New Year’s Resolutions (As a Writer)

Due to a family emergency, I missed posting this yesterday, but the sentiment remains the same.

2016 was a fairly good year for me as a writer. I made a bit of money, and managed to put out two books. Better yet, I managed to get a few enthusiastic reviews and had some enjoyable dialogue with people who have read my work. I even had a person put up their amazon review of my work on the US and UK sites, which is super nice (why Amazon does not collect all reviews for all marketplaces is beyond me).

Joining the Friends of Vocamus press genre writer’s circle in 2016 has been a boon as well. I have been to two of the monthly meetings and learned some interesting things about the local writing scene as well as some useful promotional ideas.

What I failed to do in 2016 (aside from convince people that voting for Cheeto Jesus is a bad, bad idea) is adequately promote and market my work. I have had a decent year with Twitter, but could drive more people to my blog and Facebook page. With eight books under my belt, and decent reception from people who read them, it is time to figure out marketing and social media (while keeping my soul and dignity intact).

Considering this has got me thinking about what I can do to improve my writing and book promotion in 2016, aside from the obvious improving of the fundamentals. Here are my writers resolutions for 2016.

  1. Promote my summer release on at least five secondary book sites: This requires money and the ability to schedule in advance. Secondary book sites, places like Bookbub, can drive a lot of traffic toward your sales and book releases. I would like to explore these for my next major release.
  2. Learn to type: I have written and published over 800k words and I do not know how to type. W T F. I could save myself so much time here.
  3. Put more effort into adwords and facebook ads: My third resolution is a bit more complex. Both adwords and facebook ads are very, very tunable. As an amateur user I can put in quite a bit more time learning the ins and outs of these systems to get more bang for my buck. One of the suggestions from my author circle that I wanted to try was concentrating add buys on the weekend instead of running the same amount every day of the week.

Simple stuff, but also time consuming…

As for what is up for release this year, I am starting the first draft of the seventh Domains of the Chosen novel after I post this (2017 and I am already 1500 words behind… yay). I am also working on the third Shadow Wolf novella, which should release in the fall.

If I have enough time and energy I may re-release book one of the Domains series with a new cover and some additional information, but that seems overly ambitious for a year where I am taking on extra hours at my dayjob already.

 

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Hello and Goodbye: A Memorable Weekend

I don’t usually write about personal stuff on this blog. This weekend, however, offered an such impressive juxtaposition of real world events that I am driven to muse about and share it.

The first event is my son’s first birthday. The first picture (blue) was taken a couple of weeks ago, and the red one was from a few days after his birth. The difference is tremendous, of course, just look at the relative sizes of our heads for the sake of comparison.

It has been an interesting year, watching my little man grow. It has seeped its way into everything, including my writing. The Seeds of Ruin was completed about a month ago, and written while he was learning to crawl. The themes dance with his presence and my reaction to his birth.

His birthday was fun, but not too overwhelming, as a one year old’s party should be. We took him on a train ride and to a carousel and watched him eat ice cream by the fistful. It was a profoundly happy day for us and spilled over into the rest of the weekend.

The second event was less sweet, but still profound.

Gordon Downie last show 8 20 2016

On the same day that we were celebrating the first year of Ronan’s life, we were also shedding tears over the end of an Era. The Tragically Hip, Canada’s Band, played the last show of their latest tour and possibly their last show ever. The lead singer, Gordon Downie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer well before the tour was even announced.

The Hip are to Canada as Springsteen is the US. They are my go-to band most of the time. I have always wanted to watch them live in their hometown (Kingston) on New Year’s eve with my Brother and Sister, and we frequently tried to plan how we could make it happen despite the miles and schedules that separate us.

The show has such great meaning for Canadians, young and old, that it was picked up and broadcast by the CBC, our public network, and preempted Olympic coverage.

The concert was great. At times Gord seemed frail and overwhelmed, ready to collapse or break down right there, and yet at others it seemed impossible that he was even sick, that someone of such energy and vitality could be so close to the end.

When they played my favourite song (Nautical Disaster) and then Viv’s favourite (Scared) it felt like a gift. When they ended the concert with one of their most positive tunes (Ahead by Century), in defiance of death and sorrow, it was simply incredible.

Add to that a long night of talk the night before with one of my oldest friends, who just lost his mother, and it has been an odd and memorable weekend, sad and sweet, far greater than the sum of its happenings.

Even now, I am left shaken and awed.

Turn Based Games

I distinctly remember when reviewers and biz-dev types declared that turn based games were dead. It was some time after the first XBOX (2001) was released, since I recall reading an article in a console magazine (lol) where a toque wearing, xtreme! t-shirt, attitude up front, “games journalist” was offended that a turn based game had appeared on his new age console.

Of course, large western game developers had started moving away from turn based games long before that. I remember how x-com apocalypse  (1997) included both turn based and real time combat modes, which were radically divergent to the point where it was desirable for me to fight certain foes and missions in one mode and switch to others when I wanted to use something else. XCOM, of course, was a banner bearer for turn based games and considered a hot IP at the time, worthy of rescue.

Why would a hot turn based IP be in need of rescue you might ask? Well marketers, producers, and bad game theorists decided at some point that the only reason they were making turn based games were purely technical. In this view they had overcome the limitation that turn based systems presented so why not discard them? After all, wasn’t real time strategy exclusively better?

Of course, turn based gaming has little to do with technical limitations and has enjoyed a great resurgence in both big studio and indie development. Civ games remained popular and are now a mainstay of steam, gog, and other PC platforms. Developers outside of North America never really turned up their nose at turn based games either, and I remember eagerly playing games like Disgaea to get my fix.

The return of XCOM (resurrected by Firaxis, who also make Civ) to wide critical acclaim finally put the issue to rest. Now, long after the technological hurdles have been overcome even the most obtuse biz-dev type can see that there is a market for turn based games.

Here are five reasons that I enjoy turn based games

  • Get Up And Go: true turn based games advance entirely at the player’s discretion. If something arises requiring your attention you don’t even need to pause the game to go away from the game. As someone whose game time is frequently interrupted by real life, and sudden inspirations, I can really appreciate this aspect. I also find that since I control game-flow that turn based games are easier to get back into after a pause. This dovetails nicely with my next point.
  • Controlled Pacing: In a good turn based game the designer will control the flow so that the player is presented with interesting choices each turn. This leads to a much more consistent level of play. In XCOM you know you that if you are in a mission there are aliens about and that you should be wary, moving in cover, looking for the foe, etc. Ideally a turn based game could skip all the boring parts, just getting to the meat of the game. The upcoming Duelyst game looks like a good example, concentrating on creating a great battle experience above all else.
  • Options: Turn based games revolve around choices. If all a unit can do is move and attack in one fashion then the game will be very dull indeed. Instead most games give players a variety of choices including different attack types, alternate fire modes, grenade types, and reaction fire in XCOM or a plethora of magical abilities and skills in fantasy games like FF Tactics (JP up!).
  • Control: Turn based games allow a player to control diverse multiple units with less time pressure than other systems. Achieving the same level of micro-management in other games is considered a skill.
  • Mental Challenge: The real reason to play turn based games on the computer is the same reason that chess, go, and similar games remain popular. They provide the player with a mental challenge in the same way that few other game types can. Without time pressure or twitch factor turn based games have to provide the player with interesting choices to entertain them. Considering these choices, with the added luxury of control of the time flow of the game allows the player to really stretch their mental muscles, if the game is any good. Consequently when I am playing a turn based game I find myself thinking about it when I am away from the playing field more often. This goes for board games, and tabletop RPGS/minis games as well.

When all you are left with is choices, better make them interesting!

Power without Responsibility: a Real World Example

I generally shy away from real world politics on this blog. My fiction writing has a fair chunk of political content, which I live, but modern politics is often too adversarial, extreme, and entrenched in tedious repetitive rhetoric; it is also a bad way to make friends. In American and Canadian terms I would be considered a left wing liberal type, but I tend to get along quite well with most people until the talking points start surfacing.

That said I cannot resist writing about the current US shut down. It is a near perfect illustration of one of my earlier blog post: how nearly everyone in a position of power seems obsessed with avoiding blame.

Many people want power, or at least the perks and benefits that come with being powerful. However, power comes with responsibility. This can be a bit of a bummer if you do something that makes people angry and have to deal with the consequences. Many people in power, when faced with difficult situations will attempt to blame others people, the system, or other external causes when the situation goes south.

The shutdown of the US government is an excellent illustration of this.

  • The Shutdown started over the implementation of Obamacare. The Republican controlled US House of representatives has refused to fund the Government if Obamacare is implemented.
  • The Shutdown may run into the debt ceiling negotiations. The fight over Obamacare and the fight over the debt ceiling raise should not be confused despite the fact that they get bundled up in all the deal making.
  • The Democratic Party and President Obama have repeatedly caved in to the Republicans in this fight, most recently cutting the budget again. This is the first time that they’ve really taken a stand.
  • Obamacare is a polarizing issue in the US. However, the President did own the Law and in fact ran his last presidential campaign on it and won. Normally that would have been the end of the issue.
  • The Republican House hates the Obamacare law so much that it has voted to defeat it fourty-one times in since it was passed. (pointlessly)
  • Having no normal recourse to prevent the law from being implemented the Republican House has decided not fund the government unless a deal is made. They blame President Obama and the Democrats for not wanting to negotiate over Obamacare.
  • The current offer on the table is to shelve Obamacare for a year. Coincidentally 2014 is a midterm election year.
  • The Republicans are negotiating from a position of bad faith. Everyone knows that after a one year delay they would just start the fight over again and demand more concessions. This knowledge is based on their past behaviour; the recent and ongoing battles over the debt ceiling and the sequester should be evidence enough of that.

Not supporting Obamacare is a personal preference. Personally I think the US should move to the same sort of single payer coverage that the rest of the civilized world has adopted. While Obamacare might be unpopular with some, it is now law. The voters had their chance to reject the president and his plans in 2012. They chose not to. This is significant. The law even survived a supreme court challenge.

The Republican House, despite losing seats in the 2012 election (a majority of seats are held despite not having a majority of the popular vote), is set against the implementation of Obamacare to such an extraordinary degree that it is unwilling to drop the issue. However, instead of taking up legal recourse against it and fighting it out in an election they have decided to hold the funding of their own government hostage. It is an extraordinary step. Some may think them noble for it, others may see it as quixotic to say the least.

Regardless of your stance on Obamacare and US party politics it is hard to deny that the Republican House is the active party in this action. They picked this fight. They are using their political power, every once of strength and influence at their disposal to roll back and defeat a law that they don’t like. They may even use the debt ceiling again, threatening to default on the US government’s obligations if they don’t get their way.

However, despite their use of power, they refuse to take responsibility for their actions. They blame anyone but themselves for the government shutdown and the potential havoc it might cause. They will certainly claim victory if their political manoeuvre succeeds but they are unwilling to take responsibility for any harm that it causes, hoping that their constituents will blame others instead. This would be like President Obama vetoing every law that congress passes until he gets new regulations on banks, and then blaming congress for getting nothing done because they refuse to negotiate with him on getting new regulations on banks.

As a writer, regardless of how you feel about this situation, it is an excellent example of how rough politics can get, The Republican Party is attempting a risky, crazy political move. It may even work out for them. However, they are also trying to avoid responsibility for their actions if it does fail. This is the scourge of modern power, those who wield it often try to avoid blame for using it wrongly.

Fantasy worlds have their own power structures, from feudal systems to complex empires to fledgling democracies. Regardless of the setting, there will almost always be different factions competing for power in a single nation. The King will fight with the Barons over taxes. The border provinces will set themselves against the capital in the empire. Democracies, of course, are constantly arguing. Even the Sun Court of absolute monarch Louis the XIV had different groups of nobles fighting for the king’s attention. Regardless of the intentions and morality of these groups, some of them are sure to be the type of people who hedge their bets and try to avoid responsibility for negative consequences when they use their power.

Geek Chic

Geek (definition from Merriam-Webster Online)
1: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake

2: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked

3: an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity <computer geek>

This is merely the seed of an idea.

When I was in high school it wasn’t cool to play D&D or other tabletop games, read fantasy or sci-fi, read comics, or play video games. Those pursuits were often considered childish or weird  D&D was still associated with satanism. Fantasy was considered a genre with little or no literary value. Video games and comics were often looked down on. Anime was almost unheard of (Although some Robotech made it to my little TV!). The idea of dressing up as your favorite fictional character was reserved for Halloween and Halloween was for kids.

My, how things have changed… It actually took me by surprise. All of these hobbies have become, if not more mainstream, then more acceptable and kind of cool. Comic book movies are killing at the box office. Shows based of comic series and certain Fantasy novels are joining Sci-Fi series to make TV a veritable Geekstravaganza. People now take Fantasy novels and Comics seriously as art and commentary. I can admit I play video games or tabletop games among strangers… in fact, if I do, it will almost certainly spark a conversation.

Many of you are probably shrugging your shoulders and thinking, so what? Tastes change over time.

True, but I think this is more than a passing fad. What I term Geek Chic, the love and acceptance of all things Geeky, strikes me as an enduring trend in our society. Geek society grew up with the internet. The internet empowers us to search out knowledge, down to an obsessive level of detail if we desire. The internet also allows us to easily find and communicate with others who are interested in the same things we are. This allows Geek culture to flourish.

If I love a quirky game like Dwarf Fortress, I can easily join a community of people that also loves the game. Being able to communicate with other people who are passionate about the game will spur my enthusiasm for it. As my love for the game grows I will share my favorite moments on the official forums (Bay12), sites like reddit, and on any social media that I am currently into. This means that anyone who is interested in a game like Dwarf Fortress is far more likely to hear about it. It also means that novices can join ready made communities that can help them out and drive their interest. Dwarf Fortress is a really complex game, and might be too daunting for some people without the support of that community. Even if you were able to find it and get into it on your own, you still be missing out on all of the mods and discussions, which often seem to be the best part of a hobby.

Fads come and go, but communities have staying power. Geeky pursuits like games, SFF fiction, and comics all lend themselves to the type of enthusiastic discussions that proliferate like weeds on the internet. Unlike many other internet communities these tend to be relatively friendly and open, and thus attractive to new members. Most Geeks like to share their knowledge, after all.

Geek Chic is what happens when these communities hit a certain critical mass and begin to influence the culture at large. I can already see this happening. The most interesting part is in how these separate hobbies influence each other. Video games borrow from comic books. Fantasy fiction borrows from Video games. vice versa and ETC. Halloween has much more adult, and far more popular (and makes $ like crazy). Web-channels like Geek and Sundry cater to all things geeky and attract new people to the fold with groups like Vaginal Fantasy and shows like Sword & Laser. People use the power of the internet, the sum of all, to Geek out on what interests them in the same way that it can empower work, research, and any other field that involves information.

Geek Chic is, quite possibly, the first fumbling steps of information age culture, an age where content is not just manufactured for us, but rather created by us, promoted by us, and validated by us. Steampunk fashion shows. Paid Gamemasters. Admiration for knowledge without the fear of intelligence. What a world that might be…

Computer Games as Inspiration

Part of me wishes their were more computer games about Gladiatorial Combat.

I find that when I am writing I can use other media, such as games, pictures, and movies to get my creative juices flowing, to give me a burst of inspiration when I really need it.  I used to use this to great effect when running tabletop games, pumping myself up with Rune or 13th warrior before sitting down to write or play my Nordan Saga game (unpublished). Being able to play Skyrim would no doubt inspire me to dust it off for another glorious campaign, or just to work on it at the very least. Playing Total War: Napoleon has given me a few ideas for a steam-punk setting that could work as a book, rpg, or computer game. This cycle of inspiration used to cause me quite a bit of stress, as I would get hot or cold on something based on what I was playing or watching, but I’ve learned to use it to my advantage.

If I play a computer game that gives me ideas for a setting or story, I quickly jot down some notes (I’m always taking notes, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to write stuff down). Then I wait until I move on to another game, movie, book, and wait for the obsession to die down. If the notes seem interesting to me later, evoking a little of that manic excitement, then I know I have something.

Other, respectable, authors have noted that computer games can influence their work. This is only fair, since it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that fantasy books influence computer games. Here are a few of the more modern games that I think are currently available and influencing the Fantasy Genre.

1) Assassin’s Creed (AC). For better, or for worse, the assassin is king in Modern Fantasy. A fairly large number of the best and most popular fantasy series out there feature assassins as main characters or part of the team in larger casts. Even GRRM has a nod to the assassin’s guild in his series. The Assassins in Ubisofts Assassins Creed games are one man killing machines, highly skilled in all the killing arts, secretly protecting civilization from the shadows. They often seem benevolent, although you would not want to bump into one on the street or get caught in the crossfire. What Ubisoft does well, aside from putting a very human face on a horrible profession, is create the feeling of a different world that takes place in back alleys and rooftop chases. They also reinforce the expectation that the assassin is an ultra-competent character and a thinking man/woman to boot, which is actually fairly ahistorical. Many modern authors take these ideas and add brilliant twists of their own (often magic), using the imagery provided by the AC games or playing against the expectations created by them. Dishonoured, although it has more steampunk and an original setting might have a similar
influence.

2) World of Warcraft (WoW). Aside from the actual world of warcraft novels I can’t think of any books based directly off of WoW or even WoW with the serial numbers filed off  (I’m sure others can, though). That is the only reason WoW is second on the list. With millions of players at any time WoW has replaced Tolkien as the vernacular of Fantasy. If a trope exists in WoW, an author can use it at connect instantly with a large audience. Crazy weapons and armour styles, Steampunk Goblins/Gnomes, and certain monsters are now more widepread in fantasy than ever before because of WoW. In terms of broad influence this game is hard to beat, since it is constantly expanding and adding new content which frequently contains references to popular fantasy. I like to think of WoW as the great Fantasy aggregator. Other popular fantasy MMOS, like Guild Wars, can have a similar influence. Some lane defence games, especially League of Legends, also serves as popular fantasy aggregators.

3) Elder Scrolls. Bethesda’s Elder scrolls series is very popular with fantasy enthusiasts. I expect to see an uptick in viking themed fantasy series soon. What makes this particular series interesting for writers however is the detailed character creation and modding. These allow enterprising authors to customize the game to their hearts content and get the exact favour of inspiration that they want. Maybe I just want to play Skyrim (400 sales to go!)

4) Dragon Age. I hate and I love this series… Dragon Age has some obvious literary influences, which it shares with a wide swath of modern fantasy. What makes it interesting is how it amalgamates these tropes into a cohesive whole which is now influencing other writers. The hyper-violent combat, the oppressed elves, the decadent socially divided Dwarves, and the idea that magic users are potentially dangerous can all be found elsewhere but this game does push the tropes into a writer’s consciousness. I also love the themes of corruption show up in the Darkspawn and the Deep Roads, again these are nothing new but the presentation alone can be inspiring. Dragon age also relies on characterization more than most games, which is a great reminder about the importance of well written characters. (It is the only good part of Dragon Age 2, actually and manages to carry an otherwise flawed game)

5) Pokemon. Yeah, I went there. Pokemon has a subtle influence on fantasy worlds. The magic system in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alara has is somewhat based off of Pokemon (which he admits, apparently it was part of a bet/challenge). Pretty much any work of fantasy with magical animal/monster companions could do worse than Pokemon as an inspiration. Look at the Hordes tabletop miniatures game — warlocks and warbeasts are basically trainers and their pokemon in many ways.

6) Legend of Zelda. A great inspiration for classical Fantasy, this beloved game series takes place in a lush world with a humble protagonist taking on a great evil. People love this series so much, it is easy to see how in influences some of the less gritty stuff.

There are of course, many more, especially if you include older games like Final Fantasy 7 or Ultima. The only Fantasy Gladiator game that I can think of, although most games have an arena or two, is Gladius a venerable title that serves as a source of inspiration for my own Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale. Sadly I don’t have anything that will play it so I have to rely on googling gladiatorial art (hit and miss) or watching Gladiator or Spartacus to rev my engines. As Fantasy games of all sorts become more and more influential I expect to see more and more influence appear in fantasy writing (and vice-versa of course,  Fantasy authors who “make it” will be very tempted to make their mark on computer games (and tabletop).

Midnight musings

These are just random late night thoughts. Well, its midnight somewhere, at least…

I have run across a few consistent strains of thought this week and they have occupied a fair bit of my mental resources. The first is very comparable to a virus, prejudice against women in gaming and women in geekdom in general. On Tuesday I ran into this in three separate forms: the ongoing #1ReasonWhy campaign on twitter which sums up some of the lingering, possibly growing sexism faced by female professionals in the gaming industry. The little stories that these women share are worth reading, and just make me sad. This RPS column sums up why everyone, especially us men, should show their support for our sisters in the gaming industry. Having done some work in the industry, I’d love to see this shake things up. I would much rather have any of my gamer friends, male or female, work on a game than a former banker who is just in it for the money. The second was a discussion about fake gamer girls.  Apparently women who use voice chat in Xbox live and other online services are often bombarded with sexist comments. The newest strain of this is that these women are “fake gamer girls” who are “just trying to get attention”. I have also seen this kind of virulence directed at cosplayers and spokeswomen. A friend of mine mentioned this to me because he could not understand why his female friend had to switch from Xbox to PS3 to play her favorite shooter. He thought that gaming with mixed groups women was markedly healthier than just gaming with guys. I tend to agree. Female players kick ass in MMOs and some of my favorite modders are women so why am I even having to write this. I literally feel like I have gone back in time 20 years to being the games club president and having to have discussions about not not raping the characters of female players. I blame politics, I really do. Young men see their powerful, political elders attacking women’s rights and some of them copy that exact language and throw down with it in games and internet comments sections. They sound like Rush Limbaugh. The third one is that this has also filtered into the publishing industry, where, despite the fact that we have more great female sci-fi and fantasy writers than I could ever list, women are still facing barriers. The only time I give a crap about the author’s name is if I have already read them and a feel strongly about their work in general. Otherwise it is utterly irrelevant.

I remember a time when geekdom was small and insular and there were very few women. Trust me, modern geekdom is far better because of people like Felicia Day. As a geek, male or female, if your first reaction upon seeing a woman (or any person at all, really) is to try to judge whether or not she is a geek poseur you are not helping. Even if they aren’t quite getting it right, they are showing an interest in your culture, why not help them out and promote the things that you are passionate bout? Or if not keep your rabid, puritanical gob shut and remember that geeks and nerds started as social outcasts and have always been inclusive of anyone who was willing to put up with them. Now that we are growing we should not arrogantly cast that aside.

On a more positive note the other consistent strain of thought I’m coming across is in publishing advice. The consensus seems to be that the best way to promote yourself as an author is to write more books. The theory is complex and interesting, but it who needs it anyways because the idea just makes sense when you think about it. If readers like your work they will want more. The longer you hold their enthusiastic attention the more theyw ill recommend you.

There are subtleties to this. Strategically, I would have been a little better off to write both Bloodlust Books and then release them withing six months of each other, bumping my first book at just the right time. Live and learn.

Have a nice evening, and FFS be kind to each other.