Friday, December 16, 2011

Two Legends Pass

Within the last couple of weeks, we've lost two legends of the comics world, co-creators of iconic figures who were largely overshadowed in the public eye by their more famous collaborators.

Jerry Robinson, an artist on the early Batman comics, co-created both the Joker and Robin, the Boy Wonder. But he was virtually unknown outside of fan circles, since Bob Kane's contract with DC said that only his name could appear on Batman stories, a policy that went unchanged until the 60's, IIRC. He died on Dec. 7.

One week later, on December 14, Joe Simon also died. Joe was better known as the co-creator, with Jack Kirby, of Captain America. He and Kirby also invented the Romance Comic genre. And in later years, as Kirby was returning to DC Comics to work on his Fourth World books, Simon was writing books like Prez and Brother Power, the Geek.  It was Kirby who sucked up all the press and accolades in later years, and justly so, given Kirby's role in creating the Marvel Universe,  but Simon should never be forgotten. The men were a team for decades.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Maybe Not

Well, turns out the proofing process on Createspace takes a while to complete, so Hero Go Home might not be ready in time for Christmas. My proof copy is due to arrive around Dec. 12, and then I'll probably have to make some fixes which will delay the process further. On the other hand, I'll probably end up with a horribly ugly one-of-a-kind proof copy that I can use as the prize in a contest or something someday.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Just in Time for Christmas (I Hope)

Although it's still under review, I thought I'd let you know now that, very soon, you can own an actual physical printed version of Hero Go Home. I will post the link where you can purchase it as soon as it is available. I plan to follow up soon with print versions of Digger Breaks Through and Death Wave, although perhaps not in time for Christmas.

I've also been noodling new T-shirt ideas that may be available very soon. And there may be a major surprise announced in the very near future, if I decide that I can actually pull it off.

The point is, I need to get more serious about making money off of Hero Go Home, and the best way to do that, as far as I can tell, is to have stuff available to make money off of. I have some ideas to bring in traffic, but I don't want to spend money on them until I have some options for making some of that money back, and three e-books isn't going to cut it.

Oh, and if you're not reading Run, Digger, Run!, you should give it a try. We're eight weeks into the story now, and things are starting to heat up. I'm barely hanging on by my fingernails, getting the daily episodes posted (and today's episode, frankly, was a little rushed--I am committed to the 500-word limit, but today's episode needed about a hundred more words or so before the big cliffhang), but the characters are firming up and the momentum is starting to build. Give it a try, and I hope you like it.

So tonight, to (prematurely) celebrate breaking Hero Go Home into print, I'm drinking some cheap champagne. Also because tomorrow morning, I have to go to divorce class, which is the final step before my divorce is final. I keep hoping that I'll feel relieved once it's over, but right now, it still sucks.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Disintegration

We all have ups and downs. Riding through a down period right now. Not depressed like I was the last couple of years, just stuff collapsing around me. Had to buy some new tires, because the rubber was worn down to the radial belts. Power supply went down in my computer, which was a pain, but was remarkably easy to repair (literally the only hardware work I think I've ever done on a computer which did not require opening the case multiple times to troubleshoot the fix plus hours of cursing--even just adding a memory card always seems to go wrong at least once). I've had an upper molar slowly disintegrating for the last four years which lost another chunk last night. There's a class I need to take to finalize my divorce that I still need to schedule (yes, after 17 years of marriage and three-plus years of separation, the State of Oklahoma requires me to pay for a class in order to be divorced).

And then there's the royal screw job Target is giving its employees by moving its Black Friday sale up to midnight. I can't really blame Target; they're giving the customers what they want. I blame all those greedy douchebags who will be lining up on Thanksgiving for hours so they can buy cheap toasters. Part of me hopes that people won't show up so this doesn't get even worse next year, but the part of me that eats and has a mortgage must hope the sale is a big success so I will get plenty of hours.

I hate the holidays. I've been indifferent to Christmas for years and generally enjoyed Thanksgiving, but working in retail, I'm already sick of Christmas and hate Thanksgiving as well.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Riding the Wave

So the other night, we're doing our weekly role-playing game, and efamar gets this text alert. Everyone sort of pauses, because this never happens. So she checks her phone and announces, "Tornado warning. Huh." Which prompts a very brief discussion of tornado warnings. Brief because suddenly everyone stops talking, and their eyes go wide.

"Did you feel that?"

And before I could say, "No, I didn't feel anything," because apparently I was the only one who didn't (my feet weren't touching the floor at the time, but resting on the chair legs), the ground started to rumble and the house shook.

It didn't last long, maybe 30 seconds of real shaking, plus another minute or so for the last rumbles to die down. But everyone was really freaked out, except me. And I want to say it's because I've lived in California and earthquakes just don't faze me, except that I never felt a really major one even in California.

No, mainly I was just giddy with delight at what had happened in the game. Let's rewind a bit. A couple of weeks ago, my character found a little girl, the only survivor of a wrecked airship. And it was apparent that this girl was in some trouble, because she was being pursued by some real badasses. I wanted to take her back to her father's house, but there was some doubt as to whether or not he was in on it, and even if he wasn't, there was some doubt (mainly from efamar's character) that he was a fit father, given that he had sent her off to be wed at age 10.

But we decided we needed to meet with the father and probe to see if we could learn more about the situation so we could make a more informed decision. And as I have mentioned before, my character has alternate personalities. And as a matter of fact, one of them was feeding my main the lines he should be saying (there was a deal between them involving letting him out later to spend time with efamar's character--that bit didn't work out so well for him). The story was mostly true with one major bit of bluff in it, but the mark decided to call the bluff and start threatening the characters' lives (along with insulting the cover story).

And so I make with a few twitches and an inappropriate smile, and this wave of "Oh shit" flutters around the table. Because although my performance was no Ed-Norton-in-Primal-Fear star turn, it was enough to let them know there'd been a switch, and everybody was sort of panicked, wondering what the new arrival would do.

And of course, what the new arrival did was defuse the situation without bloodshed, because that's what he's good at. But the point is, by the time the ground started shaking, I was already riding a wave of giddiness.

Because there's a real sense of power in that "Oh shit" reaction. I'm not the kind of guy who generates that kind of reaction in everyday life, but at that table, one inappropriate smile and suddenly, everyone thinks I'm Bruce Banner and my eyes have just turned green.


It was also gratifying that at least one person at the table knew immediately which personality had emerged. I had tried to differentiate them. Seems it worked.

And now it seems as if we're stepping out into the larger campaign. Baby steps are done, small tremors have been noted, but now the shaking really starts.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Should Be In Bed, Again

Here it is, after midnight. I'm supposed to get up at 5 in the morning, as I do every morning that I work, but I stay up till past midnight to update Hero Go Home. The image gallery on the front page is cool, but it doesn't update automatically. Every morning, I have to update it by hand--replace the image, replace the link taht accompanies the image, and add a line of code to the previous chapter of Run, Digger, Run! so you can click through to the next episode.

And the thing is, on the one hand, I'm terribly disappointed in myself. I had intended to be worked ahead with a comfortable buffer on the daily episodes, but instead, I'm barely getting each week done in time. I have episodes done through Friday, but I don't have next Monday's started yet. I barely have any outline notes. And I still need to sacan pages for Satuday's Vault and watch Blade II and do screen caps for Sunday's Super Movies. Not to mention all the sound editing I still have to do on the podcast dropping next Monday.

And yet, I feel pretty good. I spent a lot of time sound editing today. I'm starting to remember why it's taken me a year to get back to this again--it's a ton of work and frustration--but it's also fun. And I think I put together a good graphic for this week's chapter. Last week's was a little boring, but this week's is nice.

The big problem is, I'm still not generating traffic or money. I think I'm getting better at the serialization thing, and as I get further into the story, I'm hoping to generate more exciting chapters. So far, I'm worried that it has been a little uninvolving. Part of that is the nature of the format. Five hundred word episodes don't allow for a lot of emotional exploration. But as the story builds, I hope to make it more gripping. And the blanks are starting to fill in. For instance, this last week I figured out what the final scene will be. There's still almost fifty weeks between now and then, but I know where I'm headed now.

Seriously, as worried as I am that I'm dancing right on the edge, I'm also jazzed, because it looks as I'll definitely make it through the first month with 7-day-a-week posts on time. And if I can do it for a month, it's possible that I can do it for a year. And if I can do it for a year, I might actually be able to build a following and make some money. I hope.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Channeling

Today, I channeled the ghost of Arch Oboler and wrote what seems at first blush like an almost note-perfect Lights Out. The funny thing, of course, is that I wrote most of it during my shift at Target, muttering scenes under my breath as I was scanning shelves and stocking merchandise. I'm probably not the only Target employee ever to spend an entire day mumbling about murder, but I may be the first to do it for a radio-style drama. We'll see if it's actually any good on Halloween.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Gaming, Spoilers and Expectations in Writing

So last night we had a gaming session, and though not a lot seemed to happen, I came away from it pretty happy. It's tough with a new gaming world to find your place in it right away. It takes awhile to learn how the new world works. When I was in college, it was easier: a big fight against a cool-ass monster or villain, then phat lootz after, and I'm happy.

It's different now. I'm older, and I place greater value on different things. And our group is made up of writers and avid readers, so much of the joy of the game comes not from big combats, but from moments between characters who have revealed themselves over time. Last night, I had a pretty good moment with lots of conflicting emotions crammed into a relatively brief period of time. I wish I could get something that complex and interesting on the page.

And thinking back over it today, I realize that part of what made it work was that I had set up some expectations earlier. Essentially, what happened was, my character appeared to give another a hug. And in the moment between initiating the contact and explaining what it was about, there was a tension between several alternatives. Was he doing this as a  lost child needing comfort (since he had explained that he had no memories beyond a few years previously and had been wandering the fringes of society for as long as he could remember), or was this perhaps a more romantic gesture (since another personality controlling his body had hit on the same character the previous night--perhaps there was a secret crush or something)?

The reveal, when it came, managed to be both creepy and pathetic, and I hope was a surprise, upending the expectations set up while also (I think) satisfying them in a different way.

This plays into a theory I've had about writing for a while now. The trick--the really hard trick--to writing a story that works is to set up expectations and then satisfy them without satisfying them.

What?

An example: in the mid-1970's, Ralph Bakshi directed an animated film called Wizards. It was a satirical look at fantasy and sword-and-sorcery about the clash between the good hippie fairies led by the wizard Avatar and the dark forces of evil led by Avatar's evil brother, Blackwolf. It is set up in the beginning that these are the two most powerful wizards on the planet, so we know, we expect, that there will be a climactic duel between the wizards. And although it seems as if Avatar's powers are all bluff throughout most of the film, we hang in there waiting for him to bust out his Moment of Awesome, because we've been told that he's actually really powerful.

But the confrontation, when it comes, is over almost before it starts, because Avatar pulls out a gun and just shoots his adversary. And yeah, it's funny and it's a shock, and it's in keeping with Avatar's character. And yeah, this exact bait-and-switch is one of the most fondly remembered moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out four years later.

But the key difference is, in Raiders, it's a throwaway joke against a character we've never seen before. We had no real expectations. In Wizards, we'd been watching Avatar travel to this confrontation for an hour-and-a-half, only to settle for a swift kick in the balls. Now, knowing it's coming, I can appreciate the joke, but the first time I saw the movie, I was pissed off. Because I hadn't received what I thought I'd been promised.

And I wonder if that's part of what went into a recent study which found that spoilers do not actually ruin a story. I like surprise twists in a story, but obviously a story that depends wholly on surprise cannot become a perennial favorite, enjoyed over and over again. You can only be surprised once.

A well-told story is like a series of promises from the author--"Okay, you don't know what this means, but I promise, hang in there with me and it will mean something later, and it'll be cool, I promise!" So if you promise a fight, there needs to be a fight. If you promise love, there needs to be love. If you promise a solution to a mystery, the mystery must be solved.

But there's a trap, which is that you can't meet their expectations too square-on. There's a reason why the words "dull" and "predictable" so often go together. The story needs to be predictable, but in a surprising way, a way that lets the reader or viewer feel smart while also appreciating the author's ingenuity--"man, I knew something like that was going to happen, but I never thought it would happen like that! That turned out way cooler than I expected!"

It's a delicate balance, and one I'm always trying to do better.

Monday, October 03, 2011

It's ON! Run, Digger, Run!

The new story launched today. I'm not worked nearly as far ahead as I'd like, but it has taken me a while to get into the rhythm of the short daily clips. I'm hoping it will get easier as I get more used to it.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Misogynistic Joke of the Day

In the party supply section at Target, they have boy pinatas and girl pinatas. Boy pinatas, we're all familiar with: hit them hard and candy comes out.

But you are not allowed to hit the girl pinatas. You must instead get them drunk and promise to love them forever, then see if they'll give up the candy voluntarily. Afterward, you have to promise to call them.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Children

Had an impromptu bad movie night the other night. We watched the 1980 horror film, The Children. And yes, it is still wretchedly bad.

But bad in interesting ways. The story in brief: a school bus carrying most of the kids from the small town of Ravensback passes through a cloud of toxic gas that leaked from a nearby nuclear plant. The exposure turns the kids into zombies with black fingernails with only one desire: to hug people. Unfortunately, their hugs kill the recipients. They burn until they are half-melted, unrecognizable husks.

So yes, it's awful. Filmed on a low budget in a small town somewhere (but a small town with some huge houses--maybe a suburb of a larger metropolitan area), there are no stars. Not one. Not even a cameo by a minor B-list celebrity has-been to pique an audience's interest. The script is awful, and the acting is worse. But it is not entirely amateurish. There are a few stylish shots, and some camera movement.

And the score is interesting. In places, it's reminiscent of the Friday the 13th movies, minimal keyboards with a hollow echoey feel, which just makes sense because the score was written by Harry Manfredini, who scored the Friday the 13th films. But in places, he also "references" (or rips off) Bernard Hermann and Leonard Rosenman. It just seems odd for this low-budget little piece of nothing to have an orchestrated score, even if it is just strings and keyboards But this was before synthesizers became ubiquitous.

Directing choices are also strange. The movie introduces us to many residents of the town, and it seems as if a lot has been left on the cutting room floor. Two women living together, one of whom seems really angry at the sheriff, for some reason. It looks like there's a history there, but it's never explained. Another rich woman is set up to be a major subplot--she shares a fairly big scene with the sheriff, and later, someone coming to see her is able to talk his way past a police roadblock--but then she disappears. we never hear from her again, there are no consequences to her scene with the sheriff, and her body is not even discovered when the sheriff visits her place later. The other people with her are found dead, but she's just gone. It just feels like a lot of stuff got left on the cutting room floor.

But as Sargon aptly observed, it's not as if they had no time for character stuff. Much of the running time is filler, dead space, as characters get in their cars, turn around, and drive into the distance, just so we know they're going someplace.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is the subtext. Stephen King in Danse Macabre talks about how horror movies often have a subtext that serves as an accurate barometer of what concerns society at large--Cold War paranoia, economic concerns, the Generation Gap. And that might be true for movies that are broadly successful. But what about a movie that found little to no audience?

Might it just be a look at the filmmakers' private fears? And what does it say about the filmmakers in this case? I mean, you could look at it really abstractly and say that it all about people we should trust implicitly being our enemies or something, but at base, the monsters are little kids who want hugs!  What about that spelled "terror" to Carlton Albright and Edward Terry, the credited writers?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Casting Call for Halloween '11

I've finished a first draft of this year's radio script and am now looking for voice volunteers. Details are on Hero Go Home here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Story About Theme

There's a thread running over on Codex about themes in writing, with basically two camps developing: one side that basically says, "I never write with a theme in mind," and another that says, "I never write without a theme in mind." And I 'm pretty much in the former camp.

When I was in film school, I took a class (actually, I ended up taking it twice and never passed) in which you had to make 5 short films. So comes the week my third film is due, and I have nothing. I get up on Sunday, realizing I have to get the thing planned and filmed that day in order to send it to the lab on Monday, get it back and edit it on Wednesday and turn it in on Thursday.

So I end up doing a TV commercial sort of thing, a pure exercise of movement and music, with no actual story to speak of. I draw my hand writing out the word "Canon" in pencil and then going over it with ink, with the idea that I'll then play Pachelbel's Canon along with it.And to make it visually interesting, I filmed it in short cuts of ultra-close-up with the paper backlit. Substitute chopping vegetables for drawing a word and it would look like any number of TV commercials. But after I had it edited, I realized that Canon was too slow and made it drag, so I substituted an upbeat Mozart concerto instead. So now it really had no meaning.

Now, the way the class was set up, after you showed your film, you had to sit silently while everyone gave their crits, and then you could respond at the very end, after everyone had their say. So for twenty minutes, I sat there while person after person waxed enthusiastic about my film and tried to tease ever more elaborate themes from it. Then when it was my turn, I told them that it was just an exercise in sound and motion, with no more theme than "Fuck, I've got a film due." And then I had to listen to them get angry for twenty more minutes for shitting all over their thoughtful criticisms.

I've always envied the people who can write a story that says something fundamentally important about the human condition, even if I disagree with it. The fact that I've never really been able to do it with any kind of conviction has always struck me as a lack within myself--I don't write stories with messages because I have nothing useful to say.

However, over time, I find I've grown less patient and less impressed with stories that try to preach a worldview to me. Death Wave and Hero Go Home might be superficial and without overriding themes that would make them into good English Literature 101 fodder, but at least they don't fall back on the evil faceless corporation, the evil secret government program, the evil military, the evil televangelist, the noble outsider deciding that other=righteous, "true love conquers all," or any of the other simplistic nonsense that makes up most of what I see and read. I can live with that.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Very Apt Metaphor

Cracked.com is funny in a way that Cracked, the magazine (which in my youth was always just a lame Mad wanna-be), never was. Sometimes they pile it on a little thick, and sometimes I disagree with them, but that's a risk with comedy. The point is, in general, it's a fun diversion of a site that you never expect to say something profound.

But this...

In an online world, your writing is going to form a shell around you, and most of the people who interact with you will only see the shell.
Is profound. The rest of the article is good, too.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Did I See This Wrong?

So the other day, I'm at work, standing near the front doors. And there are these two teenage girls standing sort of huddled together looking at something on the floor. And they turn to me and ask, "Is that real or is that a toy?"

So I look down, and there's a big spider. Not tarantula big, but probably the biggest non-tarantula I've ever seen. The legs are spindly and smooth, not fuzzy, but the body is about as long as my thumb and a little thicker. And yes, I have small hands, but still...

The point is, it's so big that it looks like a toy spider, and it hasn't twitched. But it's not obviously rubber. So I nudge it with my shoe, and it starts crawling. And the girls squeal and by the time I've turned around to tell them, "Looks real," they're long gone. Not that I totally blame them, because they were wearing short shorts and I hear that spiders sometimes jump.

So the aisle of dollar-crap is right there. I grab a couple of small cardstock baskets, drop one on top of the spider, then use it to scoop the spider into the other one and trap him in between. And after a pause to show the guy at the Guest Service Desk my catch, I take it outside and away from the doors and dump it.

And this is where it gets weird. Because it hits the ground and suddenly, I see the ground is crawling with little tiny bugs the same color as the spider. I mean, it's like the spider had been covered with little tiny baby spiders who suddenly decided to all jump off at the same time, or maybe were knocked off when the spider hit the ground. Except that I've never heard of this, and saw no baby spiders on the floor in the store or in the baskets after I dumped the spider out.

So maybe it was just a coincidence and there was a colony of tiny ants or something in exactly that spot where I dumped the spider. What I do know is that the spider immediately crawled away, but not towards the doors, so not my problem.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

It's Here! Hero Go Home Ebook Now Available

I've been looking forward to getting this one out there for a while now, and the day has finally come! Green monkeys and a Silver Scorpion! A Man Who's Known By Many Names! Balloon Armor! Ninja Robots! A Valkyrie Riding a Giant Wolf! A Deus Ex Machina! An Alien Invasion! Superbattles Galore! Hell on Earth! All in Color for a Dime!

Okay, that last one was a lie. It's a prose novel, and it's $3.99. But all the rest, seriously. Go read it.

Find it at Smashwords here. I'll get the Amazon Kindle link up as soon as it finishes churning through Amazon.

ETA: The Kindle version can be purchased here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Launchpad

New character is all ready to go--stats rolled, background written, skills and gear purchased. I know pretty much who I intend him to be. Now to see who he will be.

Tomorrow night...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Strange Inactivity

Feels strange to be sitting at home tonight. I've spent the last five nights out of the house, plus Saturday nights are often movie nights with friends. However, we had movie night on Thursday, so now everything feels skewed. I just feel as if I should have somewhere to go, and I don't.

Which is not to say I don't have things to do. I have a ton, and a nearly unprecedented 4 days off in which to do them. Bad in terms of hours worked this week, but good in terms of having time to get caught back up on life. I need to start reclaiming the house from the mess that engulfed it after the heat wave clamped down on us. I need to put together some eBay sales for my dad. I need to finish editing Hero Go Home and finalize the cover. I need to get a lot of work done on the Hero Go Home relaunch: settle on one of the potential new themes I've been playing with for weeks, and finish up the new logo, as well as designing the look of some new featured graphics. And write a new Movie Monday, as well as working my way ahead on Out of the Vault.

Oh, and set up a plan for Halloween. Since Hero Go Home is now the official location for all Blog Events, the big festivities will happen over there. I have a short story written that I'm going to adapt into a new radio play (hard to believe it has almost been a year, already). I'm going back and forth between Non-scary 70's Horror and Superheroes Who Are Really Monsters for the Out of the Vault theme. I don't have a theme for Super Movie Monday yet; maybe some 70's British stuff like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or maybe (as a companion to Out of the Vault) Superheroes Who Are Really Monsters, like Blade and Ghost Rider (which is unbelievably getting a sequel--you can see the trailer here).

I probably won't get it all done in four days, but I hope to get some really big chunks done. Good intentions and all that...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

GIMP Tutorial and Game Preview

So I used GIMP to put together a really quick and dirty portrait of my new character in the new game campaign, and thought I would throw up a quick tutorial on how I did it. I'm not going to give all the menu paths and such; generally, selection tools are under the Select Menu, Gaussian Blur is under Filters>Blur, and the layer modes are on the Layers dialog under Windows>Dockable Dialogs.

I took as my model this photo of actor Corbin Bleu, best known for his role in the Disney Channel's High School Musical movies. He has matured into a handsome young man, and between the hair and the well-defined planes of his face, he looks a lot like the character I see in my head.


STEP 1: I used the Path tool to copy him out of the background and paste him on a new layer. There are some complicated methods using high-pass filtering to preserve the detail of the hair and such, but in general, I find it faster and easier to simply define a path around the figure, Select From Path, Invert, and Cut, then use the eraser to do fine clean-up. I will usually then Select by Color the transparent portion of the layer, grow the selection by 3-10 pixels (depending on how big the photo is) and run a Gaussian Blur of 2-3 pixels to eliminate the sharp edges to the image that are a telltale giveaway that the person has been cut and pasted.


This was a quick-and-dirty conceptual piece, so I didn't do as much clean-up as I could have on his hair and neck/shoulder areas, or the gap between his chest and his right hand. I also cloned out the necklace, although not completely.

STEP 2: I added a desert background, then flipped it to make the angle of the light more closely match that of the Bleu photo. Then because my character is of a non-human race with golden cat-like eyes, I needed to change Bleu's dark brown eyes to match. First I selected the area of Bleu's eyes, cut and pasted to a new layer, then erased everything except the irises. I desaturated the image so it was black and white, then upped both the brightness and contrast until the brown area of Bleu's eyes (hardly noticeable unless you're looking at extreme magnification) was quite bright. Then I used a small brush to paint in black, darkening the pupils and extending them into catlike slits.


STEP 3: I added another layer just under the one with the copy of the irises and painted in yellow over Bleu's irises. Most irises darken at the edges, so I left a little gap between my yellow and the edge of the iris to provide an outline (I've hidden the other layer so you can see the color more clearly).


STEP 4: I set the layer mode of the iris copy to Hard Light. This allowed the natural patterns of light and dark in Bleu's eyes to overlay the yellow color I'd painted in, making a realistic looking eyeball with shadows that match the lighting in the base photo.


The eyes look a little bright and artificial at this point, so I reduced the opacity of the color layer to about 60% and the overlay to about 80%, which made the effect more subtle and natural-looking.



STEP 5: I had the eyes looking pretty good at this point. The problem now was the color. The original photo had been taken indoors, while the background was saturated in the warm colors of sunset. So I added another layer, did a Select by Color on the transparent portion of the figure layer, followed by Invert Selection. Then I filled the selection with a tone which I thought would give a good match and set the mode to Overlay. It wasn't quite right, so I fiddled with the Hue and Saturation sliders under the Color menu and played with the Opacity until I had something I liked.



STEP 6: It still didn't look right, though. Notice that on the background image, it appears to be taken at sunset, and the shadows are very deep and black. So I needed to deepen the shadows on the figure, while making the highlights pop. I couldn't simply change the contrast on the figure, because that would also change the hues, making them garish. So I copied the figure and pasted it to a separate layer above my color correction layer. I Desaturated the image, then ran a Gaussian Blur. The figure was large, so I may have gone as high as 10 pixels on this. Experiment with what works best. I erased out the irises to allow the eyes I'd worked so hard on to show through.



I set the mode to Overlay  and kept the Opacity at 100%. Notice how it makes the shadows deeper and the highlights brighter without changing the overall hues. The blur also has the added benefit of smoothing out the skin tones and giving everything a slightly alien sheen. I probably could have done this better and more easily with an Alpha Channel or something, but I still don't understand channels, so I stick with what I know.



STEP 7: At this point, I was pretty happy with the result, although I figured I would add some processing to the overall image to add a subtle iris effect to focus attention on the focal point of the picture. I usually do this on a separate image, though, so I saved what I had to a separate JPG, then added the iris effect for the final result.


I intend at some point, once the game has begun and the character has taken better shape, to do a better portrait. But as a quick-and-dirty picture that was completed in an hour or two, this is not bad, and the basic techniques are applicable to a wide variety of situations.

If this kind of article interests you, let me know and I'll do some more. I'm no expert, but I've learned a few tricks here and there, and I'm glad to share if it does someone some good.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Other Smeaton


So I thought I was done with the Dougal Smeaton posts, but turns out, I've got at least one left in me. I am excited about our new campaign and about my new character in it, but I notice that I still break into the Scottish accent every now and then for no damn good reason except I miss the big brute, I guess.

But here's the thing: I've mentioned this before, briefly, but he wasn't the only character I had in mind when we were setting up the campaign. I actually proposed two characters, and Dougal was the one who seemed to fit best with the rest of the group as it was taking shape. And since naamah mentioned publishing some of her initial notes as she was putting together Tom Gentry, I might as well do the same thing with the Smeaton who might have been. So here is my intial email to sargon proposing two character ideas.

Like I mentioned Monday, I had a character idea leap into my head while we were talking. Then as I was driving to see my daughter last night, it occurred to me that the group may have too many of one type or other character, so I came up with another. And no matter which one you pick, the other may be useful. So let me present the Smeaton boys.
Dougal Smeaton is the older of the two Smeaton brothers. The Smeaton family runs the Glenellon distillery near Aviemore along the Spey river. Dougal grew up around the boilers and condensers used to make the family product and experimented with steam machines when he grew older, an enthusiastic amateur like so many who helped drive science and invention in those days. His skills with machine tools and engine design are not fully developed yet, though he is an expert when it comes to boilers and pressure systems.
But when was old enough, he joined the Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch) or whatever Scottish unit you might have that would get him to Atlantis. He's a big man, strong, stalwart and intrepid. A trained soldier who also knows a little about steam machines and is eager to learn more.
His younger brother Torin Smeaton is a different character altogether. He also grew up around the family business, but was more interested in the product of the distillery than the equipment used to make it. He was fascinated at the thought that barley could be transformed into something entirely different. As soon as he was old enough, he began to travel to other distilleries in other countries, learning more about the art of distilling spirits. In Italy, he discovered that different herbs could be used to infuse multiple flavors into a product, such as Strega:
http://www.strega.it/store/product_info.php?cPath=1&products_id=1&language=en
He also had a brief affair with mysterious Italian woman (at least he thought she was Italian--they met in Italy), who introduced him to more exotic herbs, herbs which acted on the mind and psyche. In attempting to learn more about these substances--telling himself it was only to develop a new product for his family's company--he traveled to Atlantis in search of herbs unknown in Europe. In Atlantis, his studies on herbs brought him into contact with students of the Dark Arts, and almost without consciously deciding to do so, he found himself learning magic instead. When he looks back on it later, he'll wonder if perhaps his winding path was actually directed from outside, by Fate or by some other Power.
So there you have the forgotten Smeaton, as well as a first look at what would eventually evolve into the Smeaton we now know. Sargon expressed a preference for Dougal and suggested that he might be an officer for greater latitude of action. But I saw Dougal as more of an NCO. Which led to a bit more exploration of his possible background.

Thinking about this further, the Coldstream Guard/1st Atlantean Rifles obviously is the way to go. If there's any kind of technology exchange with Atlantis or something, he might have joined for that reason, which would have caused some hard feelings with his father, who would have preferred he join a Highlands unit..
As far as his age, I'm thinking he's probably mid-20's, like 25 (Torin is younger, closer to 21 or 22). And as far as freedom of action, what if he had been cashiered from the service, dishonorably discharged for some offense he didn't commit. It wasn't bad enough to get him thrown in jail, but it was bad enough for them to dismiss him (or maybe it _was_ bad enough to throw him in jail, if the case against him had been stronger). So he's military-trained, but not actually serving. Too broke to go home (and his Dad might not welcome him back with open arms anyway, after leaving Scotland to join some crazy Atlantean unit, then getting thrown out for dishonorable conduct).
As far as his military job, I don't know enough about the tech level of the Rifles to speculate. Maybe artillery or a mortarman, or a driver of some sort if they have war machines. Crewing one of those would have improved his engineering knowledge, also, I would think.
Best ideas I can come up with without more detailed knowledge of game world.

There was a little more back and forth, but it was mainly about what kind of engineering he might be good at. Finally, by the first game day, we had a more-or-less finished character: Dougal Smeaton, ex-artilleryman, engineer at the Phoenix Steamworks, engaged in building a steam-powered submersible for Sir Walter Graves and then pressed into service to help find him. It took a few weeks to really find his rhythm, and then it was a really fun ride. I can't imagine how the group would have looked with Torin in there instead.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Should Be Writing

SO I've got a ton of projects that need doing, but I can't concentrate on any of them, because I'm getting so revved up about starting a new game. I was a little iffy on the concept of the campaign world when it was first being described, but now my character is really starting to take shape, and I think he's got the potential for about eight different kinds of cool.

I've got the basic parameters of the character mostly figured out. There are some setting-specific details that need to be ironed out, either by me or by the gamemaster. I've tried to set him up so that there are some mysteries in his background that may or may not come into play down the road. I've tried to set it up so that he can be interesting both in and out of combat, while also being totally different from either Cole Chen or Dougal Smeaton (for that matter, he's not really like any character I've played, although he shares some similarities with a couple).

It's been fun coming up with his personality, his history, his abilities and the way they fit together. It's fun imagining what kinds of scenes he might play with other characters, to help me define his personality more clearly in my head. But he really won't take full shape until we're actually playing and he has other characters to react to. And that's one of the coolest parts, because at that point, I'll really be getting to know him at the same time as everybody else.

Monday, August 08, 2011

It Wasn't All Perfect

One might get the impression from past posts about the Atlantis campaign that it was some sort of perfect experience. Of course, it wasn't. So just what sorts of problems were there? I mention these not to be a buzzkill on our fond memories, but just as a reminder of things to watch out for. If I ever do get my nerve up to try to run a game, I will want to keep these things in mind myself.

One continual worry of mine at the prospect of running my own game is the fear that I won't be able to provide enough interesting things for the players to do. That was not so much a problem in Atlantis. In fact, we sometimes had the opposite problem: too many things going on simultaneously.

For instance, when the group returned from the Ghul city, we had several sub-plots going at once. We had come back with a ton of treasure which we had to deal with (and never actually did--the game ended with a ton of golden artifacts still locked up in a room of the late Lord Waugh's estate, assuming no one had just come in and looted it). Victoria had come up with a plan to marry Lord Acrisian, so much of her time was involved in planning that. In addition, someone had sent assassins to kill Victoria, so there was a lot of running aroud trying to figure out who had done it, which dovetailed with the wedding plans.

At the same time, Smeaton was seeing the princess in the tower while trying not to get sidetracked from what was supposedly our main quest to finish the submarine and go hunting for Sir Graves. Gentry's messing with this mirror he got, and Amice is trying to figure out what to do about the hydra goddess we had bargained with.

And the whole time, the gamemaster is trying to throw out these hints about deaths down by the shipyards, but no one is taking the bait, because we all had a dozen other things to worry about, and frankly, with that group, you needed a little more to motivate them than "I smell a mystery. Come on, gang." And eventually, I decided to go ahead and pay attention to the ever-more-obvious signals that the waterfront thing needed looking into, and it led to a good series of encounters. But there may have been a few too many balls in the air at that point for us to focus on the one he wanted us to focus on.

Which leads to the ever-present question of railroading. This is a tricky subject, because on the one hand, as players, you don't want to be led by the nose. But on the other hand, especially in the early game, you don't know enough about the world and your characters to act confidently. You need to be led a little and shown what the possibilities and parameters are. And if the gamemaster has gone to the trouble of preparing an adventure, it kinds of sucks for everybody if you deliberately avoid it. Now he's just wasted a ton of effort, and probably not happy about it, while you're sort of wandering around at random wondering why nothing really interesting is happening. Um, it's because you decided to avoid the interesting thing, genius.

But having said that, it became a little obvious at times that there were tracks that we just weren't going to be allowed to go outside, which got a little frustrating sometimes. And there were a lot of situations that were just so complicated, where we really didn't know enough about all the pieces of the problem, where we would just be lost. Like planning the defenses of Avalon and Atlantis. To really set up the defense correctly would have required maps and detailed order of battle information, and a series of encounters sending out scouts and probes to get intelligence back, which would have stretched things out interminably and probably bored the hell out of the other members of the group. And what the GM would almost inevitably fall back on was an NPC channeling Sean Connery and saying, "Perhaps I can be of assistance." The NPC would detail the plan, and we would just sort of say, "Yeah, let's do that. Tell me when to roll dice."

Which ironically is why it's a good thing all these RPG fantasy worlds look mostly the same. The more unfamiliar the world is, the harder it gets to figure out your options. A good thing to remember for my own game if/when I ever run it.

And then there was the Dawn Forge. Great concept. Wonderful, impressive movie moment as we go in and see this incredible device with the glowing plasma discharges and all. But then we try to use it, and are required to roll dice.

And here's the thing: there was no reason to roll dice, except to make it feel gamey. There were no consequences to failure. There was no way we were going to spend a year-and-a-half getting to this thing, only to die because of a random bad roll. And the gamemaster wanted us to have kewl gear as much as we did. So failing a roll didn't mean you couldn't have the gear. It only meant you had to roll longer to get it. Which made it all kind of pointless. If there's no prospect of failure, why bother rolling at all?

On an almost totally unrelated note, I found out that while my daughter was off visiting my mom this past week, she printed out the rules to a role-playing game. It's a very simple one, looks like, that uses chips instead of dice. Instead of rolling dice for skill or combat resolution, each task has a difficulty, and as long as you have a skill level high enough, you succeed (you also have a pool of chips to buff up certain skills-- not having read the rules thoroughly, I think the challenge level remains secret from the players, so you can fail if you fail to bid enough chips to perform the action or something).

On the one hand, I think it's really cool that she's interested in my kind of gaming, and part of me would like to play the game with her and share that experience. However, it's based on the Warriors books, and I just don't know how much patience I would have playing a game about a tribe of feral cats. Urgh. Difficult question.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Farewell to (Hairy) Arms


So this is it, the last Smeaton post (probably). This will be long, but I want to get it out, so bear with me.

The Atlantis campaign is officially over. We played the last real session on Thursday night and had a brief epilogue/wrap party last night. Scotch was sipped, secrets revealed (more plotting to kill Smeaton by the other party members than I was totally comfortable with, actually--don't blame them, but still...), and songs were sung. There ended up being a total of thirteen song parodies inspired by the game, which is just... Oh god, I'm almost a filker. It's seriously embarrassing. It may have been one of the dorkiest evenings I have ever spent in my life, which is saying something, but it was also one of the most fun.

Because this game was something special to all of us, I think. Besides the 13 song parodies, the game also inspired faux tintype portraits, physical props, various other illustrations including portaits of efamar as her character:


Smeaton's original, but too small and plain, sub design:


And Smeaton's letter to Gentry after the night of the demon battle:


As well as a few side porn stories for the ladies, the copious notes written up by the GM for campaign background including a world's worth of locations and a huge cast of NPC's. And then there were my own piles of research for Smeaton, including research on making Scotch, info on early submarine designs, research on period poetry, and even a full manual of light artillery from 1896 I found on Google books. Oh yeah, and the recipes. Seriously. (ETA: And how could I forget that bat-cheva recorded something like the last 10 months of game sessions? Or the CD of soundtrack music and naamah's description of the game's proposed movie trailer that inspired me to construct an audio track of my own version of the trailer?)

And the thing is, it wasn't clear from the start that things would turn out so well. Our previous superhero game had been wildly fun, a laugh-a-minute gonzo ride through space and alternate dimensions. But for the new game, we were not only taking a more serious approach, but also adding two new players, efamar and jormungandr. Jorm had played years ago, but not recently, while efamar had not really gamed at all. Bat-cheva had only one campaign under her belt, and sargon and naamah had been gaming solely with each other for years, and so had developed a very personal gaming style that might not translate to a bigger group.

The early sessions were erratic, trying to find our place in the world and our dynamics as a group. Efamar was very shy and unsure, jorm's character had trouble finding his niche, and bat-cheva felt unequal to the leadership role she found cast upon her. As for me, it took me a while to find Smeaton's voice, but between the first moment I obeyed the impulse to have Smeaton deny the reality of magic and the time I gave the speech about Smeaton's goal in life--selling Smeaton's Own Steam Man whisky from town to town back in Scotland--I think he fell into place.

And about the time jorm dumped Dr. Travis for Strego, the entire group began to click and things got seriously fun. And now we're looking at the next game with some anticipation--because though we loved Atlantis, I think we were all ready to move on--but also with some trepidation, because what if we can never recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle thrill we got during the best parts of the Atlantis game?

Sargon is unsure of the campaign setting he wants to run. I had been planning to propose taking my own turn GMing after Atlantis ended, but I'm barely keeping up with my blogging commitments now. I don't think I could sustain a decent campaign as things stand right now, though I am keeping the notes I've prepared in case circumstances change and I want to try at a later date.

One of the coolest things about the game for me is that the game ended, in dramatic terms, with a kiss between Smeaton and Amice, his secret crush for most of the game. Games are played in basically two modes: dramatic mode, when players speak as their characters in scenes of discussion or action, and narrative mode, when time gets compressed and information in discussed at a higher impersonal level. And as far as I can remember, the last actual scene was between Smeaton and Amice. In a movie, it might look something like this:

Amice plunges the enchanted dagger into Smeaton's chest. He jerks and gasps as magical life flows into him. His eyes fly open to see Amice sitting in his lap--covered in blood, still flushed and panting from the battle, her concerned face only inches from his own, her eyes gazing into his.

Impulsively, he leans forward and kisses her, heedless of the blood. After a moment, she kisses him back. FREEZE FRAME. FADE to sepia as Waylon Jennings narrates.

NARRATOR


And that's the story of how Mister Smeaton freed the hydra goddess and then killed her ass, with a little help from his friends. Smeaton and Amice never really discussed the kiss afterwards. They had both already made other choices with their lives.

DISSOLVE to sepia toned shot of the palace.

NARRATOR


Smeaton eventually married the Empress Leda, while High King Valor returned to Avalon to wed his queen. Lady Victoria and King Acrisian, not to be outdone, had two weddings, and in the years to come, there were children, kittens and puppies for everyone.

DISSOLVE to shot of the mountains in sunset.

NARRATOR


Strego, Son of Thunder, led his followers back to their home in the mountains, where they learned the art of breeding dragons from the Dorks of the North, who were much impressed by Strego's boots.

DISSOLVE to shot of Atlantis as the sun sets over the distant ocean.

NARRATOR

And Amice Belden, the true hero of the Battle of Bel-eth? She assumed the throne formerly held by the late Lady Celaeno. History doesn't record whether rumor ever reached her ears of Empress Consort Smeaton's favorite concubine, a petite brunette redhead who was always seen dressed as a British librarian, and if anyone ever drew a connection between the concubine and the fearsome Witch Queen, they were probably smart enough not to speak such suspicions out loud.

And so everybody lived more or less happily ever after, until Smeaton's son, whom he always called Alfred after his favorite poet, assumed the throne and declared himself Caesar, which never works out for anyone. But that's... another story...

CUE THEME MUSIC. ROLL CREDITS. FADE OUT:

So that's out of my system now, and I move on to a new character (though if anyone wants to write their own alternate ending, go for it).

I'll be back.


Monday, July 25, 2011

The First Avenger

Saw "Captain America: The First Avenger" last night. I was a little doubtful going in, because while I have found Joe Johnston's films enjoyable in the past, he's never struck me as a particularly strong director. And I had been underwhelmed by the last couple of big budget superhero movies I saw ("Thor" and "Green Lantern").

And to tell the truth, Cap has never struck me as an interesting character. I've always loved his design; Kirby really did himself proud designing that costume. But the comics I've read never did much that was interesting with the character of Steve Rogers. Even the writers would regularly get bored with the guy and have him quit for a while, or, you know, shoot him in the head.

But I seriously loved the movie. The pacing is good, the action scenes much more intense than I expected (the later scenes really capture the frantic mass action Kirby would often evoke with Cap, leaping over the heads of dozens of Nazis while flinging his shield), and the Marvel mythos is worked in abundantly without being too intrusive. Bucky is reworked into an interesting and vital character, which I never expected. The art direction, special effects and period details shine.

But best of all is that this really is a movie about Steve Rogers. In the comics (see Hero Go Home on Saturday for a look at Cap's first appearance), Steve Rogers is a 4-F rejectee given a second chance to enlist via a special serum that makes him into a super-soldier. But once he becomes Cap, the comic never really looks back. Captain America becomes sort of iconic, and his commanding presence is such that even gods accept his orders without question. Which is cool and heroic, but also kind of boring.

But the movie never lets you forget that big Captain America grew up as little Steve Rogers, and Chris Evans really sells the character's heart and courage in a way that I never imagined he could from the previous projects I've seen him in.

It's not perfect. The movie does start to feel kind of long after a while, and if you're an old-school Marvel fan, there is a momentary bit of dislocation you have to work through when they introduce Sergeant Fury's Howling Commandos (never named as such) and you realize there will be no Sergeant Fury to lead them, because he's Samuel L. Jackson and in the movie-verse, he hasn't been born yet.

Bu overall, the movie kicks all kinds of ass. This is definitely one I'll add to my library when it comes out on disc.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Smeaton Sings


Yes, the Atlantis game is still chugging along, though drawing to a climax soon. And so, I thought it was a good time to reveal a particular aspect of Smeaton's character that has gone unrevealed to the others for over a year. And because the Atlantis game is unlike any other RPG I've ever played, I ended up revealing the secret in a song.

Lemme 'splain. No, is too much. Lemme sum up: efamar and jormungandr have been treating us to song parodies about our characters for a while now. I've got a stack of them in the back of my game binder, parodies of "A Whole New World" and "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and others. I didn't participate because, though I have written songs before and enjoy the discipline that comes with lyric writing, well, I have to get pretty inspired to do it. The last song I wrote IIRC was composed while driving in a military convoy around northern South Korea.

But then jorm sent around a link to a video of a guy named Matt Mulholland doing a mournful minor-key cover of Rebecca Black's "Friday." And I thought it was cool, so I watched some of his other videos, and ran across an acapella multitrack of Ceelo Green's "Fuck You."

Which sparked something in me, because Smeaton has long had a secret crush on someone else in the group, and a not-so-secret grudge against her boyfriend. And when I actually sang the song for everyone over the weekend (and BTW, having not sung in front of people in years, I had to rehearse a lot--try to imagine what it felt like walking around work for two or three days constantly singing "Fuck You" under your breath), I don't know how many pieces actually fell into place for the people listening, but a few big ones obviously did.

But for the benefit of completeness, here is the timeline of the Smeaton crush (pause while everybody else who knows nothing about the game scrolls down to the next post or else leaves entirely).

THE MEETING: Smeaton wasn't actually impressed by Amice Belden when he met her. She was pretty enough, but bookish and full of fancies about so-called "magic."

THE CHIMERA: His attitude toward her changed over time, especially when they went upcountry to battle a chimera. She showed amazing spirit and bravery, yet still remained feminine and somehow fragile. A contradiction.

THE SOLDIERS: Smeaton kept his feelings buried most of the time, but when the group tried to flee the country to avoid arrest by British soldiers due to their association with the spy, Dr. Travis, he let his feelings show just the slightest bit. When the soldiers leveled their rifles, he cried "Amice" (not "Miss Belden"--one of maybe three times in the entire game he has done that, and nobody ever notices) and tackled her to the ground, covering her body with his. She was very annoyed at his sexism.

The trip to and from the city of the Ghuls did not allow much time for him to dwell on his feelings, what with the seasickness and the Hesperian woman and the giant hydra and all. Amice became more involved with her magical studies and Smeaton wondered if it was simply not meant to be.

CUPID'S ARROW: During a strategy session at Lord Acrisian's house, Smeaton was struck through the heart with an assassin's arrow. Everyone else went their separate ways in the subsequent battle, but Miss Belden ventured down to the lawn where Smeaton lay on the verge of death to bring him back. This was also where the group met rather slippery Jareth Rosewood, spy and scout.

THE WET T-SHIRT: While fighting a sea serpent, Smeaton was swallowed whole and carried off. The others pursued the creature to a submerged cave to rescue him. Amice cast off her heavy dress and swam down in only her shift. Though he tried to bluff his way through, Smeaton was not immune to the beauty on full display.

THE PRINCESS AND THE DEMON: Smeaton's feelings became very confused when he met a beautiful princess imprisoned in a tower. She claimed that she had seen visions of him all her life, and long ago fallen in love with him. They began an affair which seemed doomed, for her visions also showed him being killed protecting her from a fearsome demon. The battle, when it came, though, saw Smeaton emerge victorious against near-impossible odds.

But it was clear that the victory was only temporary. Whoever had sent the demon would merely send another, perhaps stronger, to finish the job. Smeaton needed help to sort this out. And who should show up at precisely the moment he needed help with precisely the help he needed but Amice Belden? As if she knew instinctively, as if they were somehow connected.

THE PIRATES: Once Smeaton's submarine was finally finished, the group set off to find the lost tomb that would give them clues to the location of the next phase of their quest. Along the way, they were beset by pirates. While Smeaton tried to seal the barrel of the deck gun so the sub could dive safely, he was struck by arrows and fell, senseless, into the water below. With no thought for her own safety, Amice cast herself over the gunwale to save him from drowning. Smeaton began to think she might care for him as much as he was coming to care for her. He was even considering finding a way to split amicably from Leda when they reached the Triton city, where things changed.

THE BUGGER AND THE BABY: Once the group reached the Triton city, however, everything went wrong. Leda and Smeaton ended up in some drunken orgy that he only barely remembers, while at the same time, Rosewood and Amice became lovers. Not long after, Leda informed Smeaton that she carried his baby. Smeaton's opportunity had passed.

THE PACT: Smeaton decided his first responsibility was to the child, and so decided that his loyalties must lie with Leda. However, his distrust of the Viceroy and the current Emperor led him to a dark decision: to insure his child's safety (as much as it could be insured), he must overthrow the throne of Atlantis and see Leda made Empress instead. And the first person he approached with the plan was Amice. He still didn't dare reveal his feelings, but now they shared a secret. It was something.

THE POSSESSION: Unfortunately, Amice was soon taken over by the spirit of an evil ancestor, a powerful ancient sorcerer named Daath. She turned against her friends and caused them to be routed in a crucial battle. And here we depart the actual history for a small meta-digression. I would sometimes prepare speeches for Smeaton to deliver in case a certain situation arose. They were often memorable: the Steam Man Whiskey speech, the "We're in Hell" speech, the Dougal Bloody Smeaton speech. I had actually prepared a "Come back to me, My Amice, My Love" speech for Dougal if he ever had occasion to come face-to-face with Dark Amice. Alas, he was off kicking the asses of an entire army of barbarians and giants while the others got to facilitate Amice's return from Heel to Face. Oh, and Rosewood earned Smeaton's enmity by stealing Smeaton's favorite dagger. Bastard.

THE MIND-READING: Nothing further developed between the two during the trip to the Dawn Forge in the furthest reaches of the north, but there was one dangerous moment (not counting the danger of the giant evil-sorcerer-possessed automaton). While debating the fate of the Forge, Lady Victoria used her newly developed powers of telepathy to read Smeaton's mind. If she had tried to read deeply and learn his secrets, the truth might have come out, but she specifically stated that she was only trying to read surface thoughts regarding Smeaton's intentions concerning the Forge. And so his secret feelings remained secret. And his resentment of Rosewood grew.

THE ASSASSINATION AND THE DEATH OF CELAENO: Lately Smeaton's trust in Amice was shaken when she offered to "fake" Leda's assassination as the factions have begun their battle for the Dragon Throne. Smeaton had no guarantee that the assassination would not be real, and it certainly looked real. But in the end, he chose to trust his heart in trusting Amice, and during the subsequent battle with the sorceress Celaeno, Amice healed him back from the brink of death (resulting in another rare use of her given name when Smeaton thanked her).

Truth be told, Smeaton may never reveal his feelings for Amice, almost certainly not while Leda's alive, especially since it seems evident by now that she does not reciprocate them in the least. Which is fine. I mean, there's a reason why you never hear "romantic" as one of the adjectives bandied about concerning Scottish men, and Smeaton is a stiff upper lip-type. He's good at expressing anger, but other emotions, not so much.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thinking About the Future, Except...

Something weird is happening with Hero Go Home. I updated the Wordpress install, and now traffic has dropped to zero. It was never big, but there was always something.

It puts a crimp in my ideas for the next step. I had thought to abandon the serialization idea, since hardly anyone was reading the novel anyway. Almost all of my traffic was coming from the movie and comics articles, so I figured I would focus almost exclusively on those and just put up links to the ebooks.

But now I wonder if maybe I shouldn't give up on the story content. It occurs to me that people weren't reading the novel because...

1. The first chapter didn't have an effective enough hook

2. The chapters were too long.

3. Once a week wasn't a frequent enough release schedule to make it a habit to come back.

So how to fix it?

My thought is that instead of doing one big 2500~ word post a week, I emulate the old Adventures of Superman/Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar template and strip the chapters into five 500-word episodes a week. And I work harder (which I did starting about 10 chapters into the previous novel) to build in cliffhanger endings. With the short episode length, I couldn't waste any words. I would have to write punchier, funnier, and more aggressively.

And I wouldn't have to abandon the other features. I was previously writing other features while doing a 2500-word chapter a week, so the word counts are not impossible. I may have to get by with fewer frame-captures and scans though.

Although I want to keep as much of that as I can. I'm also contemplating changing the blog template to something splashier and more exciting, with a bolder approach to the graphics. This might stretch my GIMP abilities to the limit, but I want to do everything I can to make people want to come back to the site, and appealing graphics can do that.

I don't have a storyline yet, of course. My previous planned story idea, Digger's Big Con, probably wouldn't be exciting enough. It's got a murder mystery structure, which means a lot of setting up and introducing characters and not much happening until somebody dies. I need something that grabs from the first page. So as I prep Hero Go Home for ebook publication, I'll also be rolling ideas around in my head for a completely different type of turbo-charged Digger adventure.

Of course, first I need to make sure I haven't somehow broken my site. It still shows up for me, both from Favorites and from Google searches. But something's definitely wrong.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Outcome

She did not recover. The funeral is tomorrow.

I'm not sure how my dad is going to adjust to her being gone. They were together for 39 years, and she did a lot for him. I'm sure those roles were reversed somewhat these last few years as she was hobbled by her own health problems, but not completely. I'm actually debating whether I should try to find a job in the Muskogee area and move up there to stay with him.

That would be a difficult prospect in a lot of ways, but part of me thinks he really needs it. And the idea of a fresh start is appealing after the mess of the last few years.It's nothing I can decide on the spur of the moment, though. Both the Biggest Mistake of My Life and the misadventure of Casa Estrogen should serve as warnings against jumping into new situations too quickly in the aftermath of life changing events.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Spiral and the Plunge

My stepmother is in the hospital. It is not trivial. She is currently on a respirator, because she is unable to breathe on her own. The doctors are keeping her in a forced coma, so that she will not dislodge her feeding and breathing tubes. If it weren't for the occasional involuntary swallow, you could mistake her for a corpse having air forcibly pumped into her lungs.

Which is not to say that she is as good as dead. Her heartbeat and blood pressure are good, and the CT showed no evidence of a stroke, which they initially feared. It appears to be pneumonia, and the doctors hope that once they have cleared up the infection, they can back off the respirator and let her breathe on her own again. Past experience tells me that people apparently at death's door can fight back and live well for several more years.

But it brings home so many things. The thing is, she and my father and my mother and my step-father have all experienced rapid and lingering declines in health over the past year or so. My wife's grandmother as well. I mean, they've all had problems for decades--heart problems, bowel problems, osteoarthritic problems. Bad knees, bad backs, bad teeth, thinning hair... The same slow downward spiral that I'm now starting to experience. But recently, the decline has accelerated into a plunge.

It's scary to see them all deteriorate so quickly, and all at once. Scarier still to show up at the hospital and see my step-brother for the first time in several years--his head shaved nearly bald to hide his natural hair loss, pudgy, with glasses and a stark-white goatee. My dark-haired athletic brother has somehow morphed into Burl Ives. And when I look in the mirror, it's hard to deny the evident miles on my own odometer.

Just as I am starting to feel optimistic about my possibilities for the future, I am reminded that my time is finite, and there's a good possibility that much of it will involve a frustrating downward slide that I'm helpless to stop. My dad and I talked a lot yesterday, about the past and the future. He spoke with some bitterness that I've never sensed from him before. He is a private man, secretive, like me only more so, because he doesn't have the same inclinations toward being a raconteur that I have.

He told me about how much weight he has lost recently. I felt his arm and his thigh and was shocked. My father spent most of his life on one crutch, because polio had rendered one leg useless. He walked on one leg and one arm and used the other arm to carry what other people used two to do. His arms were steel, his good leg an oak. Now his limbs are thin and frail. It's hard to accept, and harder still to accept that I'll be there too, and sooner than I like to think.

But at the same time, I published the final chapter of Hero Go Home on Friday, and got a comment that said, "AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! THIS WAS EPIC!!!" and another, more reasoned comment that was also very complimentary, so even while I'm scared and contemplating my own and others' mortality, I'm also feeling pretty good. Life refuses to be pinned down to one emotional response at a time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong

So I have not been getting the results out of my diet that past experience tells me I should be getting. Either I'm doing something terribly wrong, or else my system just doesn't react in my late 40's the way it did ten years ago (probably a bit of both). So in the process of tweaking to find a more effective approach, I decided to try giving up soda for a week.

Disaster. After two days, my weight had gone up two pounds. Why? Because without the occasional sweet kick of diet soda, I ended up turning to actual sweets, which (I'm guessing) spiked my insulin and led me to retain water. Not a big problem in the overall scheme of things, but it's obviously a step in the wrong direction. So today, I switched back to soda, and I haven't been tempted by cookies or frozen pops.

I also tried working out again today after taking an extra couple of days off due to soreness from the run. And that was a disaster, too. I don't know if I tried working out too early in the day since I'm now accustomed to working out in the afternoon, or just too soon after breakfast. but my energy crashed big-time, and I had to quit. A couple of hours later, I tried again, changing up the order, and got through most everything, but seriously. I used to be able to figure out my body's signals better than this.

I mean, it's not as if I'm getting no results. It's just that the results so far are merely tangible. Which means that I can't really see any results in the mirror nor on the scale (over a month of weigh-ins, and today I weighed in one pound less than the day I started keeping track). But I can feel the results when, say, I shower. My body is firmer and stronger, but nowhere near where I should be after over a month of diet and exercise.

In other news, I finished Hero Go Home last night and set it to drop Friday, and now I'm casting about for a final plan for herogohome.com to continue. I intend to pick up Super Movie Mondays again, as well as another possible feature that might be fun. Ideas are developing for my new book, but I'm still not sure it's the one I want to write right now. And I'm pretty sure that it's about the least commercial idea I will ever have, while what I need right now is a moneymaker.

But you can't fake the funk on that stuff. Trying to chase a commercial trend right now would probably not only not make me any money, but also result in a worse book.

I do have four other ideas: two Diggers (prequel and sequel), a Secret Project I've toyed with for over a year that I could not publish under my own name, and an expanded version of my fragment from last year's Christmas contest (in which Santa Claus is a soldier-of-fortune having international adventures in the months between Christmases).

I don't really have a plot for that last one, but of all my character and setting ideas, that one looks as if it would stand the best chance of selling as a YA novel. Other than that, I've got nothing. So it looks like 20's supernatural detective for now, and hope like hell that somehow comes into vogue by the time I'm ready to submit to somebody.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Green Lantern

My ass hurts. I did my normal workout a couple of days ago, doing kettlebell swings, which really work your legs and butt. Then yesterday, I got the bright idea to try running for the first time in ages. My legs did not thank me. Now every step I take, my thighs and butt ache.

Went to see Green Lantern today, and BTW there are spoilers in here, but seriously: it's Green Lantern. How can you really "spoil" it?

I'd heard awful things about the movie, but it wasn't as horrible as I expected. Ryan Reynolds makes a fun hero and there were some decent things happening in the script.

Unfortunately, the good things they did were overshadowed by two problems, one major and the other one... well, pretty major, but only to those who recognize the references.

The first problem: the two big opposing forces are identified by color--Green signifying Will, and Yellow signifying Fear. The Green Lanterns and the Guardians are the good guys, while the bad guy is a former guardian gone rogue (yellow). It's the Jedi and the Sith, only less subtle. It's like a Rainbow Brite version of Star Wars, and you know you're on shaky ground when people say you're oversimplifying Star Wars.

The second major problem: the good guys keep talking about how their power derives from Will. Now, in the Silver Age Green Lantern comics, the term was "willpower." And I'm not such a dorky fanboy that I quibble over them changing the wording, except that "Will" has unfortunate connotations.

But hey, it's not as if this were the only Hollywood film to pay tribute to Leni Riefenstahl.

Hands down, the worst scene in the movie is the one where Hal Jordan goes to the Guardians to ask for help in fighting the evil, and somehow manages to talk them into allowing him to fight alone instead. Truly makes no damn sense.

But the effects are good and Tim Robbins dies horribly, so it's not all bad.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Transformation Illusion

So I really desperately need a new job, or some pathway to writing success, neither of which are in the offing right now. Because my life feels really positive right now, but only because I'm completely ignoring a couple of very large financial hammers poised to drop on my head.

What I'm saying is, I'm functioning better than I have in almost three years, but only by basically ignoring or denying reality. How bad has it gotten? A few times in the past couple of weeks, I've actually wondered about the feasibility of moving back in with my wife (yes, the one who's divorcing me).

I understand part of why it's happening. Several big things have changed in the past few weeks. I've been moved to a different job area at work, which has resulted in me having a more consistent and predictable schedule, which has done wonders for my attitude. And my wife's grandmother has moved out of the house, which would make living there more endurable.

But the biggest part has been that I've started a diet and exercise regimen. And here's where the danger zone is for me, because I've gone through this a few times before.

As I transform my body, I begin to enter this trance where I feel as if everything in my life could potentially change radically for the better, if only I would have the confidence to try. I don't know if it's low blood sugar or just too many crappy movies, but it seems to happen every time.

Like today. I spent the afternoon shopping around the mall looking at the things I want to buy when my finances magically change for the better after I've finished working through the immediate issues in my life and completed my physical transformation.

But here's the thing: the shape I want to be in, I've been in before. The weight I want to achieve, I've achieved before. And my life did not suddenly get better. Women did not suddenly find me more attractive, my self-confidence didn't skyrocket and job offers didn't come pouring in.

This is not to say that my life can't get better, only that there's nothing magic about weighing 150 lbs. that will make things radically better than weighing 165 lbs. And while it was nice to spend the afternoon in a trance, fantasizing about a better life, I actually need to get to work to make it happen, and even then, it probably won't, not in a hugely dramatic way, anyway.

And speaking of fantasy, I have a problem. I have accumulated a shit-ton of plastic 2-liter soda bottles. I have been loath to throw them out with the regular garbage, because they are mostly air, which seem like a waste of trash bag volume to me. At one time, I was cutting the bottles in half and stacking the halves inside one another to save space, but that's a lot of work, and I have too many bottles now to contemplate such a move.

So what's a good way to dispose of a bunch of 2-liter bottles? Yes, I know the problem took a long time to reach its current proportions, but I'd still like a solution that's a) relatively easy and b) relatively quick. Perhaps I'm asking too much, but then, I've spent the afternoon in a trance.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wrapping Up and Looking Forward


No, this post is not about my impending divorce, although the title certainly fits that as well.

Hero Go Home will be officially wrapping up next week. The final chapter publishes on July 1, and with any luck, I'll have the entire thing available as an ebook by August 1, exactly one year after I published the first chapter on-line.

The experience has been really interesting. Since I had already written two previous drafts of the story, I was able to keep up with deadlines at many points by simply defaulting to large chunks of stuff that had already been written. On the other hand, entire chapters were written completely from scratch, and the storyline overall is very different from the previous drafts, even though some incidents play out almost exactly the same.

What has really been interesting for the last few weeks, though, is how the process of writing the climax has progressed. Normally, when writing the climax, I really barrel along. I can sometimes barely ooze out the middle act, but when I get to the big action setpiece at the end, I get in the zone and can knock out 5,000 words in a day, easy.

This time, though, strangely, exactly the opposite has happened. Forced by the deadlines of weekly serialization, I cranked out the middle chapters at a good clip. And now that I'm at the end, that same weekly chapter pace has me lingering over every paragraph, rereading and polishing over and over.

And then comes the agonizing choice of what to do next. Part of me wants to do the Johnny-Dollar-Meets-Cthulhuzilla book, while part of me wants to try writing for one of those houses that publishes exploitative crap under house names. Then again, part of me wants to write something that my daughter will enjoy reading. Guess which option I totally don't have an idea for? There's also another Digger novel partially plotted, but I'm a little Digger'd out right now.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Musical Romance Without Vampires

Just finished watching the Korean drama I Am Legend yesterday, which not only has nothing to do with vampires, but turns out to be sort of the exception which proves the rule with Korean drama. I think I had mentioned before that the shows function mainly on strong writing that overshadows all the other elements.

I Am Legend was written well enough, but what really carried the show was the performance by lead actress Kim Jung Eun. She plays Jeon Seol Hee, a former wild child in high school who is currently trapped in a loveless marriage with a high-powered attorney from a rich family. They got married after she accidentally got pregnant, and after a miscarriage, her husband and mother-in-law never forgave her. They treat her with utter contempt, and she suspects her husband is having an affair with another attorney at work. Seol Hee spends most of her time feeling isolated and miserable.

There is only one bright spot in her life. She still rehearses with her high-school garage band, rocking out wherever they can manage to find a practice space. They don't perform in public--her husband's family would never allow it, for one thing--but she likes to imagine them playing for adoring crowds.

But when her sister is diagnosed with leukemia and her husband and mother-in-law forbid her from donating marrow to save her sister's life, it's the last straw. Seol Hee moves out and asks for a divorce. It seems at first as if this will be a drama mainly about Seol Hee finding a new life with her band and new love with another musician, but it doesn't quite work that way.

The divorce plot ends up eating about half the series before it's completely resolved, but instead of clearing the decks for the band's story to really take center stage (to mix some metaphors), it merely makes way for a completely unrelated legal case to start up, as Seol Hee takes a job with the lawyer who helped her with her divorce. The second half of the series splits time between the band and the legal case. Seol Hee is like a Korean Erin Brockovich, if she had also been Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go's in her spare time.

So the writing ends up being pretty much all over the place, and though there are some really good moments, the story overall kind of disappoints. Two things really make the series memorable: the music (the women playing the band members are all musicians and have continued to play as the fictional band even after the series ended, sort of like The Monkees) and the performance by Kim Jung Eun.

What really sells her performance is her eyes. In scenes where she is confronted with a crisis, she gets the crazy eyes.


It's hard to describe or capture in a single frame, but it happens over and over again: she faces some kind of adversity and is ready to give up, go along just to get along, until someone decides to push her just a little too far. Then her eyes flash with this almost desperate energy, and the next thing you know, she's fighting back, hard, whether it's in the divorce against her husband, or in a bar fight against a couple of drunken thugs messing with one of her friends. She even gets much the same look when their first public gigs with the band don't go the way they'd hoped.



And then about two thirds of the way through, the band has one of their first major gigs at a music festival, where they debut their signature song, "Comeback Madonna." The lyrics in the bridge are about pushing forward in life and love, knowing that you are worth the effort. And the first time she sings it, she's singing to the man who helped her write the song, her new love interest who is serving as the band's unofficial mentor. Her eyes are full of affection, and it's a nice moment.


But then they hit the instrumental break, and she sees her evil mother-in-law standing in the audience. One of the big issues during the divorce was the husband's family trying to keep her from performing in public, to keep from being an embarrassment to her husband, who had political ambitions. So needless to say, Mom-in-Law has never shown up to a gig before, and isn't there to be loving and supportive.

As Seol Hee notices the evil old woman glaring at her from the audience, she falters and her hands fall away from the keyboard (although the piano on the soundtrack keeps playing--a sad technical glitch distracting from such a dramatic moment). But then she gets that flash in her eyes again, and when she resumes the bridge, she's singing to her former mother-in-law with defiant joy (which once again was hard to capture in a single frame, but I did my best).


It's a brilliant moment, and I almost wish the series had ended there, because it never quite got that good again afterward.

Another scene that I wish I had screencapped when I first saw it because I can't find again without practically watching the series over featured an incredibly subtle performance by Kim Seung Soo as her ex-husband. There's a scene where the attorney he's having the affair with proposes that they take their relationship public after the divorce (an impossible prospect, since she is divorced with a child, unsuitable for a man with ambitions for a political career).

Kim Seung Soo plays his role in the mold of other stone-faced Asian men, playing most of his scenes very cool and neutral. So as the other woman makes her proposal, his expression remains almost unchanged; I could screencap the first and last frames of the shot, and you would be hard-pressed to spot the difference. Yet you can see in a miniscule twitch around his eyes and mouth how the wall slams down emotionally between the two in the matter of a second. It's a really well-played scene.