Saturday, November 17, 2012

Post-Mortem on The Evil Eye

(Cross-posted from Goodreads' Gamebook Fans group)

Asked why I wrote The Evil Eye, I'd have to answer: "Because I wanted to." I believe that any author, asked about a work he's proud of, would ultimately have the same answer. In more detail: "Because I wanted to write a gamebook." My interest in them goes back a fair ways; I started in elementary school, reading Choose Your Own Adventure and Time Machine, plus a few of the CYOA knockoffs that proliferated in those days. Eventually, I graduated to more complex books. I only ever played one Fighting Fantasy (something about roaming a dungeon seeking dragon statues and trying to avoid seeing the letters in DEATH), but I was a huge Lone Wolf fan, and owned some of the AD&D gamebooks as well. Like many, I moved on in the mid-90s after the market crashed, then got interested in them again some years later by following some of the early indie efforts.

The Evil Eye was actually my second attempt at a gamebook. The first was a very educational failure, which didn't even get half done. The main reason for this was overambition. It was going to be the first of a multi-volume heroic epic, have an unbelievably complex game system, with combats modeled on Queen's Blade (or Lost Worlds, for those of you with no interest in japanese skeevishness), multiple skills, a huge cast of characters, realistic inventory mechanics, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, it was way too much for a first-timer to get right. So I abandoned it.

Undaunted, I tried again. At the time, I was still interested in getting that multi-book series done someday, but I decided to aim a little lower for the time being. The Windhammer Competition was the perfect solution. The competition's restrictions gave me a structure to restrain my wild newbie impulses, and the ability to compare my work against others in the field, newbies and veterans alike, would be invaluable.

As far as coming up with a plot, I was in a bit of a quandry. The idea was assembled from bits and pieces of ideas I had. I wanted to do something in the same world as my epic, but not using any of the main characters, in case I wanted to change things sometime between now and then. So I stuck with basic fantasy. However, I didn't want to be totally generic, so I tries to brainstorm up ideas to stand out from the crowd. I thought: I don't just want to just do another dungeon-crawl or fozzle-bopping tale. Why not a detective story? I wanted the main character to stand out from the crowd, so I dropped the old implicitly young male warrior and made him an old man. And so on and so forth, until I eventually had enough ideas to put together into a story.

For design, I again didn't have a plan so much as some ideas. One thing that I was adamant about was that I wanted the book to be driven by the player's decisions, rather than by die rolls. I didn't want to just make a pure CYOA, but nor did I want to frustrate the player by making him dependent on lucky rolls. I eventually decided on three major "chapters", each with multiple paths through. I also put an interlude halfway through, to add some action. Each chapter ends with you receiving a clue, and with all three clues the case is solved and you can go to the climactic chapter to fight the bad guy. There are no dead ends; all paths eventually lead to success, provided your stamina holds out. But taking the wrong paths means you need to jump through more hoops, in the form of combats or lost endurance, to get there. On the other hand, taking the right path through a given chapter or the interlude gives you an item. The climax is a linear series of four battles, but the first three are skipped if you have the right item, and the fourth is dead easy if you have the item from the interlude.

I wrote the first bits- basically the introduction and the Struckald scene- over the course of a week in June. I used ADVELH 2000, which I cannot recommend to my fellow authors highly enough. My first attempt at gamebook creation involved a complex system, stolen from some blog or other, of generating random numbers for section numbers and keeping track of used numbers in Excel. It was horribly tedious and wasted energy that should have been spent on the writing. ADVELH in several years old and limited in certain respects, but automates a lot of the tedium that goes along with gamebooks design. Once the writing was complete, touch-up work was done in Excel.

After that first week, I had to put The Evil Eye aside for some other projects. In fact, I wound up getting wrapped up on a lot of projects, to the point that I couldn't get back to it until near the end of August. At the time, I thought I still had enough time to get it done before the September 14th deadline. Then I double-checked the website and realized the deadline was actually the 7th. I now had one week to write, edit, and test the entire book.


As you can see, I made it, but because it was a rush job, I'm not happy the outcome is the best it can be.  Designwise, it was a big step down from what I originally envisioned. The design was originally a touch more intricate, in that if you botched a given chapter, you could use an item from another chapter to bypass the nasty bit. This idea wound up getting scrapped, because it was too complex to implement in such a short timeframe and required using the items in contrived ways. I wanted the paths to be divided between "right" paths, which would require little dice work and risk, and "wrong" ones which would be much harder. However, I also wanted the game to play differently depending on where you put your stat points, so this devolved into three paths in each chapter, each involving one stat check to get the item vs. just the clue. The puzzle being to find the path that checks your strongest stat. Likewise, because I had very little time for playtesting, I erred on the side of making the game way too easy. Some thought this weakened the book. While I agree, I would much rather make it too easy and endure the grumbling than make it too hard and have players ragequitting on me.

Writing also suffered in places. I was particularly dissatisfied with Vincent's dialog, which in my ears at least rings completely false. The interlude is another area where I really fell down, both in design and writing terms. It's nowhere near the thrilling chase I wanted it to be, and is instead a bland series of stat checks and die rolls, the kind of gamebook design I personally despise. The decision to make the book easy probably saved my neck at this point, but if I have a chance to release a revised edition at some point, the interlude will definitely get an overhaul.

Overall, though, I think I did very well on the story and writing. If you hang around a lot of writers, you'll hear them talk about "pantsers" (authors who fly by the seat of their pants) and "outliners" (authors who plan out their entire plots from the beginning). Both philosophies have their advantages, and I try to use a mixture of both. Having only a week to bring The Evil Eye together, I was forced to rely heavily on the pants. This may have been a blessing in disguise. Pantsing gives you a lot more room to unleash your creativity, and I found the best bits of the story are the ones I made up on the spot. The biggest surprise for me was Georgina. I intended her as a throwaway character of no significance, but in fleshing out her scene she tugged at my inspiration enough that I soon had a whole unspoken backstory for her. I might have to give her a story of her own soon.

My favorite bit, however, was this one from section 29, which most players probably never saw because it requires failing a fairly simple Test of Skill to climb Westing's wall:
"Surprisingly, you manage to make it all the way to the window, but the window is stuck and wrenching it open while hanging on to the wall proves difficult. You put some muscle into it, and are rewarded as the window swings wide with a rusty creak.
Unfortunately, you put a little too much muscle into it. The sudden jerk of the window opening throws you off-balance. You lose your grip on the wall and wind up hanging awkwardly in midair from the now-open window. Cursing your luck, you hold on and try to maneuver toward the windowsill, but your hold gives out and you fall to the ground, landing hard on your knees and barely stifling a yelp of pain."
The image of an expert rogue hanging helplessly from the handle of a second-story window, kicking his feet and cursing in frustration, amused me greatly. I'm not totally sure why.

Going into the competition my biggest concern, bar none, was the big twist. I knew how big a gamble it was. It's the kind of thing that redefines the reader's entire view of the story. If it works, it works big, but if it fails you've wrecked all your work. Build-up is the key. The hints have to be in plain sight, but totally transparent. The reader doesn't realize that the truth's been in front of his face until the bomb drops. If the hints are too obvious, the surprise is lost. Too obscure, and the reader doesn't buy it, instead calling bullshit on the whole deal. I was confident I had found the right balance -- and most commentators agreed -- but my worry was that the way in which the clues were conveyed came off like bad writing; not mentioning things I should have, and failing to present a comprehensible picture of the scenes presented.

Despite my worries, reader response was overall favorable. I didn't win or place, but it would be arrogant to expect that from my first gamebook. I did get a lot of good press and positive comments. A lot of people had good things to say about the way clues were implemented, as numbers which are added together to produce an ever-increasing total. This is interesting because I, myself, thought it was a wasted concept. It does provide some benefit; it helps with pacing, in that the interlude always comes between the second and third chapter, and it creates a sense of slowly putting things together, but there's a whole lot more that I could have done with the idea, had I had time. I had visions of a complex story with both legitimate clues and red herrings, the player forced to figure out for himself which leads are genuine. Perhaps in the future.

Another thing that many noted, not always favorably, was the old-school Fighting Fantasy mechanics. I maintain that it was the right choice, under the circumstances. In the first draft, I had a somewhat more original system with separate stats for attack and defense, similar in execution to Ookle of the Broken Finger. But when revision time came I stepped back, took a look at it, and realized I had twenty-four hours to playtest a system that I had never used before. Judging this to be not feasible, I instead scrapped it and jerry-rigged something more familiar. We've all played enough Fighting Fantasy to have a pretty good handle on how it ticks, and are thus able to avoid grievous imbalances easily. (I still made The Evil Eye too easy, but I've discussed that already.)

Regardless of my missteps along the way, I'm satisfied with The Evil Eye. While it certainly could have been better, I was able to tell a good story in the gamebook format, and learned a few things about gamebook design in the process. If you liked it, I think you for your support. If not, rest assured that my next effort will be better. And I may yet get around to that epic series someday.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

2012 Windhammer Competition Reviews and Analysis

(Originally posted on the goodreads group, but I decided to repost it here for fans without accounts.)

Voting for the 2012 Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction has now closed. We shall know the results shortly, but in the meantime it's time to open discussion. It was a breakout year for the competition. The current gamebook renaissance, plus Tin Man Games' generous offer off releasing the top three entrants as an app, attracted a record number of entrants, and I can only guess how many voters. I myself was one of the newcomers, submitting both an entry and a vote for the first time.

In its stated goal of promoting innovation and supporting new authors in the gamebook community, the competition was a resounding success. Some of the 22 entrants were long-standing members of the community, but there were an even greater number of newcomers and first-time authors. Everyone was experimenting with new ideas, either mechanical or from a broader theoretical perspective. And while I won't say all of the entrants produced good work, most of them showed at least some potential. Whether this potential will eventually pan out into artistic or commercial success remains to be seen, but my hat is off to all the entrants, even the ones I'll be bashing on shortly, for going the distance.

While the competition was run fairly and efficiently, I do have some minor issues with the format. Two votes per judge is too little in a field of twenty-two entrants. A lot of good gamebooks are probably going to draw naught. A new voting system should be considered for next year; perhaps rate the games instead of just nominating two. I also am a little leery of the randomization method, i.e. none. Yes, the entry list was appropriately randomized, but every voter got the same list, and thus most of them probably played the games in the same order. This may seem like an odd nit to pick, but for me personally fatigue set in about halfway through, and I didn't feel like I was giving the subsequent games a fair shake. (Incidentally, I played the games in reverse order, just to be contrary.) Lastly, a month and a half is, IMHO, more time than necessary. I had things wrapped up in half that time, and spent the rest of October tapping my foot awaiting the results. It was also bad timing for the competition to be closed at the end of November, when the community could easily get distracted by Halloween revelry on the U.S. Presidential Election. (Or a massive late-season hurricane, but I won't blame our organizers for not predicting that.)

That said, overall the competition was run well, and I thank and commend Mr. Densley for his effort and the people at Tin Man Games for supporting the competition.

I've provided honest reviews for each of the entrants below. They are listed in roughly descending order, and subdivided into three categories: The Good, The Average, and The Ugly. (It was going to be "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", but there wasn't really any middle-of-the-road bad in the competition. It was either unremarkable or awful.)


The Evil Eye, by S.J. Bell
Yes, I voted for my own book. Don't give me that look. Every author votes for themselves, why do you think we have to vote for two different entries? Anyway, for obvious reasons, I can't really review this honestly, but I will be doing a post-mortem in a few days, after I've sorted through any comments I've received. Watch this group!

A Knight's Trial, by Kieran Coghlan
Kieran Coughlan has been producing indie gamebooks for some time, including one of my personal favorites, Hunger of the Wolf. So it's no surprise that his entrant is a book of the highest caliber. A Knight's Trial is a tough gamebook, but also eminently fair to the reader. Death in combat is a very real possibility, but you're seldom screwed by the dice directly. Rather, the solution to your problems is to take a route that either avoids the fight or gets you to it in better shape. As well, the dungeon itself is marvelously twisty, and although there seems to be only one correct path, the right and wrong decisions are obvious enough in retrospect that you can learn from successive playthroughs. What impressed me most, however, is the plot. This is one of three books that tried the "false reality" idea this year, and IMHO the only one that did it right. The hints are subtle; at first they seem to be just the kind of random weirdness that dots your typical dungeon-crawling gamebook, but as you see more and more the recurring themes start to emerge. This, in turn, allows the author to get bolder with the surrealism. By the time you get to a pair of knights sliding down an iced-over water slide with glee, it makes perfect sense in context. And unlike the others who tried this tack, at no point does Coghlan condescend to explain the plot to you outright. Not even at the end, really. He just leaves the clues around in plain sight and trusts the reader to put things together. Great job!


Sigil-Beasts, by Karalynn Lee
I was back and forth between giving my vote to this book or A Knight's Trial. Trial eventually won because it was just better put together, but this is a well-made book on its own merits, with good writing and world-building. This is the only book in the competition that actually gave multiple routes through the story. Others were linear, or had many branches that ultimately converged on the same place, but Sigil-Beasts actually gives you three very different ways to go about reaching your ultimate goal. Even more amazing, each path is well-paced; I am shocked that Lee managed to cram so much into just 100 sections. That said, there are some issues. For one, the final battle is way too hard unless you take the phoenix path. Characterizations are also inconsistent; the main character's relationship with his brother varies wildly between paths, and one path has a romance with the rival beastmaster coming out of nowhere. And (though this is a nitpick) the author describes a basilisk as having a beak and talons. A basilisk is a SNAKE. You're thinking of a cockatrice, or perhaps a griffin. All that aside, this is still very compelling work, especially for a first effort, and I hope to see more from Ms. Lee.

Ookle of the Broken Finger, by Paul Gresty
I was fatigued by the time I got to this, so I didn't enjoy it as much as I felt I should. But I did enjoy it. It's light and humorous (at times darkly so), with interesting characters despite the slapstick plot. However, it suffers from what seems to be a recurring problem this year: there's too much focus on the dice. You can know the right path and still not make it through without a fair amount of luck. And while we're at it, the right path is really obscure. You basically have to wander around the festival stumbling upon things and hoping you don't trigger the endgame before you've got the items and knowledge to win. But the humor and the strength of the writing make up for these problems, even if I did cheat through a good portion of it.

AETHER, by Paul Struth
I wrung my hands nervously when I read this, because the author did the same basic thing I did in The Evil Eye, only better. The clues are hidden a lot more naturally, and the flow of clues is more intricate and makes a lot more sense. Main weaknesses: bland writing and too much dice work. You're not rolling for everything, but you are rolling a lot to earn clues. The talisman helps, but bad luck is still frustrating. Overall, though, a very solid effort that should be a model for future investigative gamebooks.

Final Payment, by Zachary Carango
By all rights, this should be one of The Average, as neither the plot nor the mechanics are all that impressive. I bumped it up because it has the best innovation of the competition: it's "spell" system, which is tailor-made to address all the petty annoyances that come up in gamebooks. Pick the wrong skill at the start doesn't mean you get screwed, it means you have to decide whether to spend 4MM on the subcontract. Getting bad rolls in combat can be countered by spending money on re-rolls or for a full heal. Of course, these abilities are limited, and they should be, but a bit of breathing room to enjoy the story does wonders for what could otherwise have been a very frustrating adventure with a tedious combat system. EVERYONE should rip this off.


Academy of Magic - The First Term, by Marty Runyon
I actually liked this one a lot. It's got the whimsical tone just right, and the branching is adequate. But it's got a few too many problems to put in with The Good. The main plot, gathering components to rebuild your sabotaged term project, is fine. But the mystery subplot fails hard. There is literally no solid clue to the culprit anywhere in the book; all the evidence you find is circumstantial, and a lack of character development for pretty much anyone means that it's not clear who has a motive, either. You're apparently supposed to find some smaller clues and figure whodunit based on the process of elimination, but this relies on the basic assumption that the perpetrator is someone in your class. That's the kind of detective work that gets Dr. Watson chided repeatedly. (Well, it did before adaptations started portraying him as competent.) Also, the game balance is way off, overwhelmingly favoring a high Mind score and leaving some of the skills nearly useless. However, I give it a lot of credit for a similar idea to Final Payment: a separate pool of points that you can dig into when in a tough situation. Coupled with a mind of 6, it meant I never failed a single roll on two playthroughs. An enjoyable book, but it bit off more than it could chew, in terms of both plot and mechanical complexity. Still, I'd read the sequel. Of note: Most gamebooks have a main character who is gender-neutral but implicitly male. This book goes the opposite way with a main character who is gender-neutral but implicitly female. Interesting.

Day of Dissonance, by David Walters
I don't have much to say about this. There's nothing especially wrong with it, but unfortunately everything it does right is done better by A Knight's Trial, which also had a much more compelling story. Bad luck for Walters that they had to be in the same competition. Still, it has merit. I quite liked the ending.

Golem Gauntlet, by Simon Chapman
Standard-issue dungeon crawl, albeit with an original gimmick: you've lost your body, and must inhabit a series of Golems to get it back. Competent, but doesn't get the most out of its premise. There are some interesting bits: a clay body can be baked and hardened, while your wood body can blend in among trees and hide. But a lot more could be done with this idea. I expected to be swapping back and forth to get different abilities, but instead the plot is mostly linear, and you upgrade to better forms as you go. It feels like a waste of a good idea. It also needed better playtesting. Twice the reader is thrown into battles that are nigh-unwinnable.

Legacy of the Zendari, by Ashton Saylor
Saylor produced last year's Peledgethol, which won second place and was, IMHO, better than the actual winner. (Or at least it was once you realized the battles were unwinnable and cheated through that shit. 3 SKILL, Saylor? Seriously?) [EDIT: Actually, looking at it again, it turns out I misread the rules. Erm... Moving on...] Anyway, Legacy of the Zentradi is not bad, but it's a bit of a disappointment because it's just not up to the same standard. New mechanics streamline combat, which is good. But damage lowers your offensive and defensive powers, meaning that every round you lose makes your ultimate defeat more likely. Annoying. We've also got a "Random Encounter" system which, as in the other three books that used one this year, is pointless filler that wastes time and page space. The writing is generally strong enough to offset these problems, but then at the end it devolves into a mess of cliches and melodrama. Not a bad read, but could have stood a few more revisions. BTW, unless I'm missing something there is no way to reach the end with all 12 achievements, regardless of the author's assurances. The best path available still gets you to the end too late.

Call of Khalris, by Stuart Lloyd
I'm a fan of Lloyd's blog, but this is the first actual gamebook of his I've read. And it pains me to admit that it is at best hopelessly average. It has a generic setup and is kind of listless. His major innovation is to make you stop at certain points of the story to make you answer essay questions about your character's motivations. Ummm... what? If this is supposed to be a way to draw the player into the story and make them role-play, it fails hard. REALLY hard. The spotlight it shines on the artificiality of the book jolted me OUT of the story.

Trial of the Battle God, by Andrew Drage
This fantasy version of The Hunger Games has you and seven NPC heroes thrown into a dungeon to fight to the death for glory and your respective nations' prosperity. I am of two minds on this one. On the one hand, a LOT of effort has gone into the game mechanics, which allow your enemies to wander the dungeon the same as you, gaining strength as they loot fallen foes and such. And these mechanics work marvelously, as does the point-based character creation. The writing is also pretty good, for a dungeon-crawl. And it has multiplayer rules, too! For a second time I am amazed by how much an author has crammed into 100 sections. On the other hand, it's an INCREDIBLY combat-centric game. On occassion, you'll find some new weapon or armor or have to negotiate some obstacle, but for the most part you're wandering the maze, battling. And every battle is hard. The enemy heroes are built using the same rules as your character, which means they all have average to above-average stats. So Trial of the Battle God winds up unintentionally spotlighting the biggest problem with dice-based combat: no matter how powerful you are, you have to get lucky or die. You can search for (or loot) new gear, but the way the combat system is set up that hardly matters; I got stronger, but doing so didn't improve my chances in any given battle. Compare The Enchanted Windmill, which used a similar system for resolving combat, but made sure that a boost to your stats actually had an effect. There's an excellent idea for something here, but that something ain't a gamebook. I'm thinking something more like a gamebook/board game hybrid. Something that lets the multiplayer rules really shine. As a single-player gamebook, it's a lot of good, solid craftsmanship put into an idea that just isn't fun.

Guild of Thieves, Andrew Wright
Curious. Wright won last year's competition with Sea of Madness, a non-linear but otherwise fairly standard gamebook. But instead of continuing in that vein, he's decided to ape Peledgathol, the runner up. Maybe he, like I, thought it was a stronger entrant. In any case, the basic structure of Guild of Thieves is almost identical: you run a series of missions, Mega Man style, gathering allies and building your forces between missions, all leading up to a big final battle. Despite extra polish and streamlined mechanics, though, Guild of Thieves feels like a step back. Peledgathol was a mix of meta-puzzle (you had to get the right keywords at the right times) and story, the latter aided by a small but distinctive cast and a unique voice. You felt like you were playing a fragment of epic history instead of the pulpy adventure stories we're used to. Guild of Thieves? Well, mostly it feels like busywork. Choose your target, roll the dice to succeed or fail, collect money, hire new thieves, etc. etc. The factions you're attempting to control are all pretty much the same. They have nearly-identical stats, and though the flavor is different, it's all so much filler. The game balance is another big problem. Like Legacy of the Zentradi, the author has set up combat (and the broader strategic game) so that if you're winning, you continue to win, and vice versa if your losing. So the game becomes either an exercise in frustration or a trudge where nearly every conflict is a foregone victory. It's dull either way, and the ending turns it all into a shaggy dog story. Disappointing.

The Enchanted Windmill, by Bert Van Dam
This book feels like a demo or proof-of-concept rather than a complete book, but it's simple and relatively painless. The author seemed to be trying a small-scale tribute to Fabled Lands. Now, I only played the app version of Fabled Lands, and while I had a good time with it, I could see it being very, very annoying on paper. So many passages have to be devoted to housekeeping - shops, towns, etc. - that it cuts into space available for the actual story, and a large body of your time is spent not reading, or even rolling dice, but flipping pages. So it is with The Enchanted Windmill. The mechanics are respectable, but a weak story and lots of bland passages means the book is boring. BTW, that trading minigame thing was done in last year's Sea of Madness, and was stupid there for the same reason it's stupid here: you can set up an infinite loop (in this case, Herbs to Wouwse, Wheat to Heerle, and repeat) to get infinite money. Some players wouldn't even consider it cheating.

A Familiar Story, by Richard Penwarden
Decent writing and adequate world-building, ruined by a grand trifecta of newbie mistakes: too linear, too complicated mechanically, and too much dice work. Way, way, WAY too much dice work. You roll for everything in this game. You roll in combat, you roll for random encounters, you roll for treasure. You even roll for the abilities you get when you level up! It felt like everything was completely out of my hands. I wasn't playing the game, I was watching the dice play the game. And unless you roll lucky for those treasures and abilities, nearly every enemy in the book will have you out-classed. A horrendous misfire.

The Ravages of Fate, by Ulysses Ai
Putting this one here hurts, because it's got far and away the best writing of the competition: it's a great heroic fantasy yarn with a well-developed supporting cast. The problem is that it's not a gamebook. It's nearly 100% linear. The entire first half is an overlong intro where you journey the frozen mountains with a party of less-than-trustworthy companions. Again, it's marvelously well-written, but almost completely non-interactive. The second half is a big fight between your party and the troll they've been sent to kill. This part I liked a lot, at least in concept. The fight has a lot more detail than just rolling some dice for awhile. You set traps, defend your party (or not), choose methods of attack, and so forth. Even here, though, it feels very scripted. The major events all occur in the same order every time, like a long-winded quick-time event. This should have been a work of static fiction, jerry-rigging it into a gamebook is an insult to both mediums.

Nye's Song, by Robert Douglas
The same problem as above, really. Good writing, but the story is oppressively linear, and the player never has the opportunity to make a decision that matters. The only real decision you make is how many side-trips to take in the beginning before storming the hall. After storming the hall, you go to the escape, where you can't make any decisions at all. The entire book from that point on is dice work. Granted, I made most of the rolls. Maybe you get more branching if you miss one and things go pear-shaped. But that's still ass-backwards design. Luck should be the fallback when decision-making fails, not vice-versa. And while I respect the old-school Fighting Fantasy mechanics (I used them myself, after all), rolling your stats in this day and age is bullshit.

The Massacre in Black Scythe, by Mikael Bergqvist
For the most part, this horror story is dull rather than offensive. This is one of those games where there is only one true path, and any deviation eventually leads to a dead-end. That's not bad by itself, but it's tricky to pull off horror using that format. Horror relies on surprise, and you can't be surprised at something after going through it for the 12th time. Badly-written dialog, heavy on exposition and light on personality, also breaks the mood. None of that makes Black Scythe one of The Ugly, though. What does that is a needlessly gory and singularly unpleasant finale where YOU butcher and dismember a bunch of brainwashed children. Ah, no. No thank you.

Emancipation, by Jake Care
Jake Care is a stalwart proponent of the economy-sized gamebook, so I won't blame him for producing a book that kept me occupied for less than twenty minutes. I will, however, blame him for everything else he did wrong. Like Day of Dissonance, Emancipation is handicapped by the fact that A Knight's Trial did the false-reality idea better. Having played this book before the other two, however, I can confidently say that it stinks regardless. Care does the exact opposite of Coghlan by spelling everything out for the reader. Even overlooking that, the truth is as obvious as it is cliche, and scientifically dubious as well. This book just feels like no effort at all has been put into it.

Swordplayer, by Nicholas Stillman
It's a rare book that has me pissed off right from the intro. But the author of Swordplayer accomplishes this by declaring it "the most challenging short gamebook ever conceived," which tells me right away that A) he's got a bit of an ego problem, and B) I'm gonna be cheating like a motherfucker. The rules also insist that I can't map the dungeon until I find a particular item, to which I mentally respond "Try and stop me, blowhard." Vitriol aside, Swordplayer actually did some things I liked. It offers a completely deterministic battle system, a crude manner of experience points, and encounters scaled to your level,  all very interesting ideas. But it's just not very fun. Or any fun, really. The quest is bland, the dungeon is bland, the anagrams are unsolvable, and the puzzles stink. It reminded me of a Sierra game; you carry around a bunch of items and use all of them on every puzzle until something works. When it does, you say "Huh," then repeat the process with the next puzzle. Or say "How the hell was I supposed to think of THAT?!" and ragequit the game. I made it through about half of them before hitting that point. I mean, come on! Using a cap to bail out an acid lake? Wish I knew what the author was on, because I'd like to try some of that...

Hwarang and Kumiho, by Leidren Sweever
This is awful, but at least it's entertainingly awful. There seems to be a decent tale hiding in here somewhere, but the author's grasp of English is extremely deficient, and the spell-checker doesn't do him any favors. For example, the hwarang's warrior code commands that he "Thrust among friends". Kinky. The mechanics aren't bad, but the design is awful, substituting completely blind choices for die rolls (Section one ends with the instruction to "Turn to 2, 3, or 4"), and making little or no effort to balance the skills. Plus, bugs. At least twice I was directed to a section that could not logically follow from the previous one. The author has the folktale tone and atmosphere down, and the plot is reasonably well-paced, although rather linear. But if you can dig all that up out of the malapropers and mistakes, you're a better man then I.

Dating a Witch, by Ivailo Daskalov
Ugh. I hate to put this last, because I like the idea and the author seems to be in earnest, but his (her?) English is even worse than Sweever's. Not only that, but the characterizations are awful. Even with perfect English, that would have been a deal-breaker, because a love story depends on the reader identifying or at least sympathizing with the characters. These characters do not behave like any human beings I know. They meet on a rooftop, and for no apparent reason they decide to go out on a date right then and there after dropping awkward exposition about their respective power sets. It grated so much that I couldn't read more than 10 sections into it before giving up and moving on to the next entrant. I'm sorry, I like the world-building and wanted to give the book a chance, but the best summation I can think of is from Simon the Mean Brit: "You can't sing, you can't dance, so what do you want me to say?"

Important lessons in gamebook design learned from the 2012 Windhammer Competition:

- Don't stick a bunch of die rolls in an otherwise-linear story and call it a gamebook.
- Don't implement a random encounter table. It's just time-wasting filler.
- Don't hinge too much of your book on die rolls.
- If you're going to ape some other book, don't come off worse in the comparison. (See Guild of Thieves)
- Don't skip playtesting, especially if you're using new mechanics.
- Giving the player a bit of leeway works wonders (See Final Payment, Academy of Magic.)
- Know your limitations. Several games bit off more than they could chew.
- Don't be afraid to innovate.
- Don't use the player's combat stats as his hit points. It just makes battle annoying. (See Legacy of the Zendari)
- Don't write in a language you don't know.

And that's all I've got to say. Feel free to add your own comments, or reviews of your own!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

All the Lovely Creatures

Remember that anthology I've been talking about recently? Check it out:

The anthology is out, and I'm pleased to be starting it off* with my story, "No Such Thing." It is the second story to feature Gerald Westmoor and Kyle Thompson, (The first, in case you don't remember, is here,) and I am very proud of it. The other authors, a few of whom I helped edit, have also put together first-rate work. So, enjoy! There's been talk of doing another one soon, and I hope it comes to pass, because this was a lot of fun!

*- Okay, I'm only first because the stories were compiled alphabetically by author. Still, I'm proud to be there. ^_^

Friday, September 28, 2012

Movie Review: Looper

Been a while since I've done one of these, but then again it's been a while since I saw a film that left me with anything pressing to say.

Looper is painful to recall having viewed. Not because it was bad but because, like Battleship, I can see the much more awesome movie it could have been. Someone had the script for a Philip K. Dick pastiche, and it was incredible: clever, gritty, visceral, and mindbending. The perfect summer sci-fi flick. Then, halfway through filming, the budget ran out. So they shifted gears to a half-assed Terminator ripoff and cut every corner they possibly could. The brillliant futurist cityscapes are replaced with more realistic sets, the cast is pared down to the bare minimum (including reducing Bruce Willis to a supporting player), action scenes are cut out or toned down, and the plot slows to a crawl as they desperately try to make do.

There are bright spots. That first half is still great, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a bang-up job impersonating Willis. The movie handles the usual time-travel mindfuckery better than most; There's a remarkably plausible explanation of how altering your own past screws with your memory, and the ending, though predictable, is something I've always wanted to see in a time-travel story. And it's a rare movie indeed where a ten-year-old boy steal the show from Bruce Willis. But the whole does not add up to the sum of its' parts.

It's a pity, because between the trailers and the buzz I've been hearing, I was psyched to see this. But it all fell apart.

Friday, September 14, 2012

*whistles* FREE BOOKS!

Okay, sorry again for a long period of quiet, but I have been hard at work on my writing these past few weeks, and as it turns out I have something to show to you for it. No, not the Bonds of Fenris sequel, though work continues on that. As I mentioned last time, a bunch of us on Goodreads have put together an anthology called All the Lovely Creatures, due out in October. My story is called "No Such Thing", and it's about a vampire detective and his human assistant investigating a haunting. It's actually the second story I've written with these characters. The first never made it to publication, so I decided to release it for free on Goodreads and Smashwords. It's a brief read, maybe 20 minutes or so. I hope you enjoy it.

In addition, as of today the entrants in the Windhammer Prize for Short Gamebook Fiction are available for download. One of them is my first gamebook, The Evil Eye. If you have any interest in gamebooks, or any fond memories of Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf back in the day, I highly recommend you check it out. And vote for me, of course. ~_^

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wolf Girls review up at Lupines and Lunatics! + apologies.

My latest review, of the indie anthology Wolf Girls, is now up at the review blog. Check it out!

Yeah, I've been neglecting this blog big-time lately. I apologize. But! I've had good reason. A bunch of us from Goodreads have gotten together to produce an anthology of our own, All the Lovely Creatures. It won't be out for a month or two, but when it is it will have stories from a bunch of promising authors, myself included. I've been working on some other projects, too, including the sequel to Bonds of Fenris (which is a ways off still), and some other shorts. No details just yet, but rest assured, you'll hear about it here!

In the meantime, keep howlin', and I'll post here when I can.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Blog Hopping 7/13/2012

Welcome, fellow bloghoppers! You're looking at the personal blog of S.J. Bell, independent author. My first book, Bonds of Fenris, is currently available at Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other fine ebook retailers! Link on the sidebar, get 'em while their hot! It's been making a big splash on the internet, check out the reviews on Goodreads.

I was absent from the blog hop for a few weeks, partially due to some real-life drama, but also because I've been busy working on some short stories, which I hope to be able to reveal to you soon. In the meantime, I posted an analysis of the issue of recycled content in e-publishing (springing off from an earlier post which caused some degree of drama between me and the people of Tin Man Games). On a less dramatic note, I also hosted a guest post for the Wolf Girls Blog Tour!

In addition to this blog, I also have a separate blog for reviews, Lupines and Lunatics. Latest review is Taken by Storm. Check it out!

Happy hopping!

This week's ice-breaker for Feature & Follow:

"What drove you to start book blogging in the first place?"

My writing career, essentially. At the time, I was hoping to build cachet as an expert on werewolves in literature, which I thought would make me look good when It came time to attract an agent for my work. Well, it didn't help too much. Might actually have hurt, since agents specifically shy away from authors who review other people's books -- the risk of creating drama is too great. But I stuck with it, and it seems to have actually gotten me noticed on the internet, which is a very good thing for an indie author.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

From Snow Queen to Wolf Girl (Guest Post from Jeanette Greaves)

Today I have a special treat for you all. Hannah Kate of indie publisher Hic Dragones recently released a new anthology, Wolf-Girls. I'll be reviewing it soon, but for now I've been asked to host a guest post for the blog tour. So it's my great pleasure to introduce Jeanette Greaves, author of "The Cameron Girls", who is here today to talk a bit about how she came to writing as a profession. Sit down and have a listen. When you're done, check out the rest of the tour on the Hic Dragones website, or visit Jeanette at her blog. Now take it away, Jeanette!

My grandmother used to tell me fairy stories at bedtime, some from Grimm, some from Andersen, some that I'm sure she made up because I've never heard them before or since. She didn't tell them every night I spent at her house, but it was enough to make me long for the brilliant dreams that came afterwards. It was enough to sow the seeds of wonder and curiosity, and make me want to believe in something different, something wild and wonderful.

Thanks to my mother, who realised that I was capable, and that reading would keep me quiet, I learned to read at a very young age, and was given several books, mostly educational, but one was a beautifully illustrated story book with just one story in it. Just one.

The Snow Queen has a lot to answer for. I read it again and again. I took into my soul the idea of the female hero, the female villain. I learned and believed that women and girls were powerful beings, capable of great acts. I learned that people could change, and change again.

As I grew older, I sought more of the same, and was disappointed that there was very little out there. Female characters sought marriage, or salvation, they were victims, or bystanders. I discovered science fiction and fantasy, and sank into the arms of the genre. Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey and a small tribe of women writers gave me what I hungered for … women who fought, and loved, and were the architects of their own lives.

To be honest, I wasn't attracted to the paranormal. I read and enjoyed stories about vampires and werewolves when I couldn't get hold of the hard stuff, but nothing stood out for me until I read Suzy McKee Charnas' brilliantly dark and funny "Boobs" in an anthology. If you've not read it, find it. The basic story has been used many times, but never as well as in Suzy's tale. I started to look for werewolf stories. I found George RR Martin's "The Skin Trade", and this too lodged tightly in my brain. Again, if you've not read it, look for it. It terrified me, and I'm not even a werewolf. The idea of the werewolf as a victim intrigued me.

For all my love of books, I didn't write. I'd put it aside, like most people do, after primary school. We didn't write stories at secondary school, we studied other people's. With the exception of a few narrative poems which I doodled out in the sixth form common room, my well of ideas filled and filled, without every gaining an outlet. That's how things go stagnant.

I started writing by accident, riffing on funny, erotic stories for the amusement of my friends. One story escaped from me, and grew and grew. It didn't stop. It was about a female werewolf, and I was in love with my own creation. She was (is) a green eyed, red haired, short lady, by no means beautiful. She appeared in the passenger seat of my car as I was driving, and started to tell me her story. She never introduced herself, which meant that at first I had to write from her point of view, because I didn't know her name. It took two years of coaxing before she admitted to "Diana". Since then I've been writing about Diana and her friends and family. There's about a million words of it, some about wolf-girls, some about wolf-boys. I love them all the same.

"The Cameron Girls" has been rattling around for several years, and the version in Wolf-Girls is pretty much the original version. It's a Cinderella story for werewolves, set in a 21st Century where shapeshifters have come out of the closet and are very much part of modern society. The story came about because I wanted to step outside the box, to take a break from the company of werewolves, and to look at how the rest of the world was coping with the revelation that there was a small but influential group of shapeshifters living amongst them. How would the tabloids react? And how would the 'shifters themselves protect and care for those of their kind who were still alone and scared, or unaware of their powers?

When Hannah-Kate put out her call for submissions for the anthology, I wondered if my shapeshifters fit the bill. There's nothing paranormal about my werewolves, they are no more influenced by the moon than any other human, they wear silver jewellery without a care, and they are passionately interested in being a part of human society, rather than apart from it. Some of them even change into other animals than wolves. Hannah made it clear that her brief ranged wide, so I submitted two stories, and "The Cameron Girls" was accepted. It's not my first published story; that honour goes to "The Brane", a tale of rock stars and voodoo which was in Writers' Forum magazine in 2009.

Having read the Wolf-Girls anthology from cover to cover, I'm delighted to see my story in such great company, with so many different takes on the Wolf-girls theme. The mixed-author short story anthology is a brilliant book format … you're sure to find something you like, and may even find a story that you love. Go on, dive in, and don't mind the howling.

Jeanette's first job involved boiling up pig heads to make dripping. She moved on, quickly, to take a Saturday job gutting and filleting fish. She is now a vegetarian who likes to write about people being torn apart by werewolves. Never doubt the formative influence of weekend work. Read her story, along with 16 others in Wolf-Girls, out now from Hic Dragones!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On content reuse

A recent post of mine started some e-mail/twitter drama that I'm uninterested in continuing. I may need to at some point, but for now that kind of dialog is beneath mention. Lost in the discussion, however, was the real issue I was trying to bring attention to. It's something that the audience for indie publishing should be aware of, because I expect to see more of it in the future.

Long story short: some time ago, a Fighting Fantasy fan named Kieran Coghlan wrote a FF-based gamebook called Hunger of the Wolf and distributed it for free on the internet. A few years later, Tin Man Games licensed the book from Coghlan and reworked it into Revenant Rising, one of their Gamebook Adventures line of e-gamebook mobile apps. Changes were made to incorporate the Gamebook Adventures combat system, and to change the setting from Titan (the world of Fighting Fantasy) to their own Orlandes setting. Changes were also made to the plot, though in broad strokes it is the same: Hero is betrayed by comrade, saved from death by not-quite-benevolent wizard, tracks down betrayer via long cross-country trek, has various adventures along the way, confronts and kills betrayer in single combat during a larger army vs. army engagement, is betrayed again by wizard, and must finally escape wizard's control with the help of a more trustworthy ally. The text, likewise, has been changed as little as practical. I'd estimate that between one-third and one-half of Revenant Rising is copy and pasted from Hunger of the Wolf, with the entire middle being nearly identical.

By all accounts, this was done legally. There was no violation of copyright law or anything like that. However, it was a very questionable move from the perspective of Tin Man's customers, who were asked to buy something that, unbeknownst to them, was already available for free. Again, this is legal, and I can't really think of a reason it shouldn't be, but it leaves a very, very sour taste in my mouth.

As I noted in my previous post, there is some precedent for this. A chapter of Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 is lifted wholesale from it's more-famous predecessor. Nobody made this an issue, and Clarke himself even joked about it, because the chapter in question was dry exposition with little to do with the story. Silver Age Superman comics recycled plots every few years, but because back issues were hard to find and the audience was expected to "grow out of them", it wasn't a big deal. Garfield has become notorious for reusing punchlines, and nobody cares because they get the strip for free with the daily paper. Hell, Tin Man will be rereleasing the old Fighting Fantasy books on their platform soon, and people are psyched. What makes this any different?

Two things make it different. One is dishonesty. When people buy Tin Man's Fighting Fantasy reissues, they'll know exactly what they're getting, and they'll be cool with it. But Revenant Rising is sold as a new work when it's nothing of the sort. Digging through the hype, I couldn't find a single mention of the fact that Revenant Rising is, at its core, a book that I'd read before. You pay for something new and get something you already had and didn't need. If they had just released a Hunger of the Wolf special edition or some such with alterations to remove the Fighting Fantasy references, there wouldn't have been any trouble. But they tricked their audience, and their audience has a right to be miffed.

The second thing is disrespect, both for their audience and themselves. By pulling a move like this, and then expecting their customers to come back, they beg the question of how they expected to get away with it. There are two possibilities: one is that they expect that their readers will be unfamiliar with gamebooks. Their success, in other words, is based on their readers being naive. The other is that they expect their readers to catch it and come back anyway, because they don't care. Under this logic, they are under no compulsion to produce good work.

And that's the really concerning issue: their disrespect for their own writing. By doing this the author is saying that their books are nothing but a product to be sold, repackaged, and resold as they wish. They have commoditized their work and undermined their own artistic integrity.

If you read my blog because you like books, rather than gamebooks, you might not care about this little tempest in a teapot. But consider this: whenever you buy a new e-book, you're essentially making a blind purchase. What do you have to make your buying decision? A cover image, a blurb, and the name of an author that you may or may not recognize. Sometimes a sample of the first chapter or so. What's to stop an unscrupulous author from making some marginal changes and then pushing the same book out under three or four different titles? Maybe under three or four different pen names? He hasn't broken any laws in doing so, but he has broken the unspoken trust to provide his readers with the best storytelling he can. The reader can't be blamed for taking exception. Nor can the reader be blamed for swearing off an author, a genre, or even reading itself. Nobody is going to indulge themselves in a hobby that has them constantly cheated out of their money.

When authors pull stunts like this, it doesn't just harm their own reputation, but the reputation of honest authors doing honest work. And it means newcomers have to try even harder to overcome the skepticism of an audience who thinks they're probably just another sock puppet pushing another cloned book. Buyer beware in this brave new world of e-publishing, and readers and authors alike beware of recycled content.

Monday, June 25, 2012

New LupLun Review: Taken by Storm

Heads up, followers! My review blog is now host to my lastest review: Jennifer Lynn Barnes' Taken by Storm, the final volume of her totally awesome Raised by Wolves series. Check it out!

Friday, June 22, 2012

On nuances of plagiarism

I have a perennial interest in gamebooks, which are the perfect way to meld my love of video games and my love of reading. Recently I've been into Tin Man Games' Gamebook Adventures, which brings the genre into the 21st century by using code to automate a lot. This isn't really a new idea. Fighting Fantasy Project has dozens of independently-produced gamebooks, some web-implemented, others in .pdf or Word format.

After getting a iPod Touch for my birthday, I've been working my way through the available GA books one by one, my latest conquest being book number 4, Revenant Rising. I was enjoying it up until the halfway point, where a dead minstrel spoke to me, giving information about a evil army I was currently trying to thwart. I was instantly reminded of a similar situation that occurred in one of my favorite FFProject indies, Hunger of the Wolf. At the time, I brushed it off and went on, but then I found another familiar situation: a detachment of said evil army camped by a river that I had to cross. And beyond that, a third set-piece: a village on fire, and me given a choice to rush into a burning building to save a peasant woman's baby, or confront the soldiers who were laughing at it.

With an eyebrow raise, I re-downloaded Hunger of the Wolf and took a look at them side by side. Sure enough, there's some utterly blatant ripping-off in evidence. Not only are the broad strokes of the plot similar, but huge swaths of the middle of Revenant Rising are simply copy-pasted from Hunger of the Wolf, with only slight modifications for the new setting and characters.

Curious as to how they expected to get away with this, I checked the credits page for Revenant and discovered exactly how they got away with it. The writer for Revenant, Kieran Coghlan, is the same man who did Hunger of the Wolf. The credits page also contains this line:

"Revenant Rising is based on an existing gamebook entitled 'Hunger of the Wolf' which is licensed to TMG by the writer."

In other words, Coghlan... plagiarized himself? My first thought, before I read the credits, was rage. My second was laughter: well, I guess that's okay, then! My third thought was "Wait, so I just paid $4.99 for something that was already available legally for free? With zombies instead of wolves?"

(I'm admittedly biased on the relative lack of wolves being a grave injustice.)

But this raises some interesting questions. Can an author plagiarize himself? Arthur C. Clarke copy-pasted an entire chapter of 2001 into the sequel and insisted (with some snark) that it was perfectly alright to do so. He has a point. If plagiarism is the theft of intellectual content, one can't really be accused of stealing something that was already one's own.

But on the other hand, if there's no foul play here, am I justified in feeling ripped off? Or is that just the gamer's sense of entitlement speaking?


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Giveaway Results and Blog Hopping 6/15/2012

First things first: The giveaway celebrating Parajunkee's 100th Feature and Follow has concluded. Thank you all for participating. The winners are: Krista Bookreview (totally not an alias), Lauren Amy Watkins, and jenny. Winners have been contacted by e-mail. If you didn't win, there's another giveaway going on at Colorimetry through 6/27. Or you can buy the book at Smashwords, Amazon, or many fine e-book retailers.

With that said:

Welcome, fellow bloghoppers! You're looking at the personal blog of S.J. Bell, independent author. My first book, Bonds of Fenris, is currently available at Smashwords and Amazon. Link on the sidebar, get 'em while their hot! It's been making a big splash on the internet, check out the reviews on Goodreads.

I have been slacking off on posting here, I admit. It's a combination of working on a novel, a short story, and real-life drama all at once. But! I do have some substantial posts percolating, and I've been keeping up with my reading. My current read is Taken by Storm, from the lovely Jennifer Lynn Barnes, one of my favorite writers. I hope to have a review up ASAP.

In addition to this blog, I also have a separate blog for reviews, Lupines and Lunatics. Latest review is The Wolf Gift. Check it out!

Happy hopping!

This week's ice-breaker for Feature & Follow:

"Who is your favorite dad character in a book and why?"

Tough call, but I'd have to say Luke's dad from Wolf Mark. Largely because he trains his son to be Sam Fisher, but also because his parenting mantra is "Think about what you're doing" rather than "Do as I say." The text notes that this never works anyway, and is an unhelpful lesson for later in life.

This week's ice-breaker for TGIF @ GReads:

"From your personal collection of books, which ones hold the most value to you - is it signed by the author? or maybe it's your favorite story of all time? Share it with us."

Well, I do have one or two signed books, but it's really not something I collect. I'm more interested in stories. And on that subject, there are two series which I value above all others: Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books.

The thing about Vaughn is, her stories are very down to earth. We're used to these epic conflicts and larger-than-life stories, but Vaughn is at her best when playing things low-key. She depicts ordinary people in extraordinary situations: vampires and werewolves and so forth who at their core are human beings with human desires and motivations. It's that realism, that focus on humanity, which elevates her stories above the sea of Anita Blake wannabes crowding the urban fantasy genre.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

#FF100 Giveaway Hop

Parajunkee's Feature & Follow Blog Hop has been going on for almost two years, and in that time it's been an invaluable tool for authors and book bloggers alike. To celebrate the 100th Feature and Follow, PJ's doing something different: a giveaway hop!

Giveaway Hop

As part of the hop, we each have to post a featured blog. So, I'm going to post one of the most unjustly under-appreciated book blogs on the net, You're Killing Me:

I found this blog a while ago, and the owners are two of my best blogging friends. Their reviews are thoughtful and detailed, two things that are rare and precious in the realm of book blogging. Also, they're expert snarkers. ^_^

But it wouldn't be a giveaway hop without a giveaway, and here's what I'm offering: three winners will each receive a copy of my debut paranormal e-book, Bonds of Fenris. Not sure if it's worth your time to enter? Check out Goodreads to find reviews and an excerpt.

To enter, all you have to do is follow my blog and the featured blog, but if you tweet about the giveaway, I'll triple your chances!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And that's it! Now, hop on for more giveaways. Have fun!


Hopping Bloggers

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review Roundup 6/4/2012 and other news

I apologize for not maintaining this blog much lately. I'm currently hard at work on not one, but two writing projects, in addition to all the other drama in my life, so as always, the blog feels the squeeze. First, the Bonds of Fenris reviews from the past week (or two):

  • Lili Lost in a Book gives it four stars and praises the deep themes and diverse cast.
  • Book Bite Reviews also has a positive opinion, calling it a "beautiful story."
  • Isa K over at Goodreads delivers a well-written review with some praise and some criticism. Also, puppies!

If you haven't read the book yet, it's currently available at Smashwords, Amazon, Diesel, Kobo, and it should be on and the iBookstore soon. Also, if it was too expensive for you before, the price has been dropped to $4.99. If you're still not convinced, an excerpt is available at Goodreads.

Additionally, I've got a review of Anne Rice's The Wolf Gift up on my review blog, Lupines and Lunatics. Check it out!

Have a nice week, all!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Movie Night: Battleship

I saw Battleship last night. It wasn't a good movie. It was fun in places, but even when it was fun it had horrible storytelling. For example:

  • It has an opening crawl of unnecessary exposition, followed by a prologue that tells us exactly what the opening crawl just told us, and adds some more unnecessary exposition. This is then followed by a second prologue which introduces the protagonist as a loser and an idiot. Which is fine, except that by the time to title sequence is over, we've jumped ahead six years and he's an entirely different breed of loser idiot. Basically everything before the title is frivolous and pointless.
  • A significant amount of time is spent on a subplot about the protagonist's girlfriend that only barely relates to the main plot.
  • The protagonist's girlfriend herself is almost irrelevant, serving no purpose other than some early fanservice.
  • Several interesting setups have no payoffs. At one point, the protagonist mind-melds with one of the aliens and sees some stuff, but this is never brought up again. In another, an alien confronts a minor character in the process of stealing a high-tech device, but escapes unscathed for reasons that aren't shown on-screen and never explained.
  • The war room sequences are frivolous, as is nearly all of Liam Nesson's role.
  • The dialog is serviceable, but never rises above that level.
I could go on if I wanted. The thing is, though, these problems are familiar to me. They show up in my own books when they're first written. And then I go into revisions, and I weed out stuff. I yank out what's irrelevant or doesn't work, and I play up what does. When I'm done, the book is better for it. Sometimes I have to go through several revisions, each taking me further and further away from the first draft.

Battleship is a first draft. It's a promising idea that never went into revisions, and as a result it's crammed to the gills with stuff that doesn't matter. It's half-baked. It isn't ready for primetime.

And this isn't the only time I've seen this problem, either. It's all over the place: movies, published novels, self-published novels; stuff that could have been awesome and amazing, but didn't because the writer just took his first effort and said "well, that's the best I can do." No, it isn't. You can do better. We all know you can. I may have to write a full blog post on this sometime.

I feel for Taylor Kitsch, though. Poor guy has been in two flops in one year, (one of which, despite it's imperfections, deserved better) and he's got to be worried over the state of his future career. Guy's a pretty solid performer, and I hope I'll be able to see more from him.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review Roundup

Light week this week, with only two new reviews:

Additionally, I was approved for the Smashwords Premium Catalog last week, which means Bonds of Fenris Is now available at Kobo, Diesel, and iBooks. That's in addition to existing listings on Amazon and Smashwords itself. Get 'em while they're hot!

Oh yeah, I'm also on Twitter now. Better late than never, yes? ^_^

Friday, May 18, 2012

Blog Hopping 5/18/2012

Welcome, fellow bloghoppers! You're looking at the personal blog of S.J. Bell, independent author. My first book, Bonds of Fenris, is currently available at Smashwords and Amazon. Link on the sidebar, get 'em while their hot! It's been making a big splash on the internet, check out the review on Goodreads.

I was absent from the blog hop last week (busy, busy, busy), but I made up for it with some substantial postings about the hoopla over Fifty Shades of Grey, and the Indies With Attitude and their net-drama. Additionally, check the Review Roundups from this week and last week.

In addition to this blog, I also have a separate blog for reviews, Lupines and Lunatics. Latest review is Bloodrose. Check it out!

Happy hopping!

This week's ice-breaker for Feature & Follow:

"Summer Break is upon us! What would be the perfect vacation spot for you to catch up on your reading & relax?"

Is it just me, or are we getting this question a lot lately? Well, no need for drama. My answer is the same as last time: right here where I am now. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars to take a trip elsewhere to read, when just the act of reading itself transports you far away into imagination. It's wasted effort. Besides that, at any given point in the world, there's at least as much fun to be had as any vacation destination you could come up with. You just have to know how to look for it is all.

This week's ice-breaker for TGIF @ GReads:

"What made you decide to start your very own book blog?"

Well, I decided to book blog when I started writing. I was doing a lot of reading, because reading is the best way to learn how to write. I wanted an excuse to do write-ups of the books I was reading, so as to get them straight in my head. At the same time, I knew I'd eventually have to have some kind of cachet, either to attract the attention of a publisher or to publicize myself if I self-published. Book blogging presented itself as a natural solution.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Indies With Attitude

The above video is three years old and from an entirely different fandom, but it feels more relevant to independent publishing with every passing day.

I've mentioned the Indies With Attitude twice before, first in a guest post for another blog and again right here. You probably know the type, even if you never read either post: people who hang out on the blogosphere, jumping on every comment thread they find and preaching the downfall of "legacy" publishing and the rise of the glorious self-publishing revolution. Do they annoy you? Because they annoy me. I mean, Jesus dude, you don't get it? Nobody gives a crap what you think, and everything you've said has been said before, and better, by people who don't insist on jumping in and injecting your opinions into a discussion that was perfectly constructive before you showed up.

Let me back up a minute...

Getting published is hard. I know this because I've tried. A recession makes it harder because A) less-prosperous publishers mean less space for new authors, and B) unemployment means a lot of people who are likely to say "screw it, I'm gonna write for a living." This means a lot of new writers getting a lot of rejections. It gets frustrating. I know this from experience. And it's very easy to blame the publishers. It's very easy to pick up some book off the shelves, be disgusted by its quality, and then rail about how the publishing industry doesn't know what it's doing. I get all this. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I respect the viewpoint. What I don't respect is the creation of pointless 'net drama over it. It's all too common for blog comment threads to be completely derailed by people who want to drag the audience aside and tell them what they think.

For example, take Joe Konrath. I used to follow his blog. Used to. I unsubscribed after about a month because I couldn't stand the guy. I haven't read his books, and they might be very good. His attitude, however, is most certainly intolerable. He's got a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar, and doesn't hesitate to shove it in everyone's face. I can't read more than two paragraphs of a Konrath post before closing the tab in disgust, what with the amount of vitriol he spews.

I'm not saying that authors can't have opinions on the state of the industry. I'm saying that they have better things to do with their time than shout their opinions constantly. Writers should focus on writing good stories, not on sticking it to the man or tearing down the system. And I'd be curious to know how many of these blog-lurking ponces have actually produced a self-published novel. I, with a whopping one book to my credit, have probably released more than half of them. But the Indies With Attitude are more interested in waving their flags around than acting like writers. Yes, maybe a revolution is coming, or in progress, but when that revolution is done, what will your contribution have been? Books people read, or a morass of repetitive blog posts filed away in the massive cabinets of the internet and forgotten?

I end, as I began, with a YouTube embed:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review Roundup 5/15/2012

Review of Bonds of Fenris continue to pour in, or trickle in at least. There was a much lighter load today then last week, but that's to be expected. Check out the following:

  • Rea's Reading and Reviews calls the book "captivating" and gives it four stars. Rea also interviewed me
  • The owner of Cat's Thoughts reviewed me on Goodreads, though for some reason the review is not on her blog. But she liked the book and gave it four stars
  • Reading in the Mountains actually reviewed the book nearly two weeks ago, but I missed it. Sorry!
  • Last but far from least, You're Killing Me gave a solid three-star review. Cyna and Kayla are good friends of mine and produce awesome reviews, insightful and entertaining. You should definitely go follow them. Like now! Go!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Three chords and Fifty Shades

Talking about books you haven't read is always a dicey proposition, but when a respected industry blogger brought up Fifty Shades of Grey recently, I felt I had to say something. The long and the short of it was that this blogger has been telling writers for years to improve their writing, their grammar, their grasp of the English language. Now along comes this book which is, by all accounts, horribly written and an affront to everything she's been championing all these years. And it's a massive hit. So now she's worried that people will start ignoring her advice, and we'll be subjected to a wave of terribly, horribly written fiction.

As they are want to do, the comments section took the idea and ran with it, each individual taking their turn on the soapbox to throw off their "hell yeah!" or "hell no!" or their theories on what was really going on. Some floated the idea that Fifty Shades popularity was driven by it's origins as a Twilight fanfic. Others theorized that it was the result of it's reputation as a train-wreck of a book that had to be read to be believed. One especially popular analogy was that it was a Twinkie: a piece of literary junk food devoured as a guilty pleasure.

My own response went in a different direction: Beat on the Brat. With a baseball bat.

No, no, no, I don't mean to go around assaulting people with blunt objects! >_< Jesus, internet, you take everything so seriously. I meant this:

That song is from The Ramones, godfathers of punk rock. And when you think about it, the analogy from punk rock to Fifty Shades is pretty apt. While they didn't coin the term, punk rock embraced the ethos of "Three chords and the truth." It was an explicit response to rock acts of the 70's, which were often bombastic, pretentious, and/or overproduced. And frequently, all this stuff was in the service of a message which was vapid, incomprehensible, or just not there. Punk rock put forth the idea that you didn't need any of it. You didn't need talent, you didn't need training, you didn't need thousands of dollars of recording equipment. What you needed was authenticity. What you needed was a message that your audience understood, one that they heard and said "Yeah, right on!" to.

Listen to that song again, and note two things: One, how little is actually in there. The song is one riff repeated endlessly. The lyrics are two verses and a chorus. The two verses are each two identical stanzas of four lines, of which three lines are identical. A grade-schooler could write this song. Two, it's still awesome. You can head-bang to it, or just tap your foot if that's your thing, and either way it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. It's about as stripped-down and minimalist as you can get, and that's all it needs to be to connect with you.

E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, doesn't have talent. She doesn't need talent, because she has something much better: an idea that resonates with her audience. That's the first consideration, and probably the only one that really matters: speaking to your audience. And if James can do it, then who are we to object? What gives us the right to stand in judgement of good literature or good taste? Should not the reader have the final say as to whether or not the book he paid for was worth his money?

If we are to take a lesson from the success that Fifty Shades has enjoyed, it should be this: the only people that have to be pleased by a work are the author and the reader. If the audience doesn't have a problem with a book's poor writing, why should anyone else? It is less important for us to write lyrical prose or have perfect grammar than it is to tell an interesting story. All the rest is mere technicalities.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Release day! + Review Roundup

After a long and hard journey -- over two years, in fact -- release day has come! Bonds of Fenris is now available for sale at Amazon and Smashwords. It will be available at other outlets, including B&N, Kobo, and Apple's iBookstore, as soon as Smashwords gets their act together. An author, especially a new one, always worries that his work isn't good enough. But the response at Goodreads has been overwhelmingly positive, with most readers voting the book four out of five stars.

There's been a huge outpouring of reviews over the past week:

Whew, that's a lot! Anyone who I missed, just drop an e-mail and I'll correct that oversight next week. And thank you, everyone! I'm glad I can entertain you, and hope to continue to do so in the future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Hopping 5/04/2012

Welcome, fellow bloghoppers! You're looking at the personal blog of S.J. Bell, independent author. My first book, Bonds of Fenris, is officially releasing May 7th, but copies are available at Smashwords right now. Link is to the left, get 'em while their hot! Reviews have been coming in from all over the 'net, and I'm running a solid four stars on Goodreads. Woo!

Also woo: the Avengers movie is out! Who's psyched?

I also have a review blog, Lupines and Lunatics. Latest review is Promise of the Wolves, but Bloodrose will probably be up sometime today. [EDIT: And so it is. Check it out!]

Happy hopping!

This week's ice-breaker for Feature & Follow:

"What is one thing you wish you could tell your favorite author?"

"My best ideas were stolen from you." It's true for a number of authors, actually, but I don't feel like naming names right now. ~_^ Writing, I suppose, is the expression of your ideas through ideas stolen from other people.

This week's ice-breaker for TGIF @ GReads:

"If you could take a trip this summer to any place within a fictional book, where would you go? Tell us about your summer dream vacation!"

Eh, I dunno. The books I read always take place in areas rife with conflict and violence. Too much drama for me. While it won't make a complete trip, one place I'd like to stop by on a vacation is that totally and utterly awesome candy shop from that one chapter of Shiver. Apparently, that shop is based on a real place, and when word got out their business increased substantially. I can see why. Stiefvater's descriptions made me hungry.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Bonds of Fenris is now available! + More Reviews

Yeah, I know, the release date isn't for another week. We've actually spoken of this before; see my earlier post on the subject. Well, as planned, I uploaded Bonds of Fenris yesterday, and it is now available for purchase directly from the Smashwords site. It should be going out to other sites soon, including Apple's iBookstore,  Barnes &, Kobo, and so forth. It will be on Amazon eventually, but that'll take time. Amazon does not have a publishing agreement with Smashwords, which means I have to make a separate edition for them. (This doesn't mean the content will be any different, though I may have to cut out the ToC if it's not working right.) Unfortunately, Amazon's interface is a lot less user-friendly than Smashwords', and their support section is cluttered. Give me time.

So, short version: out at Smashwords now, out at your favorite eBook retailer soon. If it's all the same to you, I suggest buying direct from Smashwords, because I get more money that way. ^_^

In related news, more reviews are springing up:
And that's it for now. More to come, hopefully!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Blog Hopping 4/27/2012

Welcome, fellow bloghoppers! You're looking at the personal blog of S.J. Bell, independent author. My first book, Bonds of Fenris, is coming out May 7th, and reviews can be found around the net. This week has been very quiet, but plenty was going on behind the scenes. I may have a review of Bloodrose at some point next week, and of course my book is coming out soon, so I'm excited about that. And just to remind you, there are still ARCs of Bonds of Fenris available for book bloggers. So, if you're interested, my e-mail's right there on the sidebar!

I also have a review blog, Lupines and Lunatics. Latest review is Promise of the Wolves.

This week's ice-breaker for Feature & Follow:

"Have you had a character that disappointed you? One that you fell in love with and then “broke up” with later on in either the series or a stand-alone book? Tell us about him or her."

I try not to get too involved with fictional characters, but I think I know what you mean. I have a few examples from the realm of video games and TV, but fewer from books. I'm going to say Odysseus Grant from the Kitty Norville books, but in this case it's not a matter of disliking the character as much as disliking his effect on the story. From his introduction in book 5, he almost immediately became the most powerful good guy in the mythos. The next three books had him saving Kitty's behind repeatedly with his massive knowledge of the arcane. ("Godmoding like an Uchiha," I think I called it.) It reached the point where he had more agency in the story than the main character. Luckily, it seems that the author realized this as well: he was phased out and replaced with Amelia, who serves the same plot purpose but has a much more reasonable power level. One thing I admire about Carrie Vaughn is that she's not afraid to scrap ideas because they don't make her story better.

This week's ice-breaker for TGIF @ GReads:

"Reading Blues: We all get them from time to time. What helps you overcome those reading slumps when nothing seems to grab your attention?"

Well, I usually force myself to just pick up something and get to it. But this can cause trouble. Reading when you're not in the mood results in a book dragging. Worse, it means you'll be testy and unable to appreciate the book for what it is. A better solution is to take a hiatus, which I did at the end of 2011 when it all just became too much. I should have come back in sooner than four months, though. That's the trick to it: if you go too long without reading, you start to find other pursuits. If books are just your hobby, that's not a big deal. If they're your business, like mine, it's a very big deal. Next time I take a hiatus, I'll try to keep it down to two months.