I feel like Karn some days. And not just from lack of coffee.
Bad writing can be just as influential and inspirational as good writing.
That may seem to be an incongruous statement. But in my experience, there have been some instances where I’ve been reading a novel, a story or a post, and have wanted nothing more than to blow the author out of the water, literarily speaking. I find this to be the case especially in writing related to gaming, which makes me twice as angry. It’s one thing to write badly, but to degrade a setting or concept I like through that bad writing should be a hanging offense.
That’s my opinion, at least.
Take, for example, the Quest for Karn. I’ve been looking for a good Magic: the Gathering novel ever since Arena, which is still the best if you ask me. The planeswalkers that Wizards of the Coast have put together are an interesting bunch, but I feel like there’s more that could be done with them, territory in the human experience and the permutations of their powers that remains unexplored. And when you present these characters in as bland a way possible, with no real characterization and a plot apparently paced to make The Lord of the Rings look like a jaunty sprint by comparison, you leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth, instead of making them hungry for more.
I must confess, however, that doing this to the likes of Venser and Elspeth is pretty harmless, considering what could have been done. As far as I’m aware, Wizards has yet to acquire the services of someone like Richard A. Knaak, who misses the point of characters like a champ. Consider Stormrage. In Warcraft III, we learn that Tyrande Whisperwind is a confident, driven and inspiring leader of her people, a warrior-priestess with thousands of years of experience in doing what she says and making decisions without regret. By Knaak’s hand, however, she’s transformed into someone who never grew out of being a teenager, an immature and insecure person who fears the judgement of her peers and might just be cribbing notes from Bella Swan. There’s no growth in Knaak’s characters. If they’re great, they’re always great as well as flawless. If they’re flighty, uncertain and relatively weak, they’re a girl.
I had to pause for a cleansing breath, there.
Gaming books outside of novels suffer as well. Mage is probably my all-time favorite permutation of the World of Darkness, but the core book for Ascension feels unnecessarily huge. There’s great stuff in there for storytellers and players a like, but it can take a little sifting. The prose passages feel ponderous more often than not, with some overwrought language and long-winded anecdotes that are likely aimed at increasing the book’s gravitas while taking away from the essential information gamers are looking for. I still love the book, don’t get me wrong. It’s gorgeous, the new mythology tickles my fancy and the new spheres of magic are very well thought out. It’s just fluffier than I’d like.
In addition to wrapping up the first draft of one manuscript, rewriting another and editing a third, I think it would behoove me to investigate more deeply the ways and means people find their way into gaming material, from source books to novels. I’ve had great experiences working with Machine Age Productions and I hope I can take that experience to other gaming houses in the future. Writing for and about gaming isn’t just something I want to do, after all; it’s something worth doing right.
We all need reminders from time to time. Soldiers visit war memorials to remember why we fight. You can turn on the television or look up a few political websites to remember why you vote the way you do. And when you’re involved with entertainment, especially if you review movies for one reason or another, you need to remember that they’re not all great cinematic storytelling experiences. Some of them are absolute stinking piles that not only smell on their own but give off a stench of a deeper, more intrinsic problem with the industry. To that end, I give you Bugs.
The City (which goes unnamed out of a sense of shame) has built an ultra-modern subway sytem using ancient, as-yet-unexplored tunnels. Thanks to unscrupulous business practices, the construction crews unwittingly awakened the tunnels’ former occupants: giant prehistoric insectoid predators. One of them skewers and partially devours a police officer who was in pursuit of a dangerous transient. An FBI agent is called in when the cops think it’s the work of a serial killer, but evidence on the body prompts the agent to bring this to the attention of a smoking hot entymologist. Together with the supervisor of the tunnels’ construction and a SWAT team of expendables, they head into the darkness to exterminate the bugs.
Being an original TV movie for the Sci-Fi channel, back when it was spelled like the abbreviation for the science fiction it features, Bugs can’t be expected to attract the kind of talent or produce the sort of narrative or visual appeal in larger works. Some corners had to be cut to fit a meager budget but the biggest problems with the movie have very little to do with money. While the CGI is laughable, the acting tends to be more wooden than a carpenter’s assortment of cabinetry and the premise and plot points lifted bodily from other movies, Bugs suffers from three major issues. It’s inconsistent, derivative and, at times, utterly boring.
Sorry, Hudson, it’s a bug hunt. …WHUPS! Wrong movie.
The tone of Bugs, at first, seems to lean towards that of B-movie horror, going for a semi-creepy splatterfest as opposed to anything largely cerebral. After all, thinking is for squares, daddy-O, and sometimes a flick is just there so you can turn off your brain, right? But that’s a discussion for another time. In the case of Bugs, if it maintained a bit of camp and tongue-in-cheek awareness it might have risen above the mire of other similar tripe. However more than once, Bugs tries to shift into areas that try to go for pure suspense, tension or emotion, and falls short every time.
The tongue-in-cheek feeling would also help it feel more like an amateur homage to Aliens rather than a blatant rip-off. The chitinous enemies with acidic blood and horrible means of dispatch; a rag-tag cross-section of ethnicities and genders toting guns and acting badass right up until they meet the enemy; the slimy corporate douchebag only interested in the bottom line – heck, there’s even a moment where our hero, Antonio Sabato Jr, climbs into some construction equipment to do battle with the queen. There are shout-outs to the likes of Predator as well, because why stop at ripping off one classic action flick when you can rip off several?
I can’t find pictures from this movie anywhere, so here’s a photo of Angie Everhart instead. You’re welcome.
These two problems coupled with bad direction and a laughable script tend to defang the action and pushes the characters into a mental area of “what the hell ever, just get it over with.” What movies like Bugs and Saw’s sequels and just about any other splatterfest flick fail to grasp is that it doesn’t matter how many ways you can eviscerate a human body if we don’t give a damn about the persons inhabiting said bodies. When the badly-written and worse-acted stock characters are thrown into a meat grinder, what I presume to believe is an action thriller is reduced to a rather dull and tedious lesson in how not to make a movie. You don’t want to write, direct, act or produce in any way like what we see in Bugs.
The only thing that can be said positively is that some of the actors aren’t terrible. The foreman who heads into the tunnels he helped build is easily the best of the bunch, playing his character with reserve and aplomb in a manner clearly deserving of a better movie. Angie Everhart was never a fantastic actress, but she at least delivers her lines and manages some emotion a lot better than some of the other folks involved, and she’s always nice to look at. Our leading man only leads with chiseled handsomeness and acting skills a notch or two below Ms. Everhart’s. Everybody else is so stock they should be traded on Wall Street.
This might actually be our hero. He certainly out-acts every other member of the cast.
The writers of Bugs, Patrick J. Doody & Chris Valenziano (a.k.a. thetwojerks.com), went on from this little turd to write Silent Hill: Homecoming. This is sad on several levels. First of all, it means that with a little effort the first American Silent Hill could have been a better experience that didn’t completely miss the point of what makes Silent Hill great. In the same vein, it means that the producers of that game saw Pat & Chris’s resume and presumably their work, and judged it worthy of a Silent Hill game. The worst part about Bugs isn’t how boring it can get or the way it rips off Aliens the same way many sci-fi shooters do. The worst part is that it’s evidence that so-called producers don’t care about things like good storytelling or artistry or even decent production value. All they want to do is fleece easily-amused idiots with some shallow spectacle that deepens the pile of gold in their pockets. And if they can do it while tacking on extra cash for a 3-D experience and selling big plastic cups of barely-flavored corn syrup, so much the better, right?
Bugs as a movie is bad enough. What it implies about the entertainment industry is absolutely repugnant. If you can, stay far away from both. At least when you rent or call up a movie via Netflix, you have some control over the experience, and your entertainment is in your own hands. Go to a cinema and it’s in the hands of the executives, and they’ll drop you on your face once you hand over your money. And they’re not going anywhere. It’s a thought far more frightening than any blob of CGI scuttling towards Angie Everhart could ever be.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
Reality’s a stone-cold bitch. That’s why I mostly write fiction.
I identify first and foremost as a writer, not necessarily a programmer or a social media guru or mediocre gamer. As such I’ve come to accept several truths about myself.
Any emotional problems from which I actually suffer will be exacerbated by the short-sighted stubborn sociopathy inherent of being a writer.
If I take up writing as a full-time profession I am going to dodge debt collectors and utility bills even more than I do now. (Don’t panic, family members, my knees are unbroken and will remain so. I’m just not dining on steak and drinking cognac. More like dining on pasta and drinking cheap pop.)
The longer I do not write full time and cram writing in whenever I can into the nooks and crannies of a packed schedule, fueled by whatever energy I can spare, the more my writing is going to suffer for it and the less likely I am to get published before I’m facing off against Gandalf and Dumbledore in a long white beard growing competition. Which I’ll win because they’re fictional.
While writing is an evolutionary process that requires several drafts, torrents of trial and error, and accepting that one’s final effort might still be a flaming pile of poo, processes in the professional world are very different, and being writerly will rarely be tolerated long in the face of clients who want what they want yesterday for less than they want to pay. If you don’t get something right the first time, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on those fancy pants you thought you were wearing.
I am never, ever, for as long as I keep breathing, going to give up writing.
Sure, I’ll be miserable more often than not. Who isn’t? I’ve learned to seize and capitalize on my joy when I find it. My wife’s smile. Pulling off a win in StarCraft. Meeting fellow geeks in person instead of just over the Tweetsphere. The open road on a sunny day. Poutine. The Union scoring a goal. A decent movie or video game with a coherent story and three-dimensional characters. My mom’s cooking and my dad’s laughter.
And finishing a story.
That’s the hidden beauty of writing. If you do it right, you get to finish it multiple times. After your first draft, you go back and edit it. And when you get through the edit? Guess what, you finished it. Awesome!
In my experience it’s not a case of diminishing returns. The next round of edits might not be as heady in its completion as the last, but it’ll be different and it’ll still be good. And let me tell you, it’s a long hard road to get there.
Even if you do write for a living, you still have to produce. Instead of the aforementioned clients you have looming deadlines, a constant and gnawing doubt that your writing just won’t be good enough and the cold knowledge that at least a dozen younger, hungrier and more talented penjockeys are just waiting for you to fuck up so they can take your place, and your paycheck. Pressure from clients or deadlines or those lean and hungry wolves becomes pressure on you, pound after pound after pound of it, and when you go home at night with even more words unwritten, you’re going to feel every ounce of that pressure on your foolish head, and every word you haven’t written will pile on top, each one an additional gram of concentrated dark-matter suck.
It’s a love affair with someone who never returns you calls when you need them but always calls just when you think you can’t take another day of this tedious, soul-eroding bullshit.
I said earlier I mostly write fiction. This, for example, isn’t ficton. I wouldn’t mind writing more recollections like this, but guess what, I’m not getting paid for it (I could be if somehting hadn’t gone wrong with my ad block, thank you SO much for that, Google Ads). My movie & game reviews, short stories, commentary on geek minutae, Art of Thor series, IT CAME FROM NETFLIX!, the Beginner’s Guide to Westeros? Not a dime. I don’t write any of that because I get paid for it. I do it to entertain those couple dozen of you who cruise by here every day. I do it because I feel I’ve got something to say that hasn’t quite been said this way before.
And yes, I do it because I love it.
It’s in my blood and my bones. It keeps me awake at night more than bills or code or politics or Protoss cheese or ruminations on the Holy Ghost. And since I doubt I’m going to be getting rid of it at this point in my life, I might as well embrace it and make the most of it.
I’m going to suffer more hardship. I might have to move, or change jobs again, or go through some embarassing procedure because I tried to hock my words at passers-by on the train and had made one of the first drafts of my manuscript into what I felt was a fetching kilt (nae trews Jimmy) and a matching hat that may or may not have been styled after those conical straw numbers you see atop badass samurai in Kurosawa movies.
So be it.
Say it with me, writers.
I will not whine.
I will not blubber.
I will not make mewling whimpering cryface pissypants boo-hoo noises.
I will not sing lamentations to my weakness.
I am the Commander of these words.
I am the King of this story.
I am the God of this place.
I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.
Sooner or later, the work you do is going to come under fire. Mistakes are going to be made. Guess what? You’re a human being. Mistakes are inevitable. How those mistakes are handled, corrected and prevented from repeating themselves matter more than the mistakes themselves, with the experience informing the better construction of future works. Hence, “constructive criticism.”
It tends to work best, however, if the criticism begins with you. And as a critic, you suck.
At least when it comes to your own work, that is. Your opinions, your creations, your procedures have all be formed by you (or, in the case of opinions, possibly snatched from more prominent critics for rapid regurgitation – we’ll get to that) and you’re going to be as defensive of them as any creator is of their created. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I know how that sort of behavior can circle right around and kick you square in the ass just when you don’t need it to.
It’s like bruises in martial arts, loose teeth in hockey, a face covered in egg on a televised debate. It’s going to happen. Beyond a couple of opinions of yourself and your creations that I can tell you are patently untrue, how to get back up when one of these events flattens you is a matter for the moment and circumstance. Communicate, discern, be patient and communicate more. Nobody will get anywhere while blood is up and words are lost in the volume, so step back, breathe, look at the situation and act in the interest of everybody involved, not just you.
Okay, enough hand-holding and team-building, here are two big fat lies we tell ourselves when it comes to stuff we do.
This Is The Best Thing In The History Of Ever!
No. No, it isn’t.
The following might feel something like the above.
The things we consider great only got that way through long, grueling processes, the input of several people and the viability of whatever environment into which they were released. There’s a factor of luck involved as well, but that’s not something we can control, so we’ll leave it out of this deconstruction.
Basically, to keep ourselves going, we may at times tell ourselves that what we’re doing is good. That’s fine, and it probably either is good or will become good. What it isn’t is the best thing ever. Not on its own, and especially not in its first iteration. No author I know of hit the bestseller list with their first draft or even their first book. No director makes an Oscar-winner the first time they point a camera at something, unless they got their hands on the super-secret list of critera the folks in the Academy check off when they watch movies that might be worthy of the golden statues they give to rich people. Then again I’ve grown somewhat jaded with the whole Oscar thing and it’s colored my opinion somewhat.
That’s another thing. Opinions. Now I’m as guilty of the following as another special snowflake individual on the planet, and it bears saying & repeating to myself as much as anybody else. I’m fully aware of the glass house in which I live, but dammit, sometimes you just gotta toss a rock.
Your opinion is unlikely to be entirely your own. It might be right or wrong, but to defend it like it’s gospel is not going to win you any friends no matter from where or whom it originally derived. Our tastes, viewpoints and leanings are a combination of our life experiences, the things others say and do around us and the environment in which we live. Other people have had similar experiences, heard or seen the same things we have and/or live in similar environments. That means your opinion is highly likely to be not entirely your own and should be taken with a grain of salt, even if you’re telling it to yourself.
Back to your work. I’m sure it began with a good idea. Ideas can persist through edits, revisions and future iterations. The idea might still be good even if the implementation sucks ass. That doesn’t mean the overall product is good. A good idea badly implemented makes for a bad product. Look at what happened to Star Wars. What’s important to keep in mind is that you might not be able to find all of the flaws in your own work, and in order to make it the best it can be before it ships, you might need to take some knocks to the ego. If you can remember that your idea and work are not the Best Things Ever, if you can maintain the ability to take your own creations with a grain of salt from an objective viewpoint, the overall product will be much shinier for it.
TL,DR: Don’t act like your shit don’t stink.
This Absolutely Sucks & Will Never Amount To Anything, I Should Quit Now
Cheer up, emo donkey.
Ah, the other extreme. I hate this one just as much.
Let me pause a moment before I rant in the other direction from where I just came from. If you truly feel your time will be better spent doing somthing other than the thing that you’re considering the absolute worst that humanity has to offer, I can understand that. Go and do the other thing you want to do. I and others might still consider what you’ve done worthwhile or even worth sharing, but you are the best arbiter of how to spend your time and energy. Just remember others are entitled to their opinions as much as you are.
Remember how I said that the things we consider great didn’t start that way? That means they started in a state of not being great. In fact some of the first attempts probably sucked out loud. I’d love to see a first draft of The Stand or an early shooting script of RDM’s from Battlestar Galactica or Michaelangelo’s first painting. These creative minds only became great after the grueling process of editing, revising, being told they suck, editing and revising again, and managing to find the right time, people and environment for introducing their work.
Since soothsaying isn’t exactly a reliable basis for planning, the only way to find the right time is to keep trying. Finding the right people means going out and meeting some. And locating the right environment can be a matter of research. Don’t try to put a work with a narrow genre focus into purveyors with general, broad interests; try instead to locate an venue catering to similar tastes and passions to whom you can relate and communicate, and let them see what you can do. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a monumental achievement, but it wouldn’t have gotten painted if Michaelangelo had been approached by the manager of a Starbucks instead of His Holiness.
Notice that this is all stuff you can control. Your work is no different. If you really think your work isn’t good, and you want it to be, you can improve it. Work at it. Practice. Don’t let the nay-sayers and the lowest common denominator and the mediocrity get you down. Nothing excellent ever comes to be out of nowhere and without some work and sacrifice. Give up some time, expend some energy, burn a little midnight oil, and make that thing as powerful and awesome as you can. And believe me, most of us are capable of being pretty damn awesome if we’re willing to pay that price.
TL,DR: Don’t act like your shit is a world-scale biohazard.
I think I’ve said about all I can on this subject. No human being is the be-all end-all of all great things; neither are any of us completely and utterly irredeemable. I think we could all stand to take things said to us, about us and by us with a few more grains of salt.
My wife’s corner of the living room is dominated by an anachronism. An aged, clunky CRT monitor squats on top of the bookshelf behind her desk. On that desk, now, is a shiny new Acer laptop with a wider display than that old beast, not to mention much faster & cleaner peformance to the oversized paperweight of a PC to which the old monitor’s connected. I keep meaning to move things around so she has a little more room, but I can’t help but look at that corner and think of Bob’sBig Picture feature on the death of the PC.
I’ve been building my own PCs for years. Ever since I got one sore knuckle and torn finger too many from the confines of a Packard Bell case, I’ve wanted to make the experience of working with computers easier and better. For years it’s also been the case that upgrading a system through the purchase of a pile of parts has been more cost-effective than buying something from a store shelf, to say nothing of the flexibility and lack of bloatware inherent with taking the construction & installation onto oneself.
But technology is moving on. My wife’s laptop cost as much as the upgrade I just put into my desktop case, and while the bleeding edge Sandy Bridge processor will satisfy computing needs for (I hope) quite a few years, her laptop is just as good. If the ancient external drive to which I’d saved our Dragon Age games hadn’t ground that data into powder, it’d have been a completely painless upgrade. That won’t happen again, of course, because not only are the hard drives we have today lightyears ahead of that dinosaur, we can always upload our save data to a cloud.
And it’s not like I need my desktop to write. I do most of these updates in a text editor (gedit, if you’re curious) before taking the content and putting it into the blog, enhanced with pictures dropped into Photobucket and the occasional bit of rambling audio. I can do that with pretty much any device. Within the next year, fingers crossed & the creek don’t rise, I’ll be retiring this old workhorse of mine with some iteration of the Asus Transformer – hell, I’d write blog updates on my Kindle if it had a decent text editor.
My point is that as much as I love my PC, as nostalgic as I’ll wax about StarCraft II marathons and isometric views in games like Dragon Age: Origins and LAN parties and simulators like Wing Commander, there’s no reason not to celebrate the growth of the technologies we as gamers use to enjoy our hobby. The tech emerging on a steady basis is lightyears ahead of what many of us grew up using. From number crunching to heat management, the computing devices we use today are so superior to those old devices it staggers the imagination. If I went back even ten years and told myself that within a decade people would be using tablets in lieu of laptops and there would be laptops that turn into tablets on the horizon, I’d congradulate myself on being such an imaginative science-fiction writer. In my humble opinion, technology changing and evolving is a good thing, and there are a lot more benefits than drawbacks when it comes to embracing that change.
The thing is, as Captain Kirk pointed out once, “people can be very frightened of change.”
“They made the game easier to play and dumbed down the mechanics! TO ARMS!”
“This has nothing to do with the previous parts of the narrative because it’s using new characters we don’t know! A PLAGUE ON EVERYONE’S HOUSES!”
“WHAT? Visual changes that make things unfamiliar/derivative/different from before? KILL IT WITH FIRE!”
“PCs are no longer inherently superior to consoles? LIES AND SLANDER, I SAY!”
Start a bandwagon and you’ll be sure to find people happy to jump aboard it without forming opinions of their own.
In fact the lemonade (haterade?) being served on TGO’s bandwagon is rather refreshing, now that you mention it.