Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reading and Writing

In a writers' forum I participate, the question has come up of whether writers really need to read.  The answer is yes.  I'm not one of those who say that a writer needs to read fiction in their genre every day.  You probably should read plenty of fiction in your genre, but I'll admit that I go through dry spells.  Sometimes I'm reading a book a week, and sometimes I may go months between reading books and even stories.  However, even given the occasional dry spell, I have amassed quite a catalog of books in my genre that I have read.  So even when a writer isn't reading a lot now, I would hope that he's read a lot in his formative years.

I sometimes think that I don't read widely enough, or read enough.  But even when I'm reading the least, I easily read ten times as much as I write.  So it's hard for me to comprehend how writers could hardly read at all.

Why is reading so important?  If you read a lot, won't your work sound just like everyone else's?  Well, yes and no.  Part of the reason to read a lot is so that you absorb the elements of writing.  At the most basic level, that's vocabulary and grammar, and how to put together coherent sentences and paragraphs.  How to describe a scene or an action.  Believe it or not, a lot of would-be writers have never learned, or at least are very rusty, with these basic skills.  They may have learned them in grade school, but a lot of people haven't practiced them since, and seeing how to use the language helps immensely.  Beyond that, there's plotting and pacing.  Mood and characterization.  I don't think anybody knows how to do these things without seeing how its done by others.  In our day to day lives, we communicate verbally.  And while verbal storytelling has its place, it's not the same thing as the written word.  Nor is video, such as televisions and movies.  The techniques used in those forms are not the same as the ones that a writer can effectively use.

I shouldn't minimize the danger of homogenization, where you start to sound like exactly what you read.  It happens (though I think that creative writing classes are more homogenizing than reading).  The cure to that is to read widely.  Read recent stories and old.  Read different genres.  Read fiction and non-fiction.  Read books written in other languages (in those languages, if you can).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review of The Bard's Tale

I'm old enough to have played the original 1985 Bard's Tale game shortly after it came out, in glorious 320x240 4-color CGA. That may not seem like much to you kids, with your 1920x1080 16.7 million color 3D accelerated graphics, but it was a vast improvement over Bard's Tale's predecessors, such as the two color Wizardry. Like Wizardry, Bard's Tale was 3D, in that it involved exploring a dungeon in first person, with ten foot steps (none of that smooth, continuous movement of modern, or even old-school, first person shooters). Combat was text based, with you selecting each character's actions each round, but the real test was the exploration, mapping out each square of the dungeon on graph paper as you identified every trick, trap, and puzzle. And there were a lot, such as teleporters and spinners and areas of complete darkness--all intended to make mapping the area as difficult as possible.  I played through the first two games, but never made it through the third.

Well, like all things 80s, Bard's Tale is back. There's a 2004 remake sequel spiritual successor--well, a game by the same name anyway. It also has one of the same designers, Brian Fargo. Apparently, inXile Games, the designer, wasn't able to get the rights for the original game from Interplay, but they were able to, uh, borrow the name. Aside from the name, and some subtle references, there's not much similarity in story or gameplay. Which I guess is a good thing, as today's kids don't have the patience for the careful mapping it takes to play the original. Instead the new game is an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, but with less resource management.

I didn't get around to playing this new Bard's Tale until the last week or so, when I bought the recently released Kindle version for $3. After having played through it, I can say that it was well worth the time.

The protagonist and sole PC, the Bard, is not exactly a paragon of virtue. He's solely interested in coin and women, so it's curious that the imprisoned princess Caleigh has chosen him as her champion, and offered him the requisite price for his services (hint: it's not just money). Of course, Caleigh isn't picky. She's named dozens of Chosen Ones, mostly untrained farmboys, and the Bard is constantly tripping over their corpses. Fortunately, he's both more canny and more skilled than the aforementioned farmboys. Though perhaps not canny enough. He wanders around, solving almost as many problems as he causes, with the help of his summoned allies, his loyal dog, and a narrator who despises him.

The gameplay is straightforward and simple. You summon allies with your music, starting with a rat and progressing to tunes to summon knights and assassins. You can also cast spells with your limited selection of adder stones. But mostly, you whack things with your sword or shoot them with your bow. There are three levels of martial techniques for each weapon type, starting with basic competence and moving to more advanced types, all of which you can execute using just the attack and block buttons. I preferred dual weapon, with sword and dirk, but you can select weapon and shield, bow, two-handed sword, or flail. I never found the flail all that useful (while it can't be blocked, it takes too long to spin up), but some of the best weapons in the game are two-handers, and the bow makes certain fights much easier. As I mentioned earlier, Bard's Tale has simplified resource management. There are no trade-offs within a weapon type, so when you pick up a new weapon you'll either automatically equip it and convert your current weapon to silver, or convert the new find to silver, depending on which weapon is better. And while you can pick up a variety of junk, from pants to snow globes to self-help books, usually you convert them straight to silver.  Like most games, conversations usually have options, but your choices are always nice or snarky, and usually the nice is pretty snarky too.

I can go on about the gameplay and the story, but ultimately this game lives or dies by its humor.  The game is constantly poking fun at the tropes of computer role playing games, such as the cliched rats-in-the-cellar quest (it's a giant fire breathing one) and the wild animals dropping swords and silver (the narrator refuses to read those parts).  You'd also think it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein production, given the number of times drunks and monsters unaccountably break out into song and dance.  It's clear that this is a game that doesn't take itself too seriously, as you can see from the trailer:

So clearly, if you want to relive the original Bard's Tale games, you won't find it in this game.  But you should probably buy it anyway, as it comes with all three of the original games run in an emulator.  So you get the original games, and a very funny action RPG, which is a pretty good investment for $3, the going price for the Kindle version on Amazon.

You can buy the iOS version for $1.99, or find it for PCs on Steam for $9.99, which is pricey, but it's probably a better platform for the original Bard's Tale games.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review of Ice Will Reveal by Julia Dvorin

Last October, my wife and I went to World Fantasy in Toronto.  One of the things you receive at World Fantasy is a huge bag full of free (in the sense of being included with the membership fee) books.  This year, the books included a number of cards which allowed you to download free e-books.  For the most part, I have yet to read the World Fantasy books, with the exception of Julia Dvorin's Ice Will Reveal.  This is not a coincidence.  Julia Dvorin's novel was the only e-book I downloaded from the World Fantasy book bag, since it was the only one that really grabbed my attention.  And I'm far more likely to read an e-book than a paper book.  It makes sense, really.  I have my smartphone with me at all times, and if I have some free time and nothing better to do, I can browse through my book collection and pick out something to read.  Whereas for paper books, I have to be at home in order to pick out a new book, and I can only carry one or two with me at a time.

Of course, the reason I selected Ice Will Reveal to download is because it was an unabashedly epic fantasy novel, which looked like it would be a fun read.  It was. It's about two orphans, a brother and a sister, named Jarrod and Whisper.  Jarrod is a Temple Guardsman, while Whisper is an apprentice acquirer of rarities.  In this story, that corresponds closer to thief than to adventurer, although her mistress, Mins, is certainly a high-end thief and fence.  Mins lives like minor nobility.

Jarrod is sent with companions to find a breach in the Boundary that holds back the Blight, the dead zone to the north. Jarrod already suspects that part of the reason he is being sent is as a test to see if he is indeed the Foretold, the one whom prophecy says is to repair the Blight.  He's not the only candidate for that position.  Yonenn, a Reaper Priestess, part of an order that worships the goddess in her death aspect, is also a candidate.  The prophecy says that ice will reveal who the Foretold is, so this trip to the edge of the frozen Blight is expected to resolve the prophecy. What they find is not the answer to the prophecy, and not only a breach in the boundary.  Something evil has started to come through.

Meanwhile, Whisper is sent to retrieve an important artifact necessary to repair the breach. Her quest involves significantly more grift and theft than Jarrod's, as the artifact is held by a creepy, but easily seduced, wizard, and it's up to Whisper to relieve him of it.

Things pick up once the two siblings return to the city, having found the breach and the artifact needed to seal it.  It was only a matter of time before Whisper and Jarrod joined forces.  They head out to repair the breach, and are doubly, or perhaps triply, betrayed by their companions, and then they escape and come back. And that's it, which is something of a problem.

While I thought the set up worked well in the novel, it fell short at the resolution.  We don't know whether the breach was repaired, as the one who was supposed to do it ran off with the artifact and disappeared.  We don't know what's going on with the quest to recover the Cauldron, the other artifact that's supposed to heal the Blight entirely, as the one who was supposed to do that also disappeared. We don't even know who the Foretold is for certain, although the clues point to Whisper, who wasn't even one of the candidates. In the end, the quest falls apart and the heroes go home.  Now as this is the first book of a series, I'm willing to cut the author some slack, and assume that these questions will be resolved in the next book. But I would have liked some better resolution, or at least a more satisfying climax, for this novel.

Thursday, March 07, 2013


A friend of mine, and a contributor to the now defunct Storyblogging Carnival, is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a television pilot.  Here's the plug:
COPY is a TV show about the student media at an evangelical Christian college: An editor trying to whip his staff into shape, a blogger more TMZ than T.S. Eliot, and a university president obsessed with being “culturally relevant” - negative press be damned. How far will editor-in-chief Meshach Kilbourne and his staff go to secure the paper's independence - and glory - against the machinations of President Constantine Ward?

It's an embellished memoir of our college years. And the pilot script for COPY - which, for reasons beyond us, has been called "Sorkinesque" - reached the semifinals of the Scriptapalooza competition last year.
If you're interested, consider pledging.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Latest Black Gate Review

My latest review is up at Black Gate.  This month, it's Robert Sier's Chains of Loss, but I've been calling it Cyborgs vs. Orcs.