Monday, April 9, 2012

Character Interview: Cary and Lindsay Delaney from The Wicked Instead, by Vivien Weaver (via Rainy of the Dark)

Book Name and Author: The Wicked Instead, Vivien Weaver Relevant Links: Hard Limits PressThe Wicked Instead on Goodreads Main Character Names: Cary and Lindsay Delaney What was your life like growing up? Cary Well, y’know. Our dad said we was to grow up to be warriors of God and you never could tell…

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A noob's review of Star Wars: The Old Republic

I've never played an MMO before and I'm normally not much of a gamer outside of the odd time killer (Bejeweled and Zuma, anyone?) or The Sims. When Tiger, a WoW veteran, first mentioned a Star Wars MMO I was less than interested. I admit this is in large part because the prequels soured my taste of the SW universe. The more I heard about it the more I became interested, though. And then I saw the cinematic trailers shortly after Tiger downloaded the beta. I think I bought the game that same day. Well done, Bioware.

The Awesome Stuff

The game is pretty much as awesome as it looks. I've heard many comparisons between it and WoW, but I can only speak second-hand. Here are a few points that I particularly enjoy about the game:

I've played all four classes on the Republic side and the Sith Inquisitor on the Empire side. All of the Republic classes have intersecting class storylines that brush up against one another without being repetitive. (General quests do get boring after four times doing them, but, you know, it's still a video game.) It's been interesting to see how my Jedi Knight deals with the Black Sun gangsters and the Justicar vigilantes on Coruscant vs. how my smuggler interacts with same. You can have four (or eight, if you play both factions) pretty different gameplay experiences going at once.

Right now all my characters are mid-level (highest is 39, lowest is 27), so I've started to get into the second chapter of the story, gathering more companions, etc. The second chapter signals a change in story goals. I've seen people on forums complain that the goal change feels contrived, but I can forgive that. I've reached Chapter 2 on the smuggler and consular now and neither transition has felt particularly clunky.

As a nerd, I really enjoy the inside jokes/details. You can see a wild nerf on Alderaan and of course there are tauntauns on Hoth. My smuggler has uttered a few Han Solo lines, which made me roll my eyes, but I smiled just the same. (A couple prequel Obi Wan lines were also in evidence, which just made me roll my eyes.)

Moral Complexity

I thought the Empire faction story was going to be a total drag at first because, well, I don't enjoy a world where everyone is mean and evil. The Sith Inquisitor story started out to be that way, but almost immediately you're given choices that allow you to mold the game the way you want it. I decided to play a light side Sith, and he's constantly faced with situations that challenge me and him as a character too. There are nods to KotOR on red side (Revan) that seem like they'll be important later and that makes things quite interesting. Light side characters have similar moral choices to make. Choices that grant you light or dark side points are labeled as such. Occasionally the choices don't quite seem to merit the kind of points you're given, but I don't care as much about the points as I do about considering how that character would respond.

I also really like that the Republic is not, morally speaking, a great deal better than the Empire. They have a lot of understandably bitter citizens. Rather than deal with the multitude of self-serving crime organizations when they first come up, the Republic has a habit of simply pulling out their forces and ceding ground, leaving disadvantaged people to fend for themselves. I know it's weird to find this kind of bad government behavior a plus, but it makes the game that much more complex and engaging.


I'm a nerd for soundtrack music, and the composers did a brilliant job. Most everyone is familiar with John Williams' sound and his work on all the Star Wars movies. While Williams didn't do this soundtrack, the composers clearly made efforts to study his sound and emulate it without repeating it. Every world has its own subtle background music that is so appropriate. Taris is a very sad world and the music reflects that lost dream feeling. I played in Hoth last night and while the music was an unusual choice, I found it very fitting as I trekked across a giant, bleak, empty planet.

The level of sound mixing in the game is also brilliant. Having played through a bit of KotOR, I recognize Bioware's clever use of ambient noise, but SWTOR is so much more advanced. Each world sounds different, and some of the sounds are truly eerie (the bug people, anyone?). If other players are fighting within a certain radius of you, you can hear their blaster fire/lightsabers as if they're echoing through the area. So cool.

Somewhat related to sound mixing is the voice acting. Every character is voiced, and I love almost all of the voice actors for the class characters and companions. The male Consular sounds like a Jedi should and the male smuggler's voice might be my favorite of all of them. I also get a kick out of the cameos made by relatively well-known voices like Tim Omundson, Rachel Leigh Cook, Jamie Bamber (that dude is everywhere on red side), Julian Sands, Juliet Landau, and Jennifer Hale, who seems to have voiced every video game in the history of the universe.

The various planets have personality, built through visuals, music, and story. Bioware is very, very good at creating the creeping horror in very subtle ways. The best visual example I can think of is the chemical plant on Taris. The camera frame is tilted ever so slightly to the right, which makes playing through the plant disconcerting and unsettling. The mood on Alderaan is beautiful but sad and unsettling too, both because of the cinematic trailer and because, well, we all know what happens to it. I like Dromond Kaas on red side best for its details, like the periodic rain storms. Hoth makes me cold just looking at it, and it shares a desolate, end-of-the-universe quality with Tatooine. Balmorra feels like the ugly parts of an industrial city like Pittsburgh, choked with dirt and pollution. I don't think there are any planets that lack personality except maybe Quesh, which is a strange, kind of pointless little planet anyway.

Gameplay Gripes

And a few relatively minor gripes. You'll notice most of these center around the Jedi Knight class, which I feel has been shafted at almost every turn. For a class that seems like it would be very popular, there are a lot of shortcomings. You might feel differently, of course.

Learning Curve for Noobs
Like I said, I'm an MMO noob, so I had to learn a lot very quickly. Thankfully I had Tiger to help, or I'd have bumbled around forever, probably, ignorant of the basic principles of combat. The game does a fair job of helping a player out in this regard--hints pop up as you face new aspects of the game, for example--and there are already a number of guides online. I'm not upset that I struggled a little at first because, well, them's the breaks. But the difference in learning curves between classes was pretty significant at first.

I started with a Jedi Knight Sentinel. This class is pure melee--if you're looking for awesome ranged abilities like force push, etc, I haven't yet trained any at level 24. The ranged Force abilities seem to belong solely to the Jedi Consular. Around the same time I started with a Smuggler Gunslinger, who is 99% ranged. I leveled up way faster with the smuggler because it was a lot easier to get the hang of his abilities vs. the Knight's. I'm not sure whether this is because of my gameplay style (such as it is) or what. In later levels, the Knight gets some pretty badass abilities (Force Leap is epic) and is a DPS machine, but those first levels resulted in me dying a whole lot.

Relative Difficulty of Quests
I fully believe a game should be challenging. It's exciting to win against an elite mob with your companion dead and you down to 1/8 health. But some quests are disproportionately difficult. When you get into an effective groove in quests and then all of a sudden you're faced with a hideously difficult elite or pair of elites, it's frustrating and kind of a blow to the player ego. If you don't have any buddies you can call in, it feels even worse. There's been at least one quest in every storyline, even with my kick-ass-and-take-names tank, that has been far more difficult than the rest. I feel like there could be a clearer progression of difficulty, especially in class quests, rather than ambushing the player with a mob that is so difficult it's nigh impossible to beat without leveling via other methods (side quests or PVP).

Inconsistency in Abilities
As I mentioned before, the Jedi Knight is a pure melee class. This is fine most of the time, once you get the hang of it. However, the Jedi Consular has some truly awesome ranged abilities and hard-hitting melee abilities. This mix is a) a lot easier to learn and b) a lot easier to maintain. It would be nice if the Knight had one or two ranged abilities, especially since its red side counterpart, the Sith Warrior, has a couple (I think. Correct me if I'm wrong). The pure melee nature is fine most of the time, but it's sometimes very frustrating when you're fighting Sith who have a ton of them. My Sith Inquisitor Assassin has, I think, five different ranged attacks.

Another somewhat related frustration is that depending on which advanced class you pick, you and your main companion either mesh really well or you really don't. My Knight's companion is a DPS Shadow. I don't feel like the Sentinel works very well with her abilities and I've heard others say that too. I haven't had a huge problem with any of my other characters' companions. The Consular/Inquisitor companions are insane tanks that let the Shadow/Assassin in particular be very sneaky and effective. The Smuggler's main companion is a tank, and if you can turn off his harpoon shot (by far the most annoying companion ability in the game), he's very useful in a lot of different situations. I've been leveling a tank-specced Shadow too, and holy crap, it is so much easier to level than any other class thus far. I can merrily blow through elite mobs that are three levels above me, especially with my healer companion in place. With my DPS classes, though, I have to be at least on the same level as the elite if not a level above.


I'm not sure exactly why each class gets different companions at different levels/points. I suppose it's difficult to strike a balance with the advanced classes/skill trees and their needs, but I don't really understand the order of companions. This far, here's what my characters have in the order I got them:

Smuggler Gunslinger (DPS specced): ranged tank, melee tank, ranged DPS, melee DPS, healer
Jedi Sentinel (DPS specced): ranged tank, melee DPS (I think it goes ranged DPS, healer, melee tank after that)
Jedi Shadow (tank specced): melee tank, healer, ranged DPS (not sure what the order of the rest is)
Trooper Commando (healer specced): ranged tank, healer (ditto, not sure of the order after that)
Sith Assassin (tank specced): melee tank, ranged DPS, (I think it goes melee DPS, healer, ranged tank after that)

I've read that each class's first companion is the one most ideally suited to the class, but I tend to disagree. It's nice to have a tank companion first thing as a gunslinger, but with the Sentinel, I could really use either a tank or a healer a lot sooner. I don't need another tank as a Shadow or Assassin but I do need a healer pretty quickly. The Consular's companion order seems to make the most sense--whether you go tank/DPS or healer, you have your ideal complimentary companion (healer and tank respectively) on your first or second shot. With the smuggler, it would be nice to have the same thing: tank, healer, then whatever else.

Inconsistency in Story Quality
Again with the Jedi Knight. I've found all of the storylines quite engaging except that one. In the beginning of the game, you're assigned a master who, I suppose, is supposed to be legendary. I found him kind of shady and kept expecting to be betrayed by him in some fashion. I can't pinpoint what bothered me about him except that the story seemed transparent. You're given a quest by someone who can't go out and do it themselves for whatever reason--okay, I get that. It's a video game, after all. But Orgus Din's reasons for sending his padawan to do his work rather than doing it himself seemed lazy and contrived. I could see the man behind the curtain, as it were. My suspension of disbelief was weakened.

Every class faces some impressive moral gray areas (see above), but again it seems like the Knight was shafted. The hard choices my Knight faced came primarily from the general quests rather than from class quests. In contrast, the Jedi Consular, smuggler and trooper all faced some genuine moral quandaries that made the game really fun. The Knight story is the least engaging, too. It seems like the game developers came up with some awesome Jedi stuff for the Consular and then wondered what the hell to do with the Knight. I think part of it is the lack of fun companions. I know a lot of people like Kira Carsen and T7, but man, I just don't.

On the other hand, the smuggler storyline is fantastic. I find most of the companions engaging (I love Corso so much) and the NPCs very fitting. This storyline seems to have the most personality, which I suppose is appropriate given the Star Wars smuggler trope.

Same-gender Romancing
As in, there's none yet. And that pisses me off for more than the obvious reasons. I play mostly male characters. There are some good male romance options (Aric Jorgan, Corso Riggs, and Zenith are particular favorites of mine), but I don't like any of the female companions I've encountered thus far enough to romance them. That's a whole other bag of bricks, but my dislike of the female characters may very well be personal taste. Bioware promises that same-gender romances will be a post-launch figure but has been decidedly cagey about when that will happen. They've either ignored numerous requests to give an ETA on that feature or reposted their vague statement that says, in essence, "It'll happen. Sometime." Tiger has more thorough and articulate thoughts on the matter. This is far and away my biggest issue with the game's content. Granted, I'm a roleplayer and playing a romance with a player character is far more interesting to me than romancing an NPC, but I would like that option. It's really the principle of the thing, and it's an important principle.

Final thoughts
It may seem like I bitch a lot about various aspects of the game, but except for the hetero-only bent, I really enjoy the game. Even, as I've recently discovered, PvP when people aren't idiots about it (though I still suck at Huttball). I appreciate the game especially from a storytelling/world building point of view--I can see why Bioware is consistently praised for its good writing. I recently started playing KotOR for the first time and it's especially interesting to finally understand the backstory that's consistently referenced within SWTOR and to see the origins of the game. For someone who's very new to gaming, seeing these connections is exciting.

Overall, SWTOR bears only a vague resemblance to the original trilogy and only slightly more to the prequels, mostly in visual terms. There's a ton of expanded universe material in there and there's more than enough to sustain my interest as the game evolves. I really hope Bioware keeps this up and gives the players what they want, particularly with regard to same-gender romances.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Release day!

It's release day for The Wicked Instead! You can purchase it at the Hard Limits Store. It's also searchable on Amazon, but I try to encourage people to buy it from the publisher's website. It's easy to do and Amazon doesn't take a cut, which is always nice. If you sign up for the Hard Limits newsletter here, you'll also be entered to win awesome swag. The more subscribers they have, the more swag they'll give away, so sign up! You'll love what you can get.

It's hard to believe my novel has been released into the wild at last. It's a little terrifying (oh no, what did I forget to add/delete? what if people hate it?) but also a mix of relief and that weird pressure I put on myself. After all, now I have to write the sequel. For now, I'm allowing myself a little burst of success. I've been at this for a long time. I wrote my first "novel" when I was 12. I never really pushed for publication but I always had it in mind, knowing that I wanted to polish my skills first.

I knew when I started writing The Wicked Instead that this was THE novel that I was going to get published. I didn't exactly look at it and think "OH MY GOD THIS IS BRILLIANCE!" (though I was and am pretty proud of it overall). I determined that this was going to be a book that people wanted to read and engage in. The concept was good enough and marketable enough to capture people's attention, and then it was up to me to draw people in.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mythology nerdery

Something a little more academic for you. I don't remember exactly what made me want to write about Hungarian táltosk. I'd had it in my idea notebook (yes, I have one) for a while as a high concept, but I'm not that great at writing about high concepts. I had to wait for characters to form. As it turned out, those characters were the two unlikeliest táltosk ever, which just made the concept that much more interesting.

I won't get into the details of character and world creation in this post. Instead, I'll briefly discuss the aspects of Hungarian mythology I chose. There's really not a lot out there about this "old world" mythology and a lot of it is foggy. Which is great for me, because I got to take a lot of artistic license.

The táltos and World Tree myths are obviously the most important in this world. They're universal in a way, because almost every culture has shaman-like figures and many have some version of the World Tree. Hungarian mythology is rooted in old pagan beliefs which were then (like many pagan mythologies) transmuted into Christianized Hungary. The most important god, Isten, created the world with the help of Ordog. Isten became the Christian God and Ordog became (you guessed it) the devil. The main female figure became the Virgin Mary. The structure of the World Tree (Upper World, Middle World, Underworld) is about what you'd expect, with Isten at the top and Ordog at the bottom.

The táltosk were originally supposed to have missions from God, but when Hungary was Christianized by Stephen I, they were, to no one's surprised, considered evil and hunted down. Interestingly, folklore apparently maintains that Jesus was a táltos. Hungary seems like one of those places where Christianity and "old world" beliefs weave together in a unique way, and that's what I really wanted to capture. One of my favorite parts of the táltos myth and one of the things that made me want to write about it was the táltos horse. I've only ever found English references to it on Wikipedia, but come on. Magical horse. How could I not? I took the most artistic license with this aspect of the myth, but that's half the fun.

Two more important parts of Hungarian mythological history that I had to work in were the Turul bird and the stag. These are two more very archetypal symbols. The Turul is especially important to the Hungarians as a national symbol (it's still the emblem of the Hungarian Army). It sits on top of the World Tree. In yet another archetypal myth, the Turul impregnates a woman, immaculate conception style. The formative Arpad dynasty was descended from her son, Almos.

The other is the stag myth, which is archetypal and fascinatingly cross-cultural. This page demonstrates just how cross-cultural it is. Probably the coolest part about this myth and about Hungarian mythology in particular is the intersection between both of those things and Middle Eastern myths, particularly Persian Zoroanastrianism. If you know anything about ancient Middle Eastern history, you might recognize the name "Nimrod." Yeah, that one. He had two sons, Hunor and Magor, who chased this stag into the land that would eventually become Hungary.

As an amusing and awesome aside, when I met Tiger Gray, I was already deep into the first draft of The Wicked Instead. One of the important features of Tiger's novel world (which was created before we even met) is Zoroanastrian mythology. We didn't find out about the Magyar/Persian connection until much later. You can bet we're running with this in future projects.

As I mentioned, there's very little out there about old Hungarian mythology in English past the basic stuff. I've done some digging and here are a few pages for you mythology geeks:

Hungarian Mythology, by Fred Hamori
Of Hungarians' Old Religion in Brief, Avraham Sándor and Turgut Aslan
"The Way of the Táltos: A Critical Reassessment of a Religious-Magical Specialist," by Laszlo Kurti (academic article, yay!)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Locations from the novel

I'm a big fan of Google Maps street view/Google Earth to fact check myself or to visualize a scene. Because I'm quite familiar with the area I'm writing about, I often have particular locations in mind when writing. I used to have a folder full of photos of said locations, but when my old computer died in combat (it lost to a clumsy dog and a water glass), I lost the folder. So I created a Google map.

As much as I'd love to share every location (because you know I know exactly where everything is in the novel--I'm anal like that), I've narrowed it down to the more notable ones. Some locations are approximate, obviously.

Here is the map. If you're a local, I hope you get a kick out of it. If you're not, I hope it helps you visualize some of these locations.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Wicked Instead playlist

The Wicked Instead comes out in 12 days! As a somewhat self-indulgent celebration, I'm going to be posting some extras leading up to release day.

I'm one of those writers who uses character/story-based playlists as inspiration. Here's the playlist for The Wicked Instead. All song titles link to Spotify.

"Pet," A Perfect Circle [lyrics]
"Dust," Augustana [lyrics]
"Secure Yourself," The Indigo Girls [lyrics]
"Awake My Soul," Mumford and Sons [lyrics]
"Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise," The Avett Brothers [lyrics]
"Shake it Out," Florence + The Machine [lyrics]
"I'm an Animal," Neko Case [lyrics]
"R-Evolve," 30 Seconds to Mars [lyrics]
"Chocolate," Snow Patrol [lyrics]
"The Kill (Bury Me)," 30 Seconds to Mars [lyrics]
"Learning to Fly," Tom Petty [lyrics]

I think these songs in particular capture the theme of this novel, which is the characters slowly learning to stand on their own and direct the course of their own lives.

Stay tuned for more extras!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Amazon AND indie booksellers can succeed without trying to murder one another

I found an infuriating link on Twitter this morning entitled "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller."

I'll let that sink in for a minute.
Obligatory shot of a bookstore. Image by Polifemus on Flickr.

I was and will probably always be an advocate for indie booksellers because a) I always believe in supporting local businesses and b) I've enjoyed being an employee and a patron of indie booksellers for years. However, I'm also a huge fan of Amazon. It's convenient, it has a lot of great interface features, I can get books that would be impossible to find otherwise, etc. etc. etc. So I find it difficult to compare the two. It's kinda-sorta-but-not-really analogous to comparing, say, Wal-Mart and your local clothing store. Wal-Mart sells convenience (okay, they sell cheap plastic crap) in large quantities; the local clothing store may buy small quantities of quality product. Amazon and indie booksellers generally sell very similar or identical products, but the difference is the venue and the experience.

Customers of indie booksellers often don't go into the store with targeted intent. They go to browse, to see what's on the shelves, to handle the books. It's a tactile experience. Customers on Amazon may browse too, but more often I think people go on the site in search of something specific. They may find impulse buys and recommendations, so to speak, but mostly it's a targeted experience. I have to speak anecdotally, of course, since I haven't done any consumer studies.

There are a few factors working against indie booksellers. The first is, of course, Amazon's ability to stock huge quantities of millions of books and distribute them internationally. Indie stores are limited to a smaller, local group of patrons. The second and maybe more salient point is that Amazon can do a passable-to-good job of emulating the brick-and-mortar store experience. Notice the very slick visual displays of products and recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history (creepy but useful). It's super easy to browse, but importantly, super easy to find what you want. An indie store can't compete with Amazon in that regard. Customers have to rely on the booksellers themselves to find a certain item or to recommend books. This is hardly a travesty, but as the linked article mentions, human employees can't match computer accuracy.

A notable exception to the indie seller's local patronage is its seller's ability to distribute through Amazon's marketplace. Both the stores I worked in did up to 10-15% of their daily business this way (very rough estimate based on personal experience). All of these books were used copies of mostly out-of-print books that Amazon didn't stock. This is the indie seller's strength. Amazon's Marketplace virtual storefront is driven largely by these indie sellers. Amazon makes a tidy profit from commission on these items. I think this is actually a great concept: out-of-print and rare book distribution in one central location. Indie sellers can (and do, to a certain extent) use the Power of the Amazon Megalith (tm) to their advantage.

The problem is that indies just can't compete with Amazon when it comes to the biggest part of the market, which is new and recent releases. Indie booksellers do not "mark up" their product. They sell books for the list price, which is set by the publisher. Amazon marks products down. For every indie that can sell one copy of Dean Koontz's new novel for $25 (which they bought for not much less), Amazon can sell it for, say, $17, because they bought a bajillion and they have a distribution agreement with the publisher and so on.

All this means that indie booksellers are going to have to evolve. I'm not arguing that they're in some ways outdated and outmoded. I'm saying they shouldn't have to compete directly with Amazon. Why not work with the ways they can be successful? There will always be room for second-hand books and out-of-print books. Why not also take a cue from indie clothing stores and acquire small quantities of quality books--from, say, indie publishers? Wouldn't that be a match made in heaven? What if every indie bookseller only acquired books from indie publishers? Potential exposure and business for everyone. Indie booksellers can carry beautiful special edition hardbacks--pieces of art for book lovers who enjoy having physical books. There's a market that hasn't yet been tapped, and Amazon hasn't made special efforts to do so.

I'm really not here to debate the worthiness of Amazon as a business entity. I'm wary of it. I have a lot of problems with any company that seeks to create a monopoly. But I also think that because of its size and frankly genius business policies, it's provided some fantastic opportunities for consumers. I mean, you can get a Kindle for $79 now. A lot of people can benefit from this: people who don't live within easy driving distance of a bookstore, for example. They don't have to pay shipping on an e-book. A more significant example is visually impaired people who can't read print books. E-readers, Kindles in particular, provide a viable, cost-effective alternative to traditional book distribution. They make it so people who may not otherwise have opportunities to do so can have access to readable material.

I don't understand the Slate article writer's claim that consumers should not support local businesses like bookstores. Buy from corporations, fine, but the idea of avoiding a small business because hrr drr they're not Corporation X wrongheaded and frankly stupid. As an author, I would rather you buy my book from a local business or (gasp!) directly from my publisher. Supporting small/local businesses is better for the economy and better for you--ergo, better for authors.

Don't get me started on his last line, which claims that Amazon is "saving literary culture." Literary culture is not just one entity. It is possible to enjoy the convenience and accessibility of Amazon while also purchasing quality product of a slightly different kind from your local bookstore. Literary culture will evolve, survive and thrive even in a terrible economy because people need books. It's true that consumers require different things now and indie bookselling is a little slow on the uptake--but it needn't always be that way.