Monday, January 11, 2016

"You Promised Me The Ending Would Be Clear," or, "Thank you, Mister Bowie"

I'm not a big celebrity chaser or an idol worshiper. I don't build up an aura or mystique around famous artists and entertainers the way some do, but I do respect and admire those creators whose work inspire me. Because I'm not so invested, I guess I'm generally not as devastated when we lose figures from our cult of personality (though I do appreciate many of my friends were pretty broken up about Lemmy a few weeks ago). However, sometimes, just sometimes, a celebrity death really kicks me in the gut.

The first time I was really bummed about such a death was Kurt Vonnegut. I was HUGELY into his books at the time and while he was getting up in years and wasn't writing much anymore, the definitive realization that there would be no more books really stung. Plus he was such an interesting and fascinating fellow.

The most recent before today was Terry Pratchett, which was hard because I loved Pratchett's work at least as much if not more than Vonnegut. His was also massively influential to my own writing. It didn't hurt as hard as it could have because we knew he had been sick for a long time and that the end was coming. Plus I heard the news of his passing while my wife was in labour, so I really didn't have time to dwell on it.

Then came today.

A little background info first. In 1995 I was listening to mostly stuff I picked up going through my dad's old vinyl. Deep Purple, Queen, Three Dog Night, Jesus Christ Superstar for some reason. The newest album I owned was a cassette of Micheal Jackson's "Thriller."

My friends were mostly still into 80s hair metal and early-90s thrash metal, refusing to modernize to what the "cool kids" were listening to (Nirvana and Pearl Jam). I was far from the cool kids, and while I liked some of the metal, my friends were going farther and farther into dark growly stuff that just didn't do it for me.

I did have one friend who was into pretty much everything though, and he would constantly tape music videos off MuchMusic (the Canadian version of MTV). One day he introduced me to David Bowie's new song "Heart's Filthy Lesson." We only picked up on it at first because we misheard the line "I am already" as "I am a Reggie" which we thought was HILARIOUS. We watched/listened to the song over and over cracking ourselves up, until I eventually realized "Wait a minute, I really like that song."

I actually went out and bought the CD that the song appeared on, "Outside," which was one of the first CDs I ever bought, and probably the first album of new music (previous CDs were Queen and Deep Purple Greatest Hits records).

It came in a cardboard sleeve instead of a jewel case.
Bowie was so avant-garde.
"Outside" may not be remembered as one of Bowie's best or most famous albums, but 15-year old me LOVED IT (35 year-old me does, too). It was another of his concept albums, set in "futuristic" 1999 where Bowie played "Detective Academic" Nathan Adler, a PI investigating the murder case of a 15-year old prostitute. Technically, the full description was "The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle," and the liner notes had some twisted and messed up artwork to accompany the weird and haunting story of Nathan's case.

More important than the off-the-wall concept was the music. "Hallo Spaceboy," "Heart's Filthy Lesson," "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" and "Strangers When We Met" are still some of my favourite songs, period. The rest of the songs, between the weird dramatic segues, are also great. For those who aren't familiar, "Outside" came out during Bowie's period when he was hanging out with peak-form Trent Reznor, and Reznor's industrial influence was massively apparent on the record.

This new style of music blew my mind. I had heard of Reznor before but had never really given him a chance (my friends weren't into it - such is the power of peer pressure). Filtered through Bowie, however, I was immediately hooked. This led me to Nine Inch Nails, as well as Marilyn Manson, Tool, Linkin Park and Korn. He also led me back to the guys who influenced Reznor, like Joy Division/New Order, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, Depeche Mode and, of course, Bowie himself. For those who know me, THOSE are the bands who defined and shaped my teens and early adult years. Hell, in  the case of Reznor and Maynard James Keenan of Tool, some of those guys are STILL making music I love.

Marilyn Manson still makes music, too.
It's the music that helped make me who I am. It's the music I listened to when I was an angry young man. It's the music I listen to as a perturbed suburban dad. It's the music I listen to when I write. It influenced me just as much as Vonnegut or Pratchett. And it can all be traced back to Bowie.

(Then there's Labyrinth, which was a very special movie to my wife and I during our early courtship. Bowie's finger prints are all over my life.)

So yeah, David Bowie had a massive influence on me, and the shocking news of his death this morning really hit me hard. I had literally just downloaded his new album "Blackstar" just twenty minutes before I heard. It's heart-wrenching. This may be the last new Bowie music we ever hear. I say "may be" because if there's other material out there somewhere it will eventually see the light of day. We all remember how Johnny Cash's exceptional final album "American IV" was followed with several posthumous releases of diminishing quality.

In the case of Bowie, I kinda hope there isn't any more. If there was additional music out there that Bowie wanted us to hear, he would have put it on "Blackstar," or his previous record "The Next Day" (which was really, really good, by the way).

Though if I had to pick just one, 1997's Earthling is probably my top Bowie album.
Back in 2003 when he released "Reality," he thought that may have been his final album, and the last track "Bring Me the Disco King" would have been a perfect coda to his career. That was not an accident. I'm sure he knew (or very strongly suspected) that "Blackstar" was going to be his last, so whatever note he wanted to end on, hopefully he chose it. Judging by "I Can't Give Everything Away," the last song on "Blackstar," I think he ended it exactly the way he intended to.

Thank you, David Robert Jones, for giving us everything you did.

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout's hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That's the message that I sent

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

- David Bowie, "I Can't Give Everything Away"

Crappy Video Game Corner: STAR WARS Galaxy of Heroes

I got a new smart phone a month ago, finally retiring my iPhone 4S not because it broke but because Apple didn't want me to keep using it. They tricked me into upgrading from iOS 7 to iOS 9 telling me I could roll it back if I didn't like it. Unfortunately, the new OS was terrible as it was barely compatible with my 4-year-old phone, glitching and lagging all over the place. I then discovered that I couldn't actually roll-back to iOS 7, but only version 8, which runs even WORSE on a 4S, which is why I never installed it in the first place.

Anyway, my point is I bought an LG Android phone (which so far has been great), which has opened me up to a whole new world of apps and games. I don't play a lot of app games, mostly because I don't have a lot of time to waste on them and they tend to be boring and repetitive. But since it was the middle of Star Wars mania I went for it and checked out a few Star Wars-themed apps.

The first couple were terrible. Star Wars Commander is a copy of all those other "build a city/base and an army and attack other players" games which drive me absolutely bonkers. You know, the kind of game where you get a pass for the first couple of days, then as soon as your grace period expires the next time you log in you find your base and army has been destroyed by other players? It's IMPOSSIBLE to play those games without sinking ungodly amounts of time and money into them, constantly building up, protecting and re-building your resources. The annoying thing is, I actually love games were you get to build up cities and conquer other territories, I just despise multi-player versions. I deleted Star Wars Commander about 10 minutes after I installed it.

Not only is a stupid game, but it's also really dumb-looking.
I also tried LEGO Star Wars Microfighters, which was actually a pretty neat little "vertical scrolling" shooting game (think the old 1941 arcade game). You get to fly classic Star Wars ships and blast recognizable baddies, all in cute little min-LEGO format. It's good for a lark, but it doesn't have much replay value. You just play the same levels over and over again trying to get slightly better scores and hidden items (that are completely random and very hard to find).

Then I found Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, which is not a great game but its in the perfect sweet spot for what I look for in app games.

Ignore the text, the game is actually in English.
1. Collectible-card game-like mechanics.
I spent way too much money on Magic: The Gathering and especially the Star Wars card game as a kid. I know I have a weakness for collecting imaginary little characters, weapons and items. And Galaxy of Heroes is all about collecting this crap. The point of the game is to build a party of iconic Star Wars characters (and not-so iconic characters - who the hell is Cad Bane?) (actually I looked it up, he's a character in the Clone Wars cartoon) and play through battles to earn items to improve your characters and earn in-game money to buy more characters. This is like crack to a guy like me, who actually spent a good chunk of December playing Pokemon The Card Game Online (and I only stopped because it's not available on mobile devices).

2. Character building and improvement
There are so many ways to improve and upgrade your characters, it's ridiculous. First you have to collect "shards" of the character's avatar to unlock them in game (the characters are actually supposed to be holographic game pieces on a board, you're not "collecting" real people). Then you have to collect more shards to make them more powerful. You can also collect training items to make them stronger. And you can collect (and upgrade) gear to make them stronger. AND you can collect other items to unlock (and improve) special attacks. Of course I recognize that all this junk is just there to keep you busy doing pointless tasks, but I appreciate their dedication to diversification.

3. No direct player-vs-player combat
No one can steal or destroy your stuff when you're not online. You have no idea how happy that makes me. There is a player "arena" where your squads can do battle, but you don't actually damage or hurt the player. You can lower their ranking if you beat them,but the rewards based on rankings is so minimal it's not really a big deal.

I can't find a screen grab of it, but my favourite moment in the game is when Chewbacca shoots
Ewoks in the face with his bowcaster and they go flying off the screen.
I've seen it dozens of times and I still laugh every time.
4. It requires little effort
There is some strategy involved in the game, but mercifully it requires no super reflexes, timing or similar skills. I was never super great at games that required precise hand-eye-coordination, and I certainly haven't improved in age. The battles are turn based, so you have lots of time to decide your moves between actions (especially helpful if I'm falling asleep on the bus). You can even turn the AI on and let the computer battle for you, which is fine for easy fights. If you've already beaten a level and need to play it again (which you will do A LOT, because you need to play those levels again and again to get all those collectible items), you can use special items to just skip the battle and get the rewards.

For those of your who are saying "but that's not even a game," remember that Heroes is not actually about the battles, its about collecting crap. The battles are there to get in your way to collect more crap, so you have to get through or around them any way possible.

Also, you're right, it's not really a game. It's more like some weird kind of database that you have to jump through hoops to update.

I wish Excel looked more like this. I would probably enjoy my job more.
 5. You don't have to spend money to play
I haven't spent a cent yet, and I don't plan to. You can collect more cards and items faster by spending a few dollars of real money for extra in-game currency, but it's expensive. And there's not always a guarantee of exactly what items or characters you'll get, just that you'll get them faster than if you have to slog through the battles.

If you want the REALLY good characters, guaranteed, you have to spend really big bucks. A Jedi Knight "starter bundle," which is 2 decent characters and two more you probably already have, costs $45.99 US. A "Heroine" starter bundle for those of you who want some cool lady warriors cost $57.99. And the big kahuna, the Force Awakens pack, which is one of the only ways to get Kylo Ren (who is inexplicably one of the most powerful characters in the game), costs a whopping $119.99 US. That's the cost of at least two brand new full length top-of-line video games for a few bonus characters in a crappy cell phone game.

Seriously, who would pay 120 bucks for this guy?

Again, you don't really compete against other players, so you don't need to have the most powerful items to compete with anyone but yourself. And the only "reward" in the game is grinding away to unlock these cool characters. If you buy the cool characters, then all you have left to do is grind away to unlock the crappy characters. Or do you buy those, too? In which case, what is the point? The whole point of the game is collecting stuff. That's the end goal. If you just spend money to buy everything, you're not spending money to buy the game, or to play the game better; you are literally just buying "winning the game."

Anyway, the more I write about this the more trouble I'm having justifying the fact that I play it, so I'm going to stop. For now it's just a diversion that I will probably grow bored of in another week or two. But I'm not ashamed of it. It scratches an itch and I haven't spent any money so I think I'm in the clear. I've been trying for a week to unlock Rey, though, and I'm only about 15% of the way there. If I get fed up and spend $30 to buy her, then I will admit it's a problem.

Hundreds of Stormtroopers have died while I've tried to find her.
Seriously, it's easier to get her into a Monopoly game.
How about you? Do you or have you ever played any terrible, time-wasting (and potentially money-sinking) games? I'm looking for horrible World of Warcraft, Candy Crush and Maple Story type of anecdotes. You know what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

IWSG January: A New Awakening

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Writers post their thoughts on their blogs, talking about their doubts and the fears they have conquered. It's a chance for writers to commiserate and offer a word of encouragement to each other. Check out the group here.

* * *

“He who breaks a resolution is a weakling; He who makes one is a fool.” – F.M. Knowles

"I know. I'm lazy. But I made myself a New Years resolution that I would write myself something really special. Which means I have 'til December, right?" – Catherine O'Hara

* * *

Writing-wise, 2015 was a big year for me. I self-published my first book. I expanded my writing circles. I made mistakes and I (hopefully) learned from them. I started to build momentum that I hope will carry me into an even bigger and better year in 2016. For some reason, I couldn't see any of that last month when I wrote my very short and miserable IWSG piece. I was bogged down and slowed and though I had lots of promising projects and prospects on the horizon, I just felt stuck.

Today, one month later, I am feeling much more optimistic.

It wasn't that the holiday break provided a rest. Far from it - my kids were up at 6:00 every morning so I certainly didn't catch up on any sleep. It wasn't that I got any writing in because I didn't write a word after the first or second week of December (though I did narrate someone else's story for a short Christmas special, which was a lot of fun). It's not the changing of the season that reveals the hope and promise of a new year, because we got DUMPED on with snow a couple of days after Christmas, and this morning it was -28 degrees. It's impossible to be optimistic when your eyeballs are frozen. Hell, it's not even the revelation of the first good Star Wars movie in over 30 years.

The singular event that improved my mood was getting my manuscript back from my editor.

This son of a bitch right here.
I've been waiting for this for awhile. I felt frozen and paralyzed, anticipating getting it back, unable to continue but also unwilling to seriously commit to something else and get too deep into it. It's such a relief to get back to work, like finally pulling that nail out of your hand.

It's not even that the book came back with glowing reviews or anything. It has improved, certainly, but it still needs work and I'll probably have to tweak the ending again. But the important thing, the empowering thing, is that I now I can actually go back to work on it. I can finally feel like I'm moving forward once again, that I'm making progress and moving toward that finish line.

There will be another round (at least) of edits, and I have to get to work on getting the cover art nailed down and start thinking about promotion. There's a ton of work yet to complete, but I finally feel good about it because I'm getting it done. Stuff is happening.

It reminds me of when I used to work in a print shop. There would be times when I had dozens of orders on the docket and I would have to come in on the weekend and run five printers at once to get them all done on time. I would have juggle all the paper and collating and binding to keep all the machines running because if anything stopped I would miss deadlines. I loved it.

This is one of my favourite places in the world when the customers are locked out.
I don't care much about how much work I have to do, as long as I feel like I'm accomplishing something. Actually doing work is the best motivation in the world to get more work done.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to finish.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 - A Great Year

I'm a few days late with this - my holidays were a whirlwind of doing nothing so I'm still recovering and putting things back together. At this point most people are looking forward to the new year (or slogging through their first day back to work) but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to look back at last year, even if it's a few days late.

In all seriousness, 2015 was a huge year for me so I wanted to take a moment and be thankful for all the great things that came along since I last did an update like this. I called 2014 a "pretty good year," but in all honesty this one has been many times better. Let's discuss, shall we?

1. First off, on March 13th (Friday the 13th no less!) we welcomed my daughter Evangeline into the world. She is beautiful and healthy and doing wonderful and the best little girl in the whole world. All you other parents out there with daughters will just have deal with it. She also makes these terrible growling sounds like a cross between Gollum and a Gremlin while smiling the whole time, and I'm afraid one of these days I'm going to wake up in the morning with her chewing on my face.

2. In addition the best little goblin girl, we have an amazing son named Benjamin who is just about to turn 4. It is utterly mindboggling to watch his continued growth from a baby to a boy, and I'm so proud of him. He's so smart and sensitive and perceptive and full of life. He's also massively stubborn and hard-headed, but knowing who is parents are it's hard to fault him for that.

Also, my wife refused to name our son Luke when he was born because she didn't want her kid named after a Star Wars character. Now, almost four-years later, he has retroactively become named after Han Solo's son. Score!

3. I self-published my first novel, Ten Thousand Days, on May 6, my birthday. For some people publishing their first book is the final step in a long struggle of many years. They work and tinker and query and write and rewrite and so on and so on. While I have done all of that, it wasn't with Ten Thousand Days. Ten Thousand Days was my test-run to see how publishing (particularly self-publishing) was going to go. It was the first step in what I plan to be a long journey. The things I've learned in this process is going to go into my next, better book, and the even better book after that one. I'm optimistic that 2016 is going to be a very big year for me, writing-wise, as I continue to develop and find my voice and pace.

Of course all that said, you can still buy Ten Thousand Days right here. Or here. Or here.
4. I had the steadiest blogging year ever since I started writing online. My overall hit count is no where near as high as last year (because I haven't written much at Rule of the Dice, which always generates good traffic), but I have more than doubled the hits on my personal web page, which is probably better in the long run. Better people come find me and get to know me at my own site than read funny Dungeons & Dragons stories from the faceless guy, right?

5. Also on the topic of writing, I released a short story on Halloween, Tentacles Under a Full-Moon. It was written as a joke but I liked the way it turned out so I made it available first for free and then as a $1 download at Amazon and other places. I've gotten quite a few downloads on that one and I think some people have even read it!

I also have a couple of other books and projects in progress that will likely see the light of day in 2016, first and foremost my spectacularly-failed crowdfunded novel. You'll hear more about that one very soon.

6. Improved on my running in all aspects - better times, longer distances, more work-outs - despite having a new baby, no energy and a messed-up schedule. In spite of the increased activity though, somehow I've actually gained 10 pounds from this point last year. Getting older sucks.

7. I did my first narration as I recorded an "audio book" version of Will Bly's touching (and crude) holiday tale "F*ck You Santa: A Christmas Story." It's available for free here from the fine folks at the Grim Tidings Podcast.

8. Speaking of which, I've greatly expanded my circle of friends and acquaintances online, talking to and getting to know lots of people in the writing, podcasting and gaming world. I've never been much of a social person so it's weird to have people I talk to even semi-regularly, especially since I've never met any of them face-to-face. I know most people first went through this experience like 15 years ago, but I'm just catching up now.

9. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I've been waiting 30 years for that movie. That's all I have to say about it right now.

So that was my year in a nutshell. How was yours? What are you looking forward to in 2016?
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