Monday, 30 November 2009

This writing lark is hard!

It isn't that I thought it was easy. I always knew that writing creatively was hard, but I never knew just how hard until I started. I'm no less committed to the process than I was when I was giddy with inspiration and enthusiasm but that enthusiasm has now been tempered by a little experience. I think that this is a part of the journey. The realities of getting a story from the confines of my twisted mind onto paper in a way that captures the mind of my reader are quite harsh. The information the reader needs to appreciate the story (exposition) must be decided with some clarity and must come across naturally rather than my current style of, what my friends politely call, infodump. Brevity is something that happens to writers. I also need to flesh out my protagonist more in my own mind before I can bring him to life on paper.

These along with a host of other challenges can seem overwhelming at first, particularly when I think I've got a really cool story that I desperately want to tell. If I could only find the words to tell it well. I'm also trying to be as original as I can and am resisting the temptation to blatantly thieve the storytelling tools of my many betters. For example, Dan Abnett, storyteller supreme has been known to preface a chapter with an excerpt of faux history to help set the scene. Gosh what a clever little device! If I use it am I being hopelessly unoriginal or am I simply learning my lessons and not trying to reinvent the wheel? I'm not sure.

Looking over my first aborted piece I also came to realise that what I wanted was a short story but the way I was writing made it clear that I was really undecided between a short story and a novel. It is in my nature to start with a big picture which, when down to brass tacks, becomes a plethora of small details that I get lost in, never to be found. The name of the planet on which our intrepid hero is fighting the forces of evil...what kind of planet...where did the evil originate and how did it this part of a sector wide conflict or local to this world only? And so on until I'm so thoroughly knotted that I can't see the proverbial wood for the trees.

Last night I though of an idea that I suspect would be truly elementary to the most inexperienced writer. I went to bed with a notebook (oh behave!) and jotted down as much of the above questions as I could and as many answers as I could find until I could no longer keep my eyes open. This was in the hope that by putting it on paper it would get out of my head and leave some space to think about the other elements of the story and its characters. It seems to have worked...mostly. I think there's going to be many more sessions of scratchy pencil writing before I put hand to keyboard again and methinks this is a good thing.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Why I Love Penny Arcade.

There are two guys out there on the interwebs who have become rather important to me over the last few years. Tonight, for reasons that I'll make clear, felt like the time to write about it so here I sit tapping away at my keyboard in the hope that I can find the words to express why these guys mean so much to me. To millions of fans all over the World Wide Web they are affectionately know as Tycho and Gabe or, in the real world, as Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. They are the creators of Penny Arcade, a comic/news site about computer games and gaming culture in general.

I found my way to their hallowed website after a good friend said something along the lines of "dude! Check out these Penny Arcade dudes, they're awesome!"...Okay so it wasn't quite so "fratboy" but that's how I've chosen to remember it!

To my mind they started out as two guys who just wanted to see if there were others out there who shared their perspective on what is good, bad or ugly about computer games and the companies that spawn them and have evolved into a force that fights injustice and keeps the industry honest. Their PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) conventions brings in 60,000 gamers annually which makes the industry sit up and take notice and their home made charity "Child's Play" which purchases toys for long term child hospital patients, has raised over five million dollars since it's inception in 2003!

I realise that the "fights injustice" phrase makes it seem like I'm fitting them for capes...and I am...but I'm actually making a real point here. Barely a week passes by without some hysterical media type/politician tolling the bell for the "evil" gaming industry and its army of borderline psychopaths, Gamers! We are often portrayed as being one very small step from going "postal" and killing innocents in some game fuelled rampage. This is often inspired by a, tragic, news story in which some deeply disturbed individual who has gone on said rampage is shown to have gaming links. We and our hobby are then all roundly condemned, as if we're all the same! As if we are all one dimensional lunatics!

What Penny Arcade has done is to challenge this nonsense with wit, charm and tremendous patience in the face of popularist hysteria. They really do lend a powerful voice to those who feel they have none and have shown the world that gamers are three dimensional people, with all that that implies, and not dangerous stereotypes on the edge of meltdown.

But is this why I love them? Well...yes...and no. I've finally figured out what it is. It's because they make me laugh. Time and again. Whether it's Jerry's extraordinary prose or Mike's "in-your-face" yet paradoxically subtle artwork they make me laugh and laugh again. Their jokes are, more often than not, in-jokes but I'm in the club that gets them and it's a wonderful place to be.

So, just one more thing to clear up. What made me write this tonight? They recently started airing their own reality show about their lives and creative processes and I watched the first episode tonight. For me it really brought to life all the impressions of them I had already picked up from their work and I was surprised at how moved I was by seeing them in the flesh and in the world. It highlighted something I didn't realise I already knew and brought it to coruscating life. These are two really special guys.

If you're the one or two gamers out there who haven't already heard of them head on over to their site and have a look see. Allow yourself to be taken in by Jerry's wit and eloquence and Mike's amazing visual style and gags and in so doing add a new dimension to your gaming.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Writing Experience.

So where did the story go? Well, I deleted it. Not totally of course but having gotten some really useful feedback from some very talented friends I decided I wanted a do-over.

Hi everyone, I'm Phil and I'm a perfectionist...Hi Phil!

I joke but it's a real problem. Once I recognised what they were telling me I was no longer comfortable leaving it up there. I tried to tell myself that it was my first attempt and should bear witness to my sitting down and getting on with it at last. That idea lasted all of thirty to forty minutes. I got this knot in my stomach and after a moments contemplation I realised why. There for all the...two or three of you that had seen it were my many and varied mistakes and I needed to do better! The pace of the story was far too slow, I tried to cram too much information into too small a space without really moving the story forward and the lengthy descriptions really didn't help build a picture for the reader.

I want to do it better, I need to do it better. It will never be perfect, that's both a part of the human condition and one of the real buggers about being a perfectionist. It is unattainable.

What really surprised me about the writing experience was how all my own issues were brought to the fore by the writing process. It shouldn't have surprised me that doing something creative, a deeply personal experience, would reveal some of the values/issues at the very heart of who I am. And yet surprised I was.

Fantastic! It now lends this new endeavor a broader context. Not only am I working to realise a fledgling talent that I've wanted to express for years. In the process I will have a chance to wrestle with some personal demons and maybe, just maybe, I'll win one for a change.

Like I said, watch this space...

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Inspiration, Wil Wheaton style!

For anyone that reads my blog and remains unaware. Wil Wheaton is an actor, writer, blogger, a lover and a fighter and an all round great guy. His most recent blog post, "Get Excited and Make Things" seems to have lit the fires of creativity under a few thousand people and inspired them to..well..get really excited and make things. It does exactly what it says on the tin! A rarity in this day and age.

Though I started this blog before the above post it was his blog, amongst others, that inspired me to get mine started. I have wanted to write creatively for so long that I can't remember a time when I didn't and though I have no idea if anyone is even reading what I write, I'm enjoying the process nonetheless. So, what inspiration do I take from Wil's post? Well, when I was a wee nipper I used to get great pleasure from writing stories and yet, though the thought has occurred to me a thousand times I have never put my butt in the chair and started to write. I think about my favourite authors, Dan Abnett chief amongst them, and the stories that they pen with such fascinating characters & attention to detail...and I become so intimidated by their genius that whatever creativity I possess dries right up.

However, Wil of clan Wheaton has galvanised me to stop moaning, get excited and write things! The story will be set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a Gothic scifi setting of such colour, depth and complexity that it has held me enthralled for years. I will likely post the story on this very blog (in parts?) and I will be relying on you, dear reader, to give me feedback so I can grow as a writer and produce something that earns your precious time. If, by some miracle, the work becomes of any interest I may well separate it off into its own blog to keep it apart from my more random musings. It ain't going to be a quick process but I intend to start tonight.

Watch this space...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Kindle 2, the future of reading? Not for me!

I'll try and keep this brief. I really want to buy a Kindle 2...but I can't. Why? Well it goes like this, I mostly read rather niche science fiction but even when I expand my horizons to look for books that might interest me I still can't find anything in the Kindle store that would begin to justify the expense. Not only that but the Kindle seems to be for our American friends and we Brits have been added as an afterthought. Not encouraging when being asked to part with just over £200!

So why isn't this the end of the conversation? The product clearly isn't up to the task so I should keep my money and be on my merry, however, I haven't seen my floor in a long time and this is because it is covered in books. The thought of a sleek ebook reader that might reacquaint me with my floor is both practical and appeals to my inner ubergeek! I love the look of the thing and want to buy one but with no ebooks of interest what use is it? Amazon claim that their vision is to have every book in print available on it. An admirable aim but is it really achievable? Even now certain books are only available in the States because they are licensed on a country by country basis. Clearly publishers, keen to protect their intellectual property rights, remain unconvinced by this technological marvel.

I'm left with the conclusion that the Kindle 2 is a technology whose time hasn't yet come. It seems my floor and I must be kept apart for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Afghanistan, Britain's Vietnam?

Before I blather about this topic let me be clear about one thing. I have enormous respect for the men and women of Britain's armed forces and believe that they do an exceptional job of which we should be very proud. What I wish to explore is the motives and thinking of the government that has sent our troops out there in apparent defiance of the powerful historical precedents.

I realise even as I sit down to write that this is a very complex topic. I don't really expect to open your eyes to its true depths because, frankly, I don't understand them myself. I just want to ask one question that has been growing in my mind for some time. Is Afghanistan in serious danger of becoming Britain's very own Vietnam? A long war of attrition against an entrenched enemy with a powerful ideology that has seen them defeat one seemingly almighty invader already.

Vietnam had a lengthy history of foreign dominion before the Americans put their oar in and sure enough, as in every previous occasion, the American invaders were eventually seen off but only after a brutal ten year conflict that scarred both countries forever more. We seem to be heading down the same path.

The Russians entered Afghanistan at the request of the home grown communist government and began what turned out to be a vicious nine year war. Foreign invaders seeking to trample their ideology is not news to the Taliban and I suspect that they and many Afghans see their current leaders as a corrupt puppet government who will soon be out on their ear.

With the historical context and current realities I cannot see a way out. I cannot see how it is possible to defeat a highly experienced and religiously/ideologically inspired guerrilla army with conventional forces. Exactly like Vietnam! Taliban or Viet Cong the parallels are plentiful and very worrying.

Several times a week now we hear of the tragic deaths of our soldiers and the equipment shortages that they, and notably some of their senior officers, feel are making a dangerous job into a near suicidal one. They continue road patrols because it is felt (and perhaps correctly so) that a presence on the ground is essential for victory, but no one has made at all clear what that victory would look like! The total destruction of the Taliban would seem to me to be the only way forward and yet history has taught us again and again, you cannot kill an idea. These men believe that they are fighting for the survival of their faith and traditions. A version of Islam shared by thousands if not millions over the world.

Are we sending our troops over there to die in a war with no hope of victory? Will we eventually be forced to withdraw in disgrace and in so doing make a mockery of the sacrifice of so many soldiers? If history is any indication the answer seems to be yes.

And yet, I am also aware that the government and more importantly the commanders in the field and at home are very aware of the historical precedents and still seem to feel that things are, largely, going according to plan. However, the reasons for our being there seem to have changed from when we first got involved. This leads me to one of two conclusions, either they have a clear plan that they believe will lead to a victory within parameters that aren't clear to us or they believe that a long war of attrition with no hope of any victory is still better than an alternative they fear but we know nothing of.

The latter explanation seems distressingly plausible and leaves me with grave misgivings about this war. In my mind's eye I can already see a panicked withdrawal ten years from now with nothing to show for our efforts. The psychological scars this will leave on our nation are significant if America's experience is anything to go by. In fact the scars are already starting to show.

Is there an honourable way out? Or having committed ourselves must we soldier on in the face of a seemingly hopeless task?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Webseries, introducing a personal favourite.

During the recent summer break whilst enjoying some much needed downtime I came across a webseries that really opened my eyes to the potential of the internet as a resource for serious comedy...okay a teensy oxymoron there but I soldier on. For many of you I suspect that your first thought is "where have you been?!" but it was news to me and so I am led to think there may be others who are living in darkness and can be brought into the light.

There are many webseries out there and many worthy of mention but the one that has really grabbed me is The Guild. Created and written by Felicia Day the mother of all geek icons, it tells the story of a group of gamers who play together in an MMORPG that bears a striking and deliberate resemblance to the much loved World of Warcraft.

Focusing on their interactions in real life as well as some in-game moments it brings to life the stereotypical socially awkward gaming archetypes with, as they say, hilarious results. For me the laughs are to be found in the exaggerated yet eerily accurate portrayals of the socially inept at play and the variety of neuroses on display is as comprehensive as it is laugh out loud funny. From creepy yet lovable stalker 'Zaboo' played by the brilliant Sandeep Parikh to the deadpan insanity of 'Vork' brought to side splitting life by the inspired Jeff Lewis not to mention all the others that make up this extraordinary cast of comic geniuses.

And yet as a gamer I also see some of myself in the characters. The part of me that recognises the far less threatening opportunities for relationship and challenge in a virtual world rather than facing an ever more difficult real one. Is that part of the appeal of this series for me? A chance to laugh at the absurdities of my gaming life in a way that feels affectionate for all its irreverence? Yes, I think it is a part of it but I really don't want to get too far away from just how good this series is in its own right. Though it has appealed to me from the start it is now in its 3rd season and the writing and production values have sharpened up exponentially as the series has progressed and the characters have been developed in a way that is believable in the context while still surprising and delighting in equal measure.

I have great hopes for this series and look forward to seeing how Miss Day futher develops the characters and the storyline. Have a look at the series yourself whether you're a gamer or not, start at the beginning and get on through. Each episode averages out at around 5 minutes so it shouldn't take long to catch up. I challenge you not to love the characters as I have come to and maybe even to see gamers and gaming in a new light.

"They're human after all, who knew?" - We did.