Wednesday, October 19, 2005


If you’re a fan of Radiohead, get a listen to Christopher O’Riley’s arrangements of their music.  I’ve been spinning (or more accurately, decoding) his True Love Waits album all week and it’s excellent.  If you’re not a fan of Radiohead, listen to the first half of Ok Computer and feel the texture, the layering, of the music.  Amazing stuff.  That was the last album to truly captivate me.  I listened to it every workday in 1998.  

Anybody know another group that similarly layers their music?

Btw, anxiously waiting for the new racquetball equipment to arrive.  While I was ordering it a few days ago, I took a few to look at fencing toys.  Seems like things have gotten cheaper.  You can get a saber for $30.  Not bad.  I’d be psyched to find a fencing partner.  I’ve still got my old equipment which is in good shape.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Thinking Of Hector

I met Hector a few years ago, at a small gaming convention that he was running in Portsmouth, NH.  He owned a comics/gaming/science fiction store, but I noticed off the bat that he wasn’t making any money off the event; in fact he was taking a loss.  Typically it costs to attend a convention, but this one was free, and as such there were many more kids than usual.  The focus was more family oriented, and I found it refreshing.

Hector and I had traded emails prior to, but he still surprised me with his openness and friendliness.  I felt like I was reconnecting rather than meeting him.    

Months later at another of these events I decided to run an original episode of the Buffy RPG and Hector, who I learned was a big Buffy fan, joined in.  I’d created a character named Raine, an introverted biker – sort of Faith with lots of engine grease, and Hector brought her to life.  Since then, he and Raine have been regulars, and Hector has written several hundred pages of fiction based on her and the setting I created which he hopes to turn into a novel.

Hector has cancer.  He emailed today about some experimental treatment that he’s agreed to at Dartmouth.  If he’s doing this, that means that his doctors believe that conventional treatment won’t work.  Hector is married with two kids.  God, I think you take the nice ones so that you’ll have kind people to talk to.  Like Yung-Ming, but that’s for another time.  

Monday, October 17, 2005

Birthday Goodness

A damn fine set of birthday presents this year.  Normally, I don’t care much at all what I get for my birthday as I’ve got everything I need, except for super powers and a lifetime supply of Chateau de Beaucastel, but thank heavens for Amazon’s wishlists because now I get stuff that I actually want:  The “Visual Companion” to Serenity (which includes the screenplay), Tales of the Vampires which hopefully will be nearly as great as Tales of the Slayers, Fighting the Forces:  What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and several DVDs including Circle of Iron.  

Yeah, pretty darned good.  Oh, and Amanda went all out on getting me gift certificates to buy racquetball equipment, so I’m finally going to upgrade from my cheap, but dutiful, racquet and my tattered gym bag.  Did I mention this was a great birthday?  

Enough writing.  I’m going to read me some of my books.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Tales of the New Slayers

So I’m a fan of Joss Whedon’s writing, as you already may have guessed, first falling in love with “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” late in its run.  Before seeing it I figured the same as a lot of people, that it was cheesy campy tv.  But then my elder brother, Frank, raved about the sixth season musical episode, titled “Once More With Feeling.”  I sang in High School and a bit at university, and did some musical theatre, so I know how hard it can be, so the idea that a writer for television shot a musical episode and used the original cast’s voices captured my interest.  I watched it when it aired again, and the depth of the characters blew me away.  The wife and I started watching regularly and we were hooked.

Being a geekazoid from early childhood I’ve had a long-standing love of role-playing games, so when Eden Studios released their game based on the Buffyverse, I checked it out.  The rules were some of the best I’d ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a many) and the writing was the best.  I read the rulebook cover to cover in a couple of days.  As you might imagine, rulebooks not generally the most engrossing reading.

Now, cue the flashback music again.  A couple of years ago, TiVo grabbed an excellent Frontline documentary titled “The Merchants of Cool,” and it started my wheels spinning about how kids are preyed upon by marketers, the basic gist being that kids are twisted into believing that they’re rebelling by balding forty year old suits who bilk them for their money.  That’s not horrible on the surface, but dive into the muck of your memories.  Maybe you went to school somewhere like I did, where fashion largely determined who spoke to whom, or if they could speak to you at all.  If your memories are anything like mine, even if you only observed the spectacle, you might agree with Joss Whedon when he says that, High School is a special kind of Hell.  

So with the Buffy RPG in my hands and that Frontline documentary in my head I got to writing, and the result was my little semi-rural town of Farmingham, NH, a somewhat small town close to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.  Per the conventions of horror fiction, Farmingham was about to become a victim of monsters — not the slobbery kind, but the balding forty year old type who don’t care whether it’s morally acceptable to shape the preferences of children for profit.  

After about twelve hours of writing, I had a piece of Interactive Fiction titled “The Consumer” in four acts, beginning with a teaser and ending with a coda, all very proper and script-like, except the bulk of the document wasn’t.  In Interactive Fiction, you the writer don’t control the characters; the players do.  I created seven characters, including their backgrounds, but what they would say and what actions they would attempt rest with the people who will play them.  For the writer of Interactive Fiction, that translates into carefully controlling the environment, since that’s something you do have control over, and lots of planning.  Much of the work in writing Interactive Fiction involves imagining every possible permutation of player action, and planning for it.  

Let’s take a simple example.  Say the plot you’ve constructed involves the player characters foiling a bank robbery.  You create two bumbling would be bank robbers and you begin the scene with the Cast having lunch at a restaurant across the street from the bank.  The character who gets the tab learns that the credit card machine is down and she’s run out of cash, so you inform the player controlling her that unless she wants to start washing dishes she’d better get across the street and get some bills from the ATM at the bank.  

When she walks in to get her cash, she’ll be ordered to hit the floor by the robbers and the rest of the cast will be drawn into the crisis.  Easy as lying.  Until your player says, “That’s ok.  She wasn’t planning on paying anyway.”  What?!  As your eyes go wide with confoundeditis, she continues, “Yeah, the service here sucks, and I ordered my barbeque burger medium rare and I got it well done.  So screw ‘em!  Now I have to be inconvenienced during my lunch hour because they’re having technical difficulties?  I’m complaining to the manager and I’m not paying!”  

Isn’t this a pretty pickle?  The lesson here is not to count on your players to do anything.  Instead, have contingencies ready in case they don’t do what you expect.  If they don’t go into the bank, can you fill the same plot need by having the robbery come to them?  In the case that, for whatever reason, the cast doesn’t enter the bank you can decide that the robbers decide the bank is too big a target, so they chose to rob the patrons of the restaurant instead.  If you really need the action to take place in the bank, don’t start the scene in the restaurant.  Start it in the bank with the characters there.  Once you call “action” and the cameras are rolling you lose control, but before hand

Of course, you didn’t describe the service or the food, so as the Director you could cry foul, but that would be squashing your player’s creativity.  You’re not the only author here, remember?  You left a void when it came to the details of the restaurant, and nature abhors a vacuum, so your player filled it, and that’s great.  Go with it.  You now know more about that restaurant that you did before, and since it’s got some character of its own, it can become a fixture in the environment, a location you can return to.

Try to anticipate any wrench the players might toss into the works, and unless there’s no other way around it, roll with your player’s creativity.  Your episodes will run smoothly and your players will enrich your setting.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Birthday Thoughts

I had a professor in graduate school named Lynn Bloom, a very kind woman who had a talent for writing at a prodigious rate, and one piece of advice she would give was to find your most creative time during the day and stick to writing during it.  Over the past several weeks I tried testing that, writing at lunchtime and then trying late at night, but as you can see that hasn’t gone so well.  Looks like my time is in the morning.

I’m 33 today.  Every time I think of my age I think about how I haven’t published anything yet, and I get to feeling anxious and depressed.  Now I’ve only tried to publish once, a scholarly article on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  In hindsight, I sent it to the wrong journal, one focused on 19th century culture and not literary explication, which was the bent of my article.  I should have turned around and tried another journal, but you know how life can be.  I was teaching three writing classes at the time and needed to grade papers.  Excuses, excuses.

But the important thing is that I write consistently and often and build up the muscle.  Maybe when I’m 43 I’ll be publishing consistently.  I had just better be published before I’m 40.  

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Real Reason We Feel This Way

*** The following has serious spoilers about Joss Whedon’s debut film, Serenity.  If you haven’t seen it, please do, and please do it soon.  

In the roiling aftermath of emotions among Browncoats following the release of Serenity, I just posted the following on the official movie boards:

The Real Reason We Feel This Way

Well, there are several reasons, but during a conversation with my wife about Serenity I think that she and I uncovered the most important reason that many of us feel angry/cheated/hurt by the deaths of Book and Wash. And it is Joss’ fault. Please, just hear me out.

Living in the States I've seen plenty of coverage of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita over the past several weeks; aerial shots of the devastated landscape, computer generated animations of the storm, and lots of numbers: numbers of the displaced, numbers of missing, numbers of dead. And while my conscious mind can register those images and numbers, they’re too abstract to make me feel the true gravity of the disaster. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I felt nothing, but if I had felt the weight of the event I probably would have vomited on the spot.

But there was a moment that registered for me though, when an elderly man returned to his battered home against police orders. This husband later told reports, “My wife needs her medication. I don’t care if the house is falling down. Hell, I don’t care if the whole town caves in. She’s the world to me.” I could identify with that man’s emotions. Screw the state of the house or thoughts of things like the bacterial laden New Orleans floodwaters. His wife needed help, She’s not an abstraction. She’s family.

So in Serenity we learned that 30 million people on the planet Miranda died of the Pax, while approximately 30,000 became Reavers. We saw maybe a dozen of their bodies. Our conscious minds registered the tragedy. We agreed that the truth must known.

But none of that meant spit when our family members died.

For us, we who’ve watched and rewatched, who’ve donated time and money, who’ve written emails and letters and postcards, who’ve fought for this movie, Book and Wash aren’t just characters in a drama. They’re family. And, at the emotional level, we couldn’t care if they died for the sake of 30 million people, or even 30 billion people.

And that’s Joss Whedon’s fault.

As the writer and director, it was his job to make us care about the victims of The Pax, to make us feel -- in our guts -- the importance of getting out the signal, even if that meant the death of members of our family. This he failed to do. When the credits rolled, those of us who felt connected to Book and Wash felt that the price paid was too high. I argue that this is the greatest weakness of the film.

But it’s one of the only weaknesses. I’ve cried each time I’ve seen Serenity, but I’ll keep seeing it in the theatres and on DVD. I wish Joss had given us the understanding, in our hearts and not just our minds, that the people of Miranda deserved the deaths of two of our Big Damn Heroes, but it’s still one hell of a good movie. And it’s worth our support.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

In Memoriam

*** The following has serious spoilers about Joss Whedon’s debut film, Serenity.  If you haven’t seen it, please do, and please do it soon.

When it comes to Browncoats I'm one of the old timers. Being a Whedon fan, I eagerly anticipated this sci-fi western he was creating, and I loved the premise of the show, based upon the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War, staring as Joss put it “the people that History steps on.” I watched “Firefly” from the beginning and fell in love soon after.

And then the troubles started. Hearing that Fox had panned the original pilot, having episodes preempted by baseball, learning that the ratings weren't passing muster. There were rumors of cancellation. Then some smarter fans than I had an idea; to raise enough money to place a full-page show of support in “Variety.” My wife and I donated to the cause, and our plea to keep the show flying appeared in print. We wrote letters to Fox, thanking them for giving this daring piece of television a chance with our hope that they'd give it the benefit of the doubt.

They didn't, so we wrote and emailed UPN, then the WB and finally the Sci-Fi Channel. We crossed our fingers and touched wood and prayed, but nothing worked. When word came that there were no more networks left to go to, we felt like those soldiers in Serenity Valley. It was over.

But it wasn't. Joss said he wasn't giving up, that he “was in love.” He was writing a script ... for a movie. It wouldn't give us the hour each week we wanted, but it was something. We started sending postcards and letters to movie studios. Joss finished the script, and said it was the hardest thing he'd ever done, but we weren't seeing any traction. Then he was writing another script, and we kept writing too.

And we got green-lighted for a feature film. We were getting a big damn movie. It was incredible. Canceled television shows don't get a second chance as feature films. We had done the impossible and we felt mighty.

I've just returned from seeing that big damn movie, and for all its greatness, and it is a great film, I'm shocked and saddened. I'm in mourning. Shepard Book, my favorite character and the conscience of Serenity --- and Wash, the funniest and most endearingly normal member of the crew --- are dead. With them died a dream, that one day we'd see our series return to television intact. Amanda and I used to wonder if we might be able to look back and say, “Just forget about those few years where the series was interrupted. We did our duty and thanks to a great collective effort we got Serenity back in the air as if nothing bad ever happened.” But we can't change the past. “Firefly” was canceled, and now Book and Wash are dead. I'm heartbroken.

And in all of this, maybe nothing has truly changed. We wanted “Firefly” to greet us every week with new episodes, and instead we got a movie. Not what we wanted, but as an alright man once said, “I'd like to be the King of Londinium and wear a shiny hat.” In other words, we're still flying, and that's enough.