well, I would suspect that that is because he rarely responds to comments. When I first started blogging, I was pointed at his blog as being, like, the epitome of the writing blogs, but I have found it to be far from that. Sure, maybe there was a time when it was. A time when he was actively working on his blog. However, I found out very quickly that he doesn't respond to comments. Doesn't even acknowledge his commenters, so, even if I have something to say, I don't comment on his blog. In fact, his posts are so erratic, both in how often he does it and in the content therein, that I rarely click through to see what he has to say anymore. When I do, I generally come away empty-handed, so to speak. I'm not even sure why I have not stopped following him other than that I haven't taken the effort to remove him from my list.

He was also saying how many of his old blogging buddies no longer blog. Well, sure, that happens. The newness of blogging wears off, and many people quit, but there is a fairly steady stream of new people coming into it, so, if you are even somewhat active in your blogosphere, there are new people to meet that replace the old ones that move on to other things. But, if you're not active, not seeking out new worl..., um, people, blogs, your world slowly shrinks as people leave. This seems to be the situation with our friend Nathan. So, yeah, it seems like, to him, blogs are dying.

Now, after having used Nathan Bransford as an example, I have to say that I don't actually know him, and I don't know what his blogging habits are. Maybe, he does visit as many blogs each day as Alex (our IWSG creator); I don't know. My statements are purely reflective of the comments he made in his post about dying blogs and what I thought of as I read them based upon my perceptions. And they are my perceptions.

Honestly, there probably are fewer people blogging today than there were five years ago, but, five years ago, people thought blogging was some kind of "get rich quick" scheme. When that turned out not to be the case, those people trying to strike gold by blogging left. But, then, those people were never really involved anyway. They thought they could just throw their crap into the air and it would come back down gold bricks. "If you blog it, they will come," so to speak. But that's not how it works.

Anyway... all of  that to say that you get out of it what you put into it. There are more than plenty of active bloggers, and the blogosphere is a vibrant, living landscape, whether it's smaller now than it used to be or not.

And none of that has to do with my own insecurity about blogging. I'm not insecure about a lot of things, and I'm insecure about almost nothing that I have control over. For instance, I'm not insecure about whether my writing is any good or not. On the one hand, I know that it is; on the other, it totally doesn't matter as long as I'm satisfied with it, which I am, so I have no insecurities there at all. However, I have no control whatsoever about traffic flow to my blog...

Okay, yeah, that's not the truth, because, like I was just saying, if you're involved and all of that, you'll get people coming over to check you out just because you're involved. BUT! But... My traffic has been steadily increasing over the past couple of years to the point where my daily traffic is as high as what I would get in an entire month when I first started. That's good! Great, even. But I do worry about sustaining it. Every month, I have anxiety as the month begins as to whether I will retain the traffic flow of the previous month, and I don't always do that. There are some months with some pretty steep drops. But, overall, it goes up, but, overall, I can't keep myself from fretting about it for about the first half of each month. Of course, that's part of what drives me to be involved, so I guess it works out.

So there you go: why not to worry about blogging being on the way out and why I worry about my blog traffic anyway.

Today is the last day for submissions for the Great Chocolate Contest. If you have an entry, post it on your blog and leave me a link, OR email it to me. Either is fine. For those of you that post them, I will leave links to the various stories tomorrow (or Friday at the latest). Thanks! And may the best chocolate in the world (that I've ever tasted) go to the best story!

And I almost forgot!
As a special birthday present to all of you out there (that don't already have it), "Christmas on the Corner" is FREE! today! Drop by and pick it up! (And click the "like" button!)