Jul 13 2016

Learning Not to Suck at Overwatch, Episode 01

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First in a series! I hope you enjoy it. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

-The Gneech

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Jun 18 2016

Time For Something New

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Okay, now the moving is pretty much dealt with (again and hopefully for the last time any time soon) and my AnthroCon prep is about as far as it can go until it comes time to actually put stuff into the car, it’s time to get back into the writing groove.

And, I think, time to come up with something new. I’ve got chunks of Brigid and Greg, I’ve got a giant blorp of Michael Macbeth, but honestly my brain wants a break from those. I want something new and different to think about.

What that is, I’m not sure yet. I periodically consider writing a fairly standard genre fantasy book, i.e. elves and wizards and things, but I would like to find a way to put a fresh spin on the idea so it’s not just “Howard McTolkienface and the Etcetera of Ditto.” I also want whatever it is to be a project I can have fun with. One of the things that I relished about Sky Pirates of Calypsitania was that Verity and Tanya were fun characters to write about, because of the chemistry between them. The fun was a bit hampered by the harrowing circumstances they lived through, of course… those poor gals are going to have some PTSD to deal with in the next book I suspect, assuming there is one.

A new thing would also come without baggage, or at least with different baggage. B&G and Michael Macbeth both suffer a bit from having a “what they should be like” thing I’m trying to stick to… a new project I could just open up and let it be its own thing. A lot of the stuff that’s been bothering me about my older ideas, can inform the direction I go with new ideas right from the start. I can also outline with a view towards writing 100,000 words, instead of coming up with yet another 60,000 word idea and then being stuck for another half a book to tack onto it. 😛

So I think for the next week or so, depending on how long the process takes, I’m going to simply play around with new ideas and brainstorm, figuring out what I want out of a book, what I would enjoy writing, and what I think would suit the market, and find something that covers that part of the venn diagram that intersects all three. As much as I like Sky Pirates, my discussions with professionals on the topic all suggest that it’s going to be a hard sell for a first novel. So I might have to tuck it into a drawer to pull out later once I’m already a name, so to speak.

-The Gneech

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Jun 01 2016

Someone to Overwatch Over Me

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DVaGneech and TracerBlitz by the-gneech on DeviantArt

Taking a little break from Ghostbusters [1] to get into Overwatch. This is a fun action-oriented online game from Blizzard (makers of World of Warcraft [2]) which is being described as a “hero shooter.”

What’s a “hero shooter”? I have to admit I barely understand the term myself. The shooter part is easy– the controls and interface are standard FPS. The “hero” part apparently refers to the fact that instead of controlling a single player avatar or character, you choose from a variety of characters depending on the needs of the team and the situation. So if your team needs a damage dealer to lead an assault, you might choose the jetpack-boosting soldier, but if they need to defend a point you might choose the sniping archer.

Overwatch has 21 characters currently, broadly grouped into “offense,” “defense,” and “support,” with subcategories of “tank,” “builder,” and “sniper.” Gameplay is fast and woolly: you are grouped up with five other players (either friends you’ve pre-grouped with or randomly-selected players of a similar level/rank) and tossed into an arena against a team of six other randomly-selected players (or AI foes of choosable difficulty). There are basically two missions currently: conquer waypoints, or escort/deny a moving payload.

I’m told it’s somewhat like Team Fortress 2, but as I’ve never played that, I can’t address it.

Now normally this isn’t the sort of thing I would expect to get into, being pretty much all action and no plot. The “payload” being delivered or blocked isn’t even identified beyond being a thing on a truck (it looks vaguely like a giant electromagnet). And I couldn’t tell you what made me interested in checking it out, other than a vague hole in my nerdery where LotRO and Borderlands used to be. But once I decided I wanted to play it, I found myself going on a long and painful journey into the underworld, by which I mean Windows gaming.

The Exciting Adventure of Gneech vs. His Computer

My gaming PC was quite beefy once upon a time. Specifically, around 2008 or so when I bought it to be an awesome platform for playing Lord of the Rings Online. It served me well in that capacity for a long time, and it never had the slightest problem with Borderlands 2, so I fully expected it to be capable of running Overwatch.

Ha, ha, silly me. How was I to know that Microsoft and/or NVidia had imposed mandatory retirement on my video card? (In fairness, the card design is 10+ years old, which is a very long time in the world of computers. But the thing still works! Assuming the fan motor stayed good it’d probably keep on working for 10 more years if the software would support it.) After much wailing and gnashing of teeth about not being able to afford a contemporary gaming rig, I finally took a gamble and bought a new card, basically a 2014-ish version of the same card. Any better/more powerful? Not really, as far as I can see, but it has DirectX 12 drivers, which the old one doesn’t, and that’s what was required for Overwatch to work.

However, the new card and the old system don’t really get along very well. Windows keeps polling the card like the guy in Smooth Criminal: “Video are you okay, are you okay, are you okay video? Video are you okay, are you okay, are you okay video?” But the video card, trying valiantly to render things the game is throwing at it, doesn’t answer quickly enough, so Windows decides, “Oh, the video card must have crashed, let’s reset it.” Which kills the driver, and by extension, kills the game. Usually about 10-30 seconds before the end of the match I’m currently in. -.-

Now this PC (currently on Win 7) is eligible for an upgrade to Windows 10, so I thought that might fix it. I tried to upgrade to 10 before, only to have it keep crashing on the old card, which was not supported by Windows 10 because reasons. I figured, “New card! Specifically states compatible with Windows 10 on the box! Maybe this will fix everything!”

Ha, ha, silly me. So I upgraded to Windows 10… which absolutely refused to acknowledge that there was any graphics card at all other than “Generic Display Adapter.” And you know what Generic Display Adapters don’t do very well? Render 3D objects. So, while I did eventually get Overwatch up and running under Windows 10, it was completely unplayable.

So… finally… I rolled back to Windows 7, and I’m living with a 40% chance that any given match will cause my computer to crash. 😛 The (relatively) good news is that if it’s going to crash, it usually does it early on. If I can get past five minutes in the game, it’ll probably be stable until the end of the session.

I have had a fan very generously offer to build me a new machine and bring it to BronyCon in July, for which I’m super-grateful! Let’s face it, if the worst thing about the whole situation is that I have to wait a little over a month to reliably play the most current video game, I have it pretty damn good.

The Exciting Adventure of Tracer’s Butt

Although the gameplay is fun and engaging in a pure-action kind of way, it’s really the art and character design that appeals to me about Overwatch, as evidenced by the pic at the top of my buddy Inkblitzer and me rendered as D.Va and Tracer, respectively.

And honestly, even then it’s only a few of the characters who stand out. Certainly none of the male ones: with the exception of Winston (who is still basically Beast from the X-Men) they’re all the same tired old tropes of “Weary Soldier,” “Sheriff Shooty McCowboy,” “Wangsty Grim Samurai,” “Cackling NOT-the-Joker With a Bomb” and so on. But Tracer, the game’s mascot, is a Peter Pan-style gadfly who teleports around poking her enemies with sticks (well, bullets, but still). D.Va, my particular fave, is a Korean gamer girl with a bunny on her chest and a giant pink mech who flings herself into crowds of enemies like an enormous bowling ball, knocking them all for a loop. Finally there’s Zarya, who is basically a Rule 63 version of The Heavy from Team Fortress, who deadlifts her giant plasma gun in character introduction screens and regularly invites everyone to the gun show.

The prominence of female characters in the game (and quite probably the fact that they’re way more interesting than the male characters) has of course led to all sorts of internetty nonsense about it all, most famously about a victory pose for Tracer that people decried as being too much about showing off her butt when the character generally isn’t sexualized otherwise. Given that Widowmaker (super-cliche femme fatale sniper in a skintight bodysuit) is all about her catwalk strut, and that Mercy (the healer who literally has wings and a halo) is all “tender goddess,” the complaint was basically “Can we have one female character who is not primarily rendered in terms of the male gaze for a change?”

Blizzard, to their credit, said, “it’s a fair cop” and changed the victory pose, but by then the dweeby fanboys had latched onto the whole business of butts, which can make looking for Overwatch fan art an exercise in eye-rolling as you encounter one “Durr hurr hurr!” Tracer’s Butt piece after another. :-` It’s a minor nuisance, but still causes side-eyes around a character who is otherwise fun and engaging.

Still! It’s a minor issue at best and doesn’t really impact gameplay. So far everyone I’ve encountered actually in the game has been either typically uncommunicative (it’s hard to type in the team channel and shoot at the same time) or has been very nice, with few or no dickweeds encountered so far. While the basics of the game are simple, actually going up against live players is incredibly challenging– I finally had my first victory last night, and it was very satisfying to finally feel like I was getting somewhere after my first attempts were so sad. The game rewards study and perseverance, and that’s a nice feeling I’ve been lacking for some time.

Will I still be playing in six months? I have no idea. Will anyone? It depends on where the game goes, if indeed it goes anywhere. People have been playing Team Fortress 2 for something like a decade now with no signs of stopping. With no single-player story to “beat,” the only way to play the game is in matches with other players, which can be a blessing and a curse. There is no real finish to the game, which means you don’t get people going through the single-player, being “done,” and wandering off. On the other hand, if it gets to the point where players become scarce and every match is made up of one or two humans and a bunch of AI foes, it could become a ghost town real quick.

It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out! And it’s nice to be in on something new for a change. 😉

-The Gneech

[1] Sort of. The first draft is actually finished and I’ll keep posting about it in a day or two.

[2] Can you believe there’s a movie coming out for that? XD It actually looks pretty entertaining in its own schlocky way.

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Apr 11 2016

Zootopia and 7-Point Structure

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So sometime last week Matt Trepal (creator of Fight Cast or Evade) pointed me at a writing technique called “7-Point Structure.” It’s not that far removed from the Snowflake Method/Five Act Structure I’ve already been using, but it is different enough that it can give you new insights on a story.

The best breakdown of it I’ve found comes from the person who first popularized it, Dan Wells, and you can see that here:

In order to sort of teach myself the ins and outs of it, I decided to make a 7-point breakdown of Zootopia, as that’s fresh in my mind and a remarkably-tight story considering the “toss everything out and start again” way it came together. I mentioned it on Twitter and had several folks express interest, so I’ve decided to post it here, because I love you.

WARNING! ZOOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD! BECAUSE DUH.

This discussion assumes you already have the gist of 7-point structure. If not, go watch those videos and come back. 😉 Also, Zootopia (in italics) refers to the story/movie, while Zootopia (not in italics) refers to the city itself.

As John Lasseter so aptly put it, Zootopia‘s real subject is bias, both how it effects people and how they deal with it. As I started dissecting Zootopia I rapidly came to the conclusion that it has three major arcs, to wit Judy Hopps’ arc, Nick Wilde’s arc, and an overall Zootopia’s Promise arc. They are all connected by bias: Judy’s having to cope with bias against the idea of a bunny cop as well as her own bias on the subject of foxes, Nick having internalized the bias against foxes as well as his own bias on the subject of Zootopia’s failure to live up to its own ideals, and all of Zootopia’s struggle with the messy intersection of its stated ideals and the reality of life.

In light of that, the true plot points of Zootopia aren’t necessarily a simple list of “A happened, then B happened, then C happened” but of the characters’ progression. Zootopia is a character-based story, not an event-based one. And here’s how it falls out:

Starting Point Hopps: Hopps is discounted as a police officer (by Bogo and Nick)
Nick: Nick is convinced there’s no point to being anything but “a shifty fox”
Zootopia: Zootopia claims to be “where anybody can be anything” but is far from that in reality

 

Plot Turn 1 Hopps and Nick: Hopps recruits Nick to help her search for Emmet
Zootopia: 14 animals are missing

 

Pinch 1 Hopps and Nick: Captured by Mr. Big
Zootopia: Manches goes savage

 

Midpoint Hopps: Nick stands up to Bogo for Hopps
Nick: Hopps saves Nick’s life during the Manches chase and shows him respect and compassion
Zootopia: Lionheart is arrested, revealing that all the missing animals are predators turned savage

 

Pinch 2 Hopps: Hopps resigns from ZPD in despair
Nick: Nick feels betrayed and breaks off his friendship w/ Hopps
Zootopia: Zootopia is violent and full of prejudice

 

Plot Turn 2 Hopps: Hopps figures out the mystery
Nick: Nick realizes Hopps truly values his friendship and forgives her
Zootopia: Bellweather’s plot is revealed

 

Resolution Hopps and Nick: They become respected police and equal partners
Zootopia: Zootopia lives up to its promise, even though “life is messy”

 
The way the 7-point structure works is that you start with your desired end state and from there you make the start the opposite of that. Thus, if the end state is “Judy and Nick are partners and Zootopia is making progress on its ideals” then the beginning has to be “Judy and Nick are enemies and Zootopia is failing or actively working against its ideals.” In this particular case, it’s Bellweather who’s actively working against Zootopia’s ideals, but she wouldn’t be able to succeed if the rest of the city didn’t already have the underlying tensions that she exploits.

Each plot turn or pinch, therefore, is a stepping stone from the starting point to the resolution. An interesting thing to note is that a lot of scenes or moments that stand out about Zootopia do not actually register in terms of plot: the character of Flash for instance, while an awesome piece of set dressing, doesn’t really impact the story at all except as a plot device to burn up some of Judy’s timer and add dramatic tension to the “Nick stands up to Bogo” moment. The character of Gazelle, despite her incredibly catchy song, is not important to the plot at all except as a sort of mouthpiece for the ideals that Zootopia is failing to live up to.

This kind of analysis can show you hidden things about your story, such as empowerment issues. For instance, if you have a story full of “strong women,” but all of the plot points are driven by male characters, guess what? You still have a patriarchal story. (Not a problem in the case of Zootopia, but one I did find in another piece I applied this method to.) It can also help you boil down your story to the most essential elements, and show you where things need to be stronger.

For instance, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a mostly-trained Jedi,” this is gonna be a pretty weaksauce arc. On the other hand, if your resolution is “Luke becomes a fully trained Jedi” and your starting point is “Luke is a powerless nobody in the middle of nowhere,” you’ve got a lot more to work with!

In the case of Zootopia, they did a really good job intertwining the characters’ arcs with the thematic (“Zootopia’s Promise”) arc. Judy and Nick have to be friends and equals at the end: therefore they have to be enemies and socially-disparate at the beginning. But the reason they are enemies is because Zootopia isn’t living up to its ideals.

Dude. That’s some tight plotting.

This, more than any adorable furry critters or catchy songs, is why Zootopia works. It’s just damn well written!

-The Gneech

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Apr 08 2016

Prolifiction

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The tech writing hasn’t entirely gone as planned (although it has had some interesting twists). So instead I’ve ended up redoubling my efforts in the novel writing department. I polished up and submitted Sky Pirates of Calypsitania for publication, and have spent the past week on a second draft of Tend on Mortal Thoughts, my first completed Michael Macbeth novel.

(Speaking of Michael Macbeth, I will probably post “The Unfortunately-Worded Affair of Mister Fox,” an unpublished MM short story, for my Patreon supporters soon. It’s languished too long in development heck waiting for the would-be publisher to move on it.)

Anyhow! As I’ve been chewing on how to make writing pay, I’ve been thinking quite a bit on prolific… ness? Prolificitude? (Bah. There isn’t a good word for “the state of being prolific.” The closest one is “prolificacy,” which is the sort of word that makes me wince and reach for another cup of coffee.) Point is, the writers with the most financially-rewarding careers, are the ones who write and publish a lot.

Well, I’m halfway there: I write a lot. Unfortunately, it tends to come in the form of blog posts or miscellaneous stuff related to my D&D game! But as I’ve truly committed to “writing IS my day job,” this is shifting. James Van Pelt recently posted on the subject of prolificitatiousness, saying, “I feel more professional when I produce stories and submit them at a regular interval. I feel less like a hobbyist. This is not a dig on writers who are not prolific. It is only a comment on how I feel. Everyone’s path up the mountain is their own.” It’s a good article in general and I highly recommend it, but this particular post resonated the most strongly with me.

I have suffered for most of my writing career from a perfectionist streak that has often led to paralysis. Just look at Michael Macbeth: I created the character back in 1995 or so, and have started and discarded at least five novels trying to “get him right” (and being increasingly frustrated that none of them were as good as his inspiration, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). I recently had a long and frustrated rant on Twitter (later repackaged to my LiveJournal) about problems with the entire concept of a Brigid and Greg novel, and so on.

But the thing is, all of these issues stem from a place of shortage: if I only have one or two books, then those one or two books have to be TEH TOTALLY AWESOME because they’re all I’ve got to show! On the other hand… if I have a lot of books? The qualities of any one book are considerably less self-defining. Yes, Brigid and Greg have a diversity problem… but on the other hand the heroine of Sky Pirates of Calypsitania is a bisexual woman of color. By writing a lot of books, and a lot of different books, I can build a career that hits all the bases, instead of just sitting there fretting about how to “make this book do everything.”

Strange as it sounds, a lot of this was prompted by that crazy ghostwriting gig offer, because when I was looking at that, for the first time I actually thought in terms of “If I was writing 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, how much could I really produce?” Obviously, if I could crank out the “15,000 original, quality words per week” the gig wanted, I’d be set for life, and I sure as heck wouldn’t need to be ghostwriting (although I would probably need a pen-name or two).

But with the Snowflake Method, and with Scrivener, and the various other tools and techniques I’ve been teaching myself, I do think it’s within my power to write a novel every three months or so, which would make four a year. With time and practice, I might be able to go even faster. And that would not exactly be a career to sneeze at, either!

So that’s what I’m gonna do. 🙂

-The Gneech

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Mar 31 2016

The Going Rate Arrives

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My first novel submission.Last night I received an offer that both delighted and perplexed me. It was a ghostwriting gig, except it wasn’t a single gig so much as an open-ended contract. It can best be summarized as “I give you a list of genres and you write me 60,000 quality-and-totally-original words per month forever.”

Well.

I’m going to take the high road and assume this person doesn’t know anything about writing. Suffice to say, if it were that easy to just churn out 60,000 quality-and-totally-original words per month every month in whatever genre I felt like, I would have a bibliography the size of Agatha Christie by now– and I sure as heck wouldn’t need a ghostwriting gig.

As ridiculous as the proposition was, it did kinda make me squee, on the grounds that it’s a sign I’m moving in the right direction. The timing of it, coming as it did on the same day that I sent my first novel submission off to a major New York publisher, is just too good.

However, it also prompted me to do some number crunching about just what being a dedicated and businesslike wordsmith should entail. Working backwards from my desired annual income, and picking an arbitrary (but reasonable) estimate of “words per hour,” I worked out both an hourly rate and a “per word” rate, suitably padded to allow for things like self-employment taxes and stupidly expensive American insurance. Applying that rate to a novel also told me how much each one should make in order to hit that goal, which means I now have an idea of what my minimum to negotiate for should be.

I haven’t decided whether or not to send the final rate back to the ghostwriter gig guy for chuckles. I have a feeling he would hiss and curl up like a dead spider. On the other hand, it would be disingenuous of me, because as I say, if I were writing 60k quality-and-totally-original words per month? I’d be selling those guys under my own name and be an A-list author.

Which is not a bad plan, actually. Think I’ll get to work on that.

-The Gneech

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