I’ve been away for a while. The write-a-thon ended productively, making headway on a new novel, but I have taken a long break to finalize the production of episode one of my new animated web comic SPACE PIRATES IN SPACE. The first episode will air in 45 different scenes over a period of several weeks, beginning this Saturday at noon. The trailer is live right now, so go check it out!
If you have questions about Space Pirates, drop me a comment. I’m looking forward to sharing this exciting and hilarious project with all of you.
We’re getting down to the wire here. I have four days to go in the Clarion Write-a-thon, and seven thousand words to write in that time. That’s 1,750 words a day — a bit more than my daily average for the six weeks, but quite doable. Part of my plan for making my goal is writing this post, in which I’ll talk about the things I’ve accomplished these past five and a half weeks, and the things I haven’t.
Things I’ve Done:
As of this writing, I’ve written 34,000 words and change. That’s a pretty good pull for five weeks, or as Brian Keene would call it, an off day. I keep trying to have moments where I sit down and promptly explode 5,000 words. The closest I came was 3,000+, when I was writing a faux scientific paper about some of the SFF stuff in my new book. Speaking of which. . .
I’ve written about 20,000 words of a new novel! I don’t want to talk too much about it but right now I’m calling it my Wings book. It’s NOT an angel book, at least I don’t think it’s an angel book. Maybe it IS an angel book. I’m not gonna tell yet. But it has been a blast to write, and I’m super grateful to the write-a-thon for putting the fire under my butt to get started on it, otherwise, I might have just outlined and outlined and outlined and never actually started writing it. I’ve always said that writing a book is less about words and ideas and much more about asses and seats. That’s how you get it done. The words and ideas come later.
PIXELTHEQUE! I’ve started blogging for the retro video game appreciation site created by Jesse Bowline and Steele Filipek. It’s nostalgia-injected for maximum happiness, and each piece has been a joyous celebration of a classic game from my youth. With posts on Air Fortress, Gunsmoke, and others, I’ve tried to demonstrate the literary appeal of video games, and hopefully elevate the art form.
I’ve also been keeping up with my blog a little better. Sort of. If I ever sell a book, I’ll definitely update every day. Because eager readers will just flock to us here, right? Right? Sigh. Not even my mom reads this blog!
Met my fundraising goal! I’ve raised well over the $100.00 I hoped to raise for the Clarion Write-a-thon. I’m so excited that my sweat and finger cramps will help students attend the best writing workshop in the world. If you want to help new spec fic writers be the best they can be, PLEASE consider donating to this worthy cause.
My biggest accomplishment during the write-a-thon has to be the story I sold to Daily Science Fiction. Holy cow am I excited about this. The story is called “The Show Must,” and it’s about theater and the apocalypse. I’ll do a longer post about it when the story pubs. Looking forward to talking about it.
As wonderful as all these accomplishments are, all I’ve been able to think about is the stuff I haven’t done. I know that’s bad, but I am motivated to do so much, it’s been hard to get anything done, because I’ve been working on so many different projects.
Things I Haven’t Done:
Finished Episode One of SPACE PIRATES IN SPACE. Dang. I cannot wait to share this amazing project with you guys. When it goes live, it will be all I talk about. The home page is currently under construction, but you should check it out anyway.
Worked on my Unity video game. It has changed subject many times, but I’m aching to play around with this awesome program more and make some even cooler stuff.
Short stories. I’ve been eager to write another Princess Detective short story for a long time, but haven’t been able to quite get it out. Then there’s seasteads, and other glamourous projects. Fingers crossed that the rest of the summer is more productive.
But hey, the good news is that I’m writing like crazy and seeing a little success.
NOW! BACK TO WRITING!
[This was written the afternoon of Friday July 27th]
It has been a pretty nighmarish 12 hours, trying to get to Austin for what was supposed to be a relaxing weekend with family and friends, eating tons of delicious barbeque and Tex-Mex, and catching flicks at the Alamo Draft House. I’m writing this from 30,000 feet, so, spoiler alert — I make it on the plane. Of course, that was after a seventeen hour delay. Last night was absolutely wretched, the lowlights of which were three hours on the runway in a hailstorm before taking us back to the gate. At a certain point, they knew the flight was canceled, but they left us on the plane another hour anyway, waiting for the rain to let up so the ground crew could actually go outside and connect the aircraft to the exit ramp. That part was awesome, you know, the way that people who are sarcastic all the time say things are awesome.
Once we knew that our options for the night were paying for a $350 hotel room or sleeping on the floor of the most luxurious baggage claim in the continental United States, I sounded the social media alarums, asking for a place we could crash for the night. The kind friends who responded with offers of hospitality totally took me by surprise. I want to give them some shout outs, because they’re awesome people and you should know how cool they are in addition to how nice they are.
First there’s John Marc Imbrescia, or JM as we called him back at “the ‘dovah.” He was my Blue Key! Or I was his Blue Key, I can never remember which. But basically, on my first day of high school, he showed me around campus and taught me the ends and the outs of the theater department. It was a great introduction, one that got me excited about putting on plays at school and culminated in me being selected as one of the student heads of the department three years later. These days, JM is an internet badass — basically the Boba Fett of web design. Formerly a hot shot at the most fun dating website in the world, OkCupid, he now helps artists turn their craft into commerce as the senior software designer at Etsy.
Another kind soul who reached out to us was Mark Turetsky. Mark was another of the wise men in the theater department. He’s an incredible voice performer. You should download his reading of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Holy cow it’s funny. But the highlight of his voice acting for me has to be the talent show he MCed back in high school. The best parts were when he did a reading from Catch-22 and played all the parts (I swear, if you closed your eyes, you would have sworn there were a half dozen people on stage) and when he belched the A-B-C’s.
Max B Young is the man. We haven’t been in touch much sine we graduated from NYU, but that didn’t stop him from taking charge and telling us we could crash with him. He really is a champ. All through film school, I don’t know if I ever met someone so relentlessly positive. He’s kind, smart, and totally chill. Spike Lee is one lucky dude to have Max at his production company 40 Acres and a Mule. You should all be lucky enough to work with him some day.
And last but not least, our dear friends Kelsey and Emily opened their home to us. It was like, no questions asked. They cranked out the air mattress, gave us fancy pillows, thrust tall glasses of water into our hands the moment we walked in the door, and stayed up late letting us vent about the ordeal even though they had work in the morning. They even woke up with us at 4:00AM to see us off. Honestly, it was nice just to have friendly faces and a hug. Kelsey and Emily are both the bomb dot com, and you should read some of their stuff, their writing is rock and roll. Kelsey just had a story come out in the essential Lightspeed Magazine, a story which manages to be both beautiful and grotesque. Emily is a staff writer at Tor.com. If you see her byline on a post there, it’s pretty much a guarantee that it’s going to be brilliant, but some of my all-time favorite posts of hers are here, here, and here. And of course, a special shout out to her post about our wedding.
YAY FRIENDSHIP! These people are amazingly kind and groovy friends. Check them out! I’m sure you’ll love them as much as I do.
And you know what the happy ending to the story is? When I woke up this morning, I received an offer from a magazine to buy one of my short stories. Hooray! I’ll tell you much more about it in a later post, but in the meantime, thank you super friends! You saved us this time.
I’m writing this in a rental car as we cruise towards Minneapolis, where Jordan and I will take our plane back to NYC after long trip to my brother’s destination wedding in Spirit Lake, Iowa. It is a beautiful place, and the new additions to our family were nicely accommodating. We roasted a goat at the rehearsal dinner, the ceremony went off without a hitch, the reception was a blast, and we danced the night away.
All of this filled me with happy feel good family feelings.
All of this was cataclysmic for my writing. If my math is correct, as of this writing I’m four thousand words behind schedule, which means that I have gone four full days without writing a word. This is very bad for my progress on the write-a-thon, so I’m taking this transit day as an opportunity to catch up on as much as I possibly can. This coming week I have even more stuff to worry about and work on, professional commitments and school commitments and other stuff that is long overdue and needs to get done, so it’s only going to get worse, not better.
At times I think I’m totally screwed, although when I missed a day at the beginning of the write-a-thon I started making up the words at a steady rate. I had been doing between 1100 and 1300 every day, so maybe if I do that and never miss another day until August, I’ll be fine. But that line of thinking frustrates me. I’ve had five thousand-word days in the past. I don’t understand why I can’t have one of them, and be all caught up. Or have a bunch of them, and finish the write-a-thon by the end of the week. For some reason, the words just aren’t coming as easily as I would like them too. But I guess that’s because I’m not treating this rough draft as a rough draft. I’m trying to make each scene flow logically into the next, sustain tension, compose great sentences, and so on.
Generally I’m of the opinion that first drafts are for throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, not placing your favorite bits delicately on the wall and hoping nothing falls off. Someone who agrees with this theory is Brian Keene (@briankeene), who created a bit of a stir over the weekend when he announced on Friday that he had written forty thousand words in one day, and then totaled eighty thousand words in a weekend. Based in the writing environment he described in his post, I do not doubt that he did in fact produce the words he claimed. I’ve never had a day like that, but when I write uninterrupted for several hours, it is startling to see how fast the word count goes up. I guess he just drew the long straw this weekend. He found a perfect opportunity to blast out a massive quantity of words. I drew the short straw. I had no time to blog, no time to draft, no time to brainstorm, no time to write, no time to even think, we were so busy with the wedding from Tuesday to Sunday.
One of my favorite “how to write” books in unambiguous about this issue. There are no days off from writing. Is it Christmas, your birthday, your vasectomy? Too bad! You gotta write today. You gotta write every day if you want to be a writer. NaNoWriMo starts at midnight on Halloween and goes through the thanksgiving vacation. That is brutal. But you gotta do it if you’re going to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. The writer of that book would probably be mad at me for the wedding excuse. So what if it is your brother’s wedding? Find time to write your thousand words a day or you’re not a real writer. I tried. I really did. I got 390 words on Thursday. That was the best I could do, given the restrictions on my free time.
I wonder what mister Keene would say about me. My guess is that he would forgive my transgression. After all, it was an important occasion. He had just come back from a week’s vacation and was way behind schedule when he wrote his eighty thousand words. So maybe this will be my magic week. I hope so.
Tonight at midnight, the 2012 Clarion Write-a-thon began. As a participant, I am trying to raise money to support the world’s greatest science fiction writing workshop, the one that elevated me to the writer rank of “Not Terrible.” The way I do this is acquring sponsors (Katniss style!), like you, dear reader, who really should donate to this awesome cause (for the cost of a latte, you can guarantee a new generation of spec-fic writers are on the way). I’ve set a pretty challenging goal for myself, a chronic procrastinator — 42,000 words in six weeks. That’s exactly 1,000 words every single day between now and August 4th. No days off. During these six weeks, I will be working at my day job, animating a cartoon series, programming a video game, attending my brother’s wedding (a five-day goat-roasting extravaganza in Iowa), and riding inner-tubes up hill at the coolest water park in Texas. None of that includes writing, but that’s what I have to do, whether I feel like it or not. It’s not going to be easy.
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My high school theater teacher would get really mad at us when we couldn’t remember our lines. He used to say, “People always ask actors, ‘How do you remember all those lines?’ That’s a stupid question. Asking an actor how he manages to remember all those lines is like asking a football player how he manages to put on all those pads.” In other words, memorizing the script isn’t the skill. Memorizing the script is the uniform.
For writers, ironically, writing is the uniform. The ability to physically type 100,000 words is insignificant. Any bonehead with one finger and a laptop can do that. What matters, like with actors, is what you do with the words. Agents, editors, and anyone who filters good writing from bad writing can attest that it takes no real skill to physically write a novel. The greatest literary work and the worst slush tragedy are both created the same way, one word after another. And trust me, there are a lot of thoughtless, boring, irrelevant novels. Most of them never see the light of day. Others rocket to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. But every author, good or bad, still manages to generate a word count. It’s not a metric of skill. “Spar” by Kij Johnson is 2,150 words. “Eye of Argon” is 11,000. I rest my case.
And yet there are so many aspiring writers who get stopped at this threshold. They think about how long it took them to write a three-page English paper in college and lose all hope of ever being able to complete even the rough draft of a three hundred-page novel. Honestly, it’s a good filter. Laziness and fear are an agent’s best defense against bad unsolicited manuscripts. Because some of the worst novels, by amateurish frivilous authors, never get written. Because writing is easy. It’s re-writing that’s hard. And if you can’t lay down 1,000 words without breaking a sweat, you’re never going to be a professional.
That said, no one starts being that confident. 1,000 words is hard. Damn hard. And when you’ve got a blank page and that awful “Words: 0 of 0″ at the bottom of your Word document, you can feel pretty intimidated. But writing is a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. When I began work on my first novel, I didn’t know how I would ever write the whole thing. It was an ambitious book, and it was long. In the end, I imagined I would have to write more words than I had up to that point in my life, total. Come to think of it, in retrospect, that was probably true. But I loved the book. I was commited to writing it. And so I dedicated time to my novel every night. I wrote a detailed synopsis, listing every scene in the book in order, and then painted by number, writing each scene in turn. Some days I wrote a lot, some days I wrote nothing, but little by little, I finished the book. 271,000 words. I was seventeen. And the book. Was. TERRIBLE! I didn’t mind, though. Long before they are throwing twenty-yard bombers, little football players have to learn how to dress themselves.
Now, I don’t even think about word count while I’m writing. Most people, even non-writers, write 1,000 words a day every day, when you think about all the emails, IM conversations, Facebook messages, and Twitter updates they write. What people struggle with is finding time between writing all those other things to actually write what they are supposed to write — fiction, or a blog post to buy time while they spin their novels in their heads.
I taught myself how to write, but Clarion taught me how to write for deadline. In a brief six-week workshop, you have to write six stories. There is enormous pressure. Good pressure. You don’t want to let down your teachers and your classmates. So you’re forced to crank stuff out. This was good practice. A few months after Clarion, I participated in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. When you look at that crazy schedule, it makes you think I chickened out with my 42,000-words-in-six-weeks write-a-thon. NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words in thirty days. About 1,667 words a day. But you know what? It took me a year and a half to write my first novel. For my NaNoWriMo novel, counting the 50,000 words I wrote that November, the rough draft only took me three and a half months.
Of course, the time from when I finished the rough draft to when I finished the draft that got me an agent was twenty months. Writing is easy. Re-writing is hard.
In spite of my improved writing speed over the years, I still find it hard to sit down and write. It’s like going to the gym. Once I’m doing it, I love it more than anything in the world. But it’s still hard to start doing it. That’s why I love events like NaNoWriMo and the Clarion Write-a-thon. The intense deadlines, the pressure, and the group support all make me feel like I have to finish. I can’t cheat. So even if inspiration isn’t drawing you into a time vortex (I’ve had a couple 5,000-word days) you can still summon the energy to write something to make your 1,000 words. Heck, sometimes, you might end up finding yourself on a roll, and go over your limit. This article is more than 1,100. Bonus!
This summer, I am participating in the Clarion Write-a-thon, an annual fundraiser for the Clarion Workshop, the longest-running and greatest writing workshop for speculative fiction. Notable alumni include Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, and ME! What makes the workshop really stand out is its instructors, which in the past have included George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, and other luminaries.
But the way Clarion makes its students better writers is the six weeks of concentrated writing time. In the spirit of that method, the write-a-thon encourages participants to write like crazy and accept pledges from kind donors in order to support this incredible workshop. The write-a-thon runs the same six weeks as the workshop itself, from June 24th to August 4th. Here is my author page:
I suggest you click around. You’ll see that authors you may know are participating as well, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Karen Joy Fowler (also a graduate, and author of “The Jane Austen Book Club”).
As you can see from my page, I’ve set a somewhat ambitious goal for myself of 42,000 words. That rounds out to precisely 1000 words a day, every day, for six weeks. 1000 words, that’s about 5 pages. But if you’re interested in participating, you can set a much more modest goal for yourself. Say, a page a day, or, one blog post a week! Or whatever you like.
If you don’t feel like writing, but want to support the next generation of hot shot genre writers, consider donating to me, or your favorite author!
If you want to write but the whole write-a-thon thing freaks you out, I’ve set up a Google Spreadsheet where I’ll be tracking my daily progress. Tweet @themattlondon if you want me to add you to this spreadsheet. Feel free to add your name and your goal and your daily progress if you want to follow along.
I find that the the best motivator for writing is the fear of public humiliation — remember all those papers you wrote in college the night before, because you were scared of your teacher? Yeah, me too. So keep track of my progress as well as your own — the more eyes I have watching me, the harder it will be for me to slack off.
Today I’ll be speaking at the Blogworld & New Media Expo at the Javits Center in New York City. The panel is called “How Science Fiction Podcasting Can Create a Better Future,” and will feature me, along with super editor Jordan Hamessley and David Barr Kirtley, the co-host of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. The panel is in Room 1A15 at 3:45pm. Come check it out! I’ll be talking about how new media like podcasts, vidcasts, live streams, and swank stuff like HTML5 can improve the way we engage with nerd media.
Blogworld is sharing the Javits this week with BEA, or Book Expo America, the Mecca of the publishing industry. At this annual event, authors, illustrators, editors, and agents flood New York in a deluge of ponytails and glasses. If you plan on braving the masses to pick up the latest ARCs and other pub swag, here are a few helpful tips:
1. There are limited copies of everything. So don’t be afraid to knock people over or throw a stack of bookmarks in their faces.
2. When elbowing someone in the head to get that sweet button featuring your favorite paranormal heartthrob, aim for the throat. You never know who might be speaking on a panel in an hour, and you don’t want to mess up someone’s mug.
3. When asking questions at panels, please be courteous of your fellow audience members. Questions should not take three minutes to ask, and they should not begin with “I think,” “I believe,” or “Have you considered,” followed by detailed descriptions of your favorite episode of Star Trek.
HAVE FUN AT BEA!
Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany have created a masterpiece. That much is certain. I don’t want to mince words here. Anyone who is not struck by the beauty, ingenuity, and delicacy of Journey is either a troll or just doesn’t understand video games. The story, the gameplay, the whole experience, are compressed into a little diamond, one that you can play over and over again.
Anyone looking forward to playing Journey should probably stop reading. It’s hard to spoil the narrative of something as straight forward and linear as Journey, but the game is not played, so much as discovered. That sense of discovery is critical to the game’s enjoyment. The best way to play Journey is to know nothing going in.
For a long time, the video game industry has operated under the assumption that longer is better. There is a fetch quest infestation in most titles. Codices of 100,000-word info dumps are commonplace. Games are bloated and padded with crap, which serves to do nothing except extend a game’s duration. Why does this appeal to gamers? So many critical darlings are brief, wondrous experiences, like Braid, Bastion, Limbo, and thatgamecompany’s past projects, Flower and Flow. If Mass Effect is a Hollywood blockbuster, and Final Fantasy a door stop epic novel, then Journey is pure poetry — a game condensed to haiku.
The lush visuals and vibrant score carry you through the game beginning to end, meant to be experienced in a single sitting, like you would watch a film, or read a poem. In the game, you play a cloaked wanderer, who traverses a vast desert, a ruined city, and a snowy wasteland, all in an attempt to reach a glowing mountain peak far away. As you walk, the mountain rarely leaves your sight. It is your quest, your journey, to reach the mountaintop. It is a simple story, but imbued with great meaning.
Whether you reach the mountaintop in a literal sense is open to interpretation. In death, your character achieves nirvana, and ascends to the promised land. That is my take on it. The message of the game is that life is not about the destination, but about the journey, and the people you share it with.
Indeed, of all the things that make Journey unique, its multiplayer gameplay is the most memorable. You do not choose your companion. Instead, the game randomly pairs two strangers, who can communicate only through musical tones. The point is that even though communication in Journey sounds something like THIS, you still develop deep emotional connections with the strangers you encounter on your journey. After one particularly epic playthrough, I exchanged several messages with a more experienced player who had escorted me through the game. He was from Japan. I made a pen pal over power ups.
Try talking about Gears of War 3 this way.
If you haven’t played Journey yet, get off the internet and go live it.
My lengthy review of the premiere of Legend of Korra is live on Tor.com. Check it out. In the post, I compare and contrast the original Avatar series, The Last Airbender, and the new one.
In no particular order…but I’ll get to them in a minute.
This morning I attended a group reading (imho the best kind of reading) where my chum E.C. Myers was reading from his slick YA debut, FAIR COIN. I was just fortunate to live near the library where the reading was happening, part of the NYC Teen Author Festival.
Disaster struck when the esteemed group of authors slated to read was locked out of the library. A scheduling snafu had resulted in the reading not happening at all. So there we were, five hot YA authors and me, wandering Inwood, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.We ended up at a nearby coffee shop, talking about the business, the writer’s life, and the process of promoting a novel (a herculean task)!
This series of unfortunate events (see what I did there?) turned out to be a pretty great morning for me — I met some fantastic writers, saw my friend, and added four cool new books to my to-read list. I couldn’t help but think that my luck to have coffee with five hot YA authors could easily have been an auctioned event — people would pay a pretty penny for such an opportunity.
So here’s what you should do. Go out, buy these five books by the authors who spent their morning with me, and read them now now now.
SCRAWL by Mark Shulman — The at times painful and funny story of a bully and the teacher who tries to reform him.
Check these books out!
Some people may be wondering about the admission in my last post that I, a red-blooded hetero-male, play as the female version of Shepard in Mass Effect. Why is that, you ask?
For one, Jennifer Hale is the best voice actor in the biz. Her Naomi Hunter manages that balance of brilliant, sexy, and crazy so well, and her work on other hits like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Knights of the Old Republic is equally laudable. MaleShep is rather oak-like by comparison.
Second, I like to watch things I don’t see every day. Hollywood is never going to learn that diversity, and specifically unexpected diversity, is compelling to watch. That leaves it to the video game industry to pick up the slack. Of course, when given the opportunity, the video game industry will still force white straight male dominant crap at us (see the REVAN scandal, or less subtly, Duke Nukem Anything), but more and more total character customization is becoming the norm, and it has been nice to see game creators defend the rights of players to construct non-traditional characters, like David Gaider’s defense of gay options in Dragon Age II, or Casey Hudson’s defense of same in Mass Effect 3. I play FemShep because I’ve never seen a movie or video game ever to feature a swashbuckling female starship captain. Actually, without Janeway, I don’t think there has ever been one, and she was always more of a Captain Mom than a Captain Badass.
Despite the option for woman power awesomeness, it is clear from the marketing campaigns and ancillary media of these franchises that the male protagonist is the default, expected protagonist. Fortunately, most characters talk to the male protagonist and female protagonist the same way, proving that, at least in the worlds of these games, people truly are gender blind.
Okay, I have a confession to make. I have never played a Mass Effect game. It’s not my fault, I swear! When the first one came out, I did not have an X-Box, and then didn’t want to jump into the middle of the story when Mass Effect 2 came out for the PS3. Will all the buzz surrounding the release of the third installment, and spring break freeing up my schedule, I decided it was time to tackle this much-lauded franchise. I’m about 12 hours into the first game, playing FemShep (of course) as a compassionate no-nonsense soldier. My thoughts are below.
For those of you who have been living under a large pile of gravel for the last five years, Mass Effect is the story of John/Jane Shepard, a commander in the Alliance Navy. The story goes that after discovering a cache of ancient scifi technology on Mars, humans took to the stars, where they were met with borderline racist contempt by a consortium of alien races. Now, hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of years later, the human alliance is finally integrating into the galactic confederation, but a renegade super soldier is trying to loose a race of mythical killer monsters on the cosmos. Only Shepard and her ragtag crew of aliens in their experimental starship can stop them.
I’d describe the aesthetics as a dark Star Trek, in terms of ship and costume design, alien design, and the format of away missions, much more than I would a Star Wars knockoff. But that’s a good thing, considering how similar the gameplay is to spiritual predecessor Knights of the Old Republic. The Alliance Navy uniforms are pretty much identical to those worn by the Confederation in Wing Commander.
Gameplay is pretty clunky; it’s hard to aim, it’s hard to use cover, and it’s hard to keep your allies alive, but it’s also pretty hard to die, so combat can be frustrating, but never annoying the way some games can be. For what it’s worth, it sounds like all these problems have been corrected in future installments of the game.
It is certainly not as free-roaming as a Fallout or Elder Scrolls, but the story is WAY more interesting, and the characters are more, well, there ARE actual characters. So that’s a plus.
The thing to really talk about with Mass Effect is the storytelling. The dialogue wheel is succinct, and it’s rare to choose something to say that ends up being radically different from what you intended. It’s also rare for one of your selections to actually have an impact on what happens in a scene. I’ve already noticed several occasions where I’ve chosen each of three different options, and the reply Shepard gets is identical in each case. This phenomenon is not unique to Mass Effect, and whenever I see it, I always feel like the game writers are lying to me. I don’t know why they do it. Most of the time you can choose between saying something nice, something sarcastic, or something dick — also pretty standard for American RPGs with “branching” dialogue. Although once you define your character’s personality, it’s a bit schizophrenic to bounce back and forth between sweet hero Shepard and raging a-hole Shepard.
The supporting cast is diverse and well-drawn. Shepard conveniently has a member of each prominent alien race on her team (yay diversity)! Although it’s pretty amusing that all the males are giant monsters in battle armor and all the female aliens have the same slinky model body in a skintight body suit. There are many attempts at gender parity in the game, and a lot of stuff that Mass Effect gets right. Then there’s a lot of stuff that just makes you roll your eyes. [Note -- there's also this weird thing where all the alien species are grossly racist to one another, and the humans are not exempt from this behavior.]But Shepard — Jane Shepard, anyway — is a compelling hero, and I see why across the board my female gamer friends are die hards for the series. At the same time, I checked out some of the cutscenes with male Shepard side-by-side, and he’s kind of boring, even though the dialogue is identical. I’m not sure what this says about what we expect from female protagonists, but either way it’s pretty fun to watch FemShep hit on half her crew, punch out giant bugs, and save the galaxy.
Much of this, however, was expected. I’d heard and read a lot about this landmark series, and so there have been few surprises. What has struck me the most, is how reminiscent the game is of the 4-6-7 golden age of Final Fantasy, which was totally unexpected. Even ignoring the design of the Citadel (which looks exactly like Balamb Garden and Coccoon) and the tedium of world map tank driving missions, Mass Effect’s story progression and characters FEEL like Final Fantasy, but without dipping into “Oh, that character is Cloud, oh, that character is Barret, oh, that character is Celes.” There’s a ragtag group of heroes; each has an unresolved past, a unique character class, a different moral code, and a distinct relationship with the main hero. There is a meddlesome villain who doggedly harasses the heroes beginning to end, and is just a man, but still threatens to destroy EVERYTHING.
Another similarity to FF, and KOTOR, and my biggest criticism of the game, is the limited party selection. What exactly is the appeal of having seven playable characters in an RPG, but then forcing you to always have the same party leader, and only allowing you to choose two other characters at a time to join you in battle? This choice has always seemed stupid to me. Balance would actually be easier to manage if you knew the whole party line-up, and gameplay might be more complicated, entering ATB commands for seven characters would be tricky, but complicated is good. Combat in Mass Effect is simple to a fault (at least as the soldier class) and it’s the 21st century. We can handle it. Also, you’d have more time with each of the supporting cast members. As it is, I choose my party based on who might have interesting story moments on a given mission. My best guess isn’t always a good guess, so sometimes I’ll cop out and choose the party members that best compliment my Shepard’s character class, which gives the other four allies short shrift.
The character classes in general are pretty simplistic (although this is another aspect of the game I’ve heard improves in the sequels). There are three character attributes, Combat, Technical, and Biotic (which is basically Mass Effect’s version of magic). The six classes are then the various combinations of these three attributes. There’s a Double-Biotic, Double-Technical, and a Double-Combat (that’s my class, the soldier), and then three hybrids (A Combat-Technical, a Combat-Biotic, and a Technical-Biotic). The strongest party is always going to be one that has the three doubles, as their skills are generally twice as powerful as their hybrid allies. Also, because each of Shepard’s six allies is a different character class, it automatically makes one of your party members redundant, and it’s stupid to use him or her. In my case, it’s my party’s soldier Ashley Williams who never gets used.
So, what’s the takeaway? It’s a great game. It’s not perfect. It’s interesting. It’s worth talking about. Its sequels are probably better, the way that Dragon Age: Origins was an atrocious bore compared to Dragon Age II (Mass Effect 1 is WAY better than Dragon Age: Origins). If nothing else, it’s great to see a space opera universe that doesn’t have the fingerprints of George Lucas or James Cameron on it. I’m looking forward to finishing the game and hurrying on to the second one. stay tuned. I’ll write about it.
Last night I stopped by Powerhouse Arena in DUMBO to check out a reading of stories from my friend John Joseph Adams’s new anthology Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom. Excerpts of three stories in the anthology were read by the authors — David Barr Kirtley, Genevieve Valentine, and Chris Claremont. The stories were great. The art was great. The Brooklyn Lager was great. I hid behind a bookshelf rather than introduce myself to Mr. Claremont. I mean, what was I supposed to say? “Hi. You invented Shadowcat. Please excuse me while I go pass out.”
During the reception after the reading, Dave Kirtley introduced me to a young man named Terrence, a fan of JJA’s work and frequent listener of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, on which I was a recent guest . Terrence had just applied to Clarion West, and was interested in knowing more about the workshop. As a graduate of Clarion in San Diego, I am always happy to talk about what a fun and irreplaceable experience the workshop is, and what a profound effect it had on my skills as a writer. So we chatted for a few minutes and I name-dropped some famous people.
Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter. There was something so familiar about it. And then I remembered, years ago, a similar reading I attended at the South Street Seaport. Anthologist John Joseph Adams was promoting his new book The Living Dead; David Barr Kirtley and John Langan were the authors in attendance. Before that reading, I didn’t know any of these people, but after the reading, Jordan and I started a conversation with Dave, who introduced us to JJA, who suggested we go to the monthly reading series KGB Fantastic Fiction. Six months later I had several new friends, a “posse,” if you will, and an acceptance letter to Clarion.
I’m not sure if I even would have applied to Clarion without John and Dave’s encouragement, but there it was, and here we are. So let this be a lesson to any would-be writers out there: people in the spec-fic industry are generous and approachable. Friendship is contagious. And Terrence, if you’re at the next KGB, feel free to sit at my table.
Just got back from BOSKONE 49, a great annual con on the Boston waterfront, in my old hometown. It’s a great local con, featuring tons of local writers, editors, and artists, and many of my favorite out of town people.
This year my time was spent catching up with old friend and attending panels, many of which featured my fantastic wife and Penguin editor Jordan Hamessley. Jordan weighed in on such topics as the future of Young Adult literature, political undertones in horror fiction, and how scary is too scary. On one panel she said that her goal is to “bring horror to the children,” citing Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as some of her inspiration. The new middle grade series Gustav Gloom and the People Taker, written by Adam-Troy Castro and edited by Jordan, is a great example of where Jordan wants to take horror for kids — check it out!
I also got to hear a reading from my old Clarion roommate Kenneth Schneyer. He read “The Age of Three Stars,” the featured story this week on Daily Science Fiction. This great story is not to be missed. Also, John Joseph Adams did a reading from his latest anthology, Under the Moons of Mars.
The thing on everyone’s mind at the convention this year was awards. The Stoker nominees were announced on Saturday, and the Nebulas were announced Monday. It’s hard to believe how many of these people I actually know. Three stories from John Joseph Adams’s spec fic magazine Lightspeed received Nebula nominations, and friend Genevieve Valentine (also a Boskone attendee) received a Nebula nomination for her novel Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. Adam-Troy Castro, author of Gustav Gloom, received two Nebula nominations and one Stoker nomination. Madness!
You have to check out Boskone next year. It’s the 50th anniversary, and it is guaranteed to be a great time.
Maybe this is a weird post to start my blog with, but I have spent the past twenty-four hours watching the whole first series of Downton Abbey, and it is such a great teaching tool for writers, I just have to talk about it.
By far the most important aspect of this show’s writing is the subtext thick in every line of dialogue. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed with a single look, or a cutaway. Great writing is never about the words, but what is between the words. From one scene:
Mr. Bates: I said they shouldn’t have let both footment go.
Anna: Well, you’ll have to answer it. Mr. Carson wouldn’t like a maid answering the front door.
Scintillating, isn’t it? Though this dialogue may seem utterly banal, what is not conveyed by the words themselves is the deep longing these two characters have for each other. In the scene, you feel their pain, you feel the words of love unsaid. When I first started watching, I found the dialogue heavy handed and expositional. I’m not sure if show creator Julian Fellowes could have avoided this info dump, but it may be a necessary evil. Once the audience understands the setting and the relationships between the characters, a complicated dance begins. Talk of the weather is a seduction. Words of love between Character A and Character B are actually an attempt by Character A to stab Character C in the back. And so on. In the final sequence of the first series, Fellowes winks at the audience, knowing just how important subtext is:
Lady Rosamund: I’m sorry, Mama, but you know me; I have to say what I think.
Lady Violet: Why? No one else does.
Welcome to the official blog of author Matt London. This is your one-stop shop for all things me. You can get updates, links, and stories about my adventures right here, so stay tuned.
If you are interested in my work in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, click here for my ITP blog.
See you soon!