Books, Films, Radio etc

BBC 4 Radio - Game Over

  BBC game over

Prolific game designer and IF author Emily Short has written her first play for radio entitled "Game Over" now available on BBC 4 Radio. I was lucky enough to be traveling in Canada where the show is accessible.

I'm a fan of Emily Short's interactive fiction and I appreciate her efforts to write about the game industry in her analysis of games, her reviews of books and now in dramatic form. "Game Over" is an interesting take on the industry as it describes an indie game developer's attempt to build a game within the traditional game industry that is far beyond the industry's tropes. The effects of climate change on an Alaskan village could be an apt metaphor for the gaming industry itself. The acting is well done and the production is top notch. It's a good story and definitely worth a listen. 

However, as others have noted, "Game Over" is a bit heavy-handed at times. Perhaps in an effort to make the story realistic, the main characters came across as rigid and not very likeable. In this regard, it's reminiscent of HBO's "Silicon Valley" which has gone from comedy to quasi-documentary, and is full of characters you'd never root for, let alone want to work with. Nonetheless, "Game Over" is a thought-provoking story (and meta story) with a clever ending. 

I believe the show is available streamed from the BBC for 30 days in the UK, Canada and US.

If you've given the show a listen, please share your comments below.

 

 


The NaNoWriMo Marathon

Z-Machine-Matter-front

This year, I was fortunate to be able to participate in National Novel writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The idea behind the Z-Machine Matter had been kicking around for a couple of years getting scant attention. I knew there was a good story to be written, but I just never seemed to have the time to focus on it. This year I was had the time and the inclination.

This was my first NaNoWriMo, but I was not going in unprepared. I had a set of characters, and the basics of a noir murder mystery story crystal clear in my foggy optimist mind. Nonetheless, I spent much of October writing detailed character backgrounds as well as rough outline of the beats in the story, using a three-act structure.

I had previously spent a lot of time researching the time frame of the story (coldwar era 1950) and some of the events of that time, specifically the arrest of Russian atomic spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greenglass. And as anyone who has fallen into the wikipedia rabbit hole, I did extensive research into a few related areas such as Operation Paperclip (the recruitment of German scientists by the US Army in 1945) and the Venona Project (MI5 and the FBI's joint cooperation to decrypt top-secret Russian cables). Of course, research can easily become a distraction from writing, but I was glad I had done this work previously.  

Z-machine matter wordcount graph 11-28So a few observations on NaNoWriMo... First of all: it works! Yes, there's something to making a commitment to write 50,000 words in a month and then just getting up and writing every frigging day. While I believe only a small percentage of people who sign up for NaNoWriMo hit the 50,000 word target, every writer can benefit from the discipline of writing every day.

The NaNoWriMo approach is based on the idea of just writing for 30 days and not worrying about editing until later. While some might say this puts too much emphasis on quantity as opposed to quality, I think it does serve to help you build momentum. Writing and editing are two different things and for many beginning writers, it's better to just get the words down on paper and worry about making them perfect later on.

However, I think it's also important to note, there's no way I could have written 50,000 words without a solid understanding of my characters and a decent outline. Yes, the story deviates slightly from what I planned, but for the most part the outline worked. And it made it much easier for me to just focus on writing scenes. When I did run into problems in week three, it was because the later sections of my outline were too vague. I wrote every day except for Thanksgiving and even then it was only because I was flat on my back sick with a stomach virus.

Z-machine matter twitter horowotizThere's also a sense of community from having several hundred thousand word nerds working in solitude together for a month. There's some nice #NaNoWriMo camaraderie on Twitter. Heck, I even got a shout out from my favorite author Anthony Horowitz

So what's next?

The story is roughly 54,000 words at this point. And while it is complete, I think it is probably about 10-15k too short. I expect that I can make some of that up during editing. There's a subplot around a historical document that needs shoring up and I can imagine that taking at least 5,000 words. And some sections are probably heavy on dialog and short on descriptions. I'd also like to add some historical documents (newspapers, letters, diaries, journals, telegrams) to the book. 

My expectation is that it will take at least three rounds of editing to complete this story and I'll need an outside editor to help in some areas. My friend Tal tells me he basically re-wrote his book The Punch Escrow three times during editing before it was finished. 

And of course there's the whole debate about traditional publishing versus self-publishing as well as various hybrid models that I will need to research. I would love to get input from other authors who have successfully pursued these options. Feel free to leave comments below or otherwise get in touch with me.


Magpie Murders

Magpie murders

I'd been looking forward to Anthony Horowitz's "Magpie Murders" since I first read about it in an interview in 2014. Horowitz is a prolific author and television screenwriter ("Agatha Christie's Poirot," "Midsomer Murders," and the classic "Foyle's War") and I've long been a fan. He's written two authorized Sherlock Holmes books ("House of Silk," "Moriarty"), a James Bond Novel ("Trigger Mortis") and a series of novels for young adults.

"Magpie Murders" is a book within a book, and both are excellent murder mysteries. The story kicks off in present day with Susan Ryeland, a book editor at London's Cloverleaf Books, getting a new manuscript from prized mystery novelist Alan Conway. It's the ninth book in their best-selling detective Atticus Pünd series, set in 1955 rural England. The book then switches to this straightforward murder story, filled with suspects straight out of a classic Golden Age mystery. Horowitz knows how to write a compelling pastiche! But just as the brilliant Pünd is on the brink of announcing the solution to the murder, the manuscript comes to an abrupt end. And now there's a whole different level of mystery for Ryeland to solve in order to find the missing pages that provide the answer. The present day mystery is darker and parallels the Pünd story in curious ways, with characters, places and complications in the 1955 story rippling into the present. I found Ryeland's present-day mystery to be more fast-paced and complex than the "inner" story, but both stories work well and they are intertwined like a crossword puzzle.

One of the stories hinges on, what might be called, a cupid stunt, which may leave some readers cold. Nonetheless, it fits well with the characters Horowitz has created. In a postscript interview, Horowitz spells out exactly what he thinks of his fictional author Alan Conway; as much as he loves the mystery genre, he does not always love the characters he creates. 

"Magpie Murders" is a delightful novel for fans of Golden Age mysteries and puzzle stories. I don't know if Horowitz really did provide all the clues necessary to solve the murder in the first three pages but he created a deuce of a whodunit.

Did you solve the mystery? If so, let me know in the comments below.


Art of Atari

Art atari

If you're a fan of ''70s era retro computing, or graphic design in general, you should check out Dan Lapetino's "Art of Atari."  First of all, it's worth noting this is a hefty book; it clocks in at just about 300 full color pages in a nice hardback binding. And this book covers everything you could wish for from this era. It includes plenty of over-the-top cheesy Atari game box art, artist profiles, ads, screenshots (which never even come close to living up to the box art), rough drafts, artist notes, industrial design and more. The book skews more towards the console side of Atari than the personal computer era and largely stops at the end of the '70s. That said, it includes profiles on the Atari 400 and 800 which were released in 1979.

I was more of an Apple ][ than Atari, but it's clear the influence Atari design esthetic influenced an entire industry. And some of the artists profiled were influential in the Apple world also. But if Lapetino or anyone else decides to create a book like this that covers Apple in the late '70s and early '80s, I'm all in.

"Art of Atari" is available on Amazon and most good bookstores. And coming up soon, I'll take a look at a similar book focused on early '80s UK home computing...


Murder at the Veteran's Club

Murder at the veterans club

IF community member, author and reviewer Chris Huang, is publishing a book called "Murder at the Veteran's Club" that looks to be a classic "golden age" detective novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton, P.D. James, Agatha Christie and others. 

His award winning "An Act of Murder" remains one of my favorite IF games and helped rekindle my interest in the genre. If you haven't played it, you really should. And if you like it half as much as I did, you'll jump over to Inkshares to pre-order a copy of "Murder at the Veteran's Club" right now! Chris has been a huge contributor to the IF community and I'm sure he'll appreciate the vote of confidence. 

The book is published via InkShares and so if there aren't enough pre-orders, the book doesn't get published. (And perhaps worse things though, I'm not sure.)  If everyone pitched in, I'm sure we could put this book over the threshold this week. And I really want to read it.

You can also get regular updates at Chris's blog.


Underground Radio - An Open Source Rock Opera

Zack and rob studio 4x3 with titles

My buddy Rob and I are almost finished with our epic '70s homage rock opera Underground Radio. It's been nearly two years in the making. It includes 20 original songs, 4 vocalists, a slew of vintage amp simulations, guitar effects, hammond b3 organ, handclaps, cowbells, backwards guitars and more. Also we even got a 30 piece symphony orchestra!

Underground Radio is inspired by music of The Pretty Things, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, Television, Pink Floyd and others. It's set in a dystopian future under an evil surveillance government, 50 years of winter, rock music is illegal. But these two guys try to jam the government's systems with rock and roll, yada yada yada.

All of the songs will be published under a Creative Commons license so they can be used royalty free by anyone in their own creative projects, like films, games, you name it.

We've posted the project on Kickstarter to raise funds for the final mixing and mastering. Any contribution, even $5-6 is greatly appreciated. (If you want to splurge, we'll write a song for you or take you out for lunch!)  If you can help spread the word on social media, that's much appreciated.

Once this is done, I'll get back to my other creative project: The Z-Machine Matter.

Update: The music and Libretto are now available for free download at www.rock-opera.com

 

 


Lights Out Old Time Radio

 

Lights-out
I recently ran across the Lights Out old time radio (OTR) show from the '30s and '40s. I've always been a fan of the old Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio shows. Lights Out predates these and has a uniquely gripping, if occasionally gruesome, style. These stories have a fascinating noir feel to them, not unlike some of the 1950's EC Comics' Weird Fantasy or Crime Suspense Stories or later Twilight Zone. As the shows were originally broadcast after midnight and without advertising, they went well beyond the usual "family friendly" radio dramas that most people are familiar with.

Perhaps the most famous from this series is the "Chicken Heart" episode. But I can also recommend "Oxychloride X," "Man in the Middle," "They Met at Dorset," "Author and the Thing," and "Christmas Story." Actually, they're all pretty good if you don't mind the occasional second-rate acting.

LightsOut -- ChickenHeart

If you're interested, check them out on the Internet Archive where you can download many of the shows made in the '40s by Arch Oboler. Oboler built on the work by series originator Wyllis Cooper, and added an interesting anti-fascist political style to some of the shows. 


Hard Case Crime Sale

Hard Case Crime Sale

Hardcase Crime's publisher Titan Books has put on a summer sale with more than 30 ebooks available for $2 or less at Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble. The sale includes classic pulp authors Mickey Spillane, E. Howard Hunt, Brett Halliday, Robert Bloch, Robert B. Parker as well as more recent works by Max Alan Collins, Jason Starr, Ken Bruen and editor Charles Ardai.

This is a great opportunity to stock up on some classic noir fiction to inspire your own writing. 


Two Books on Writing Mysteries

 

Frey mystery

I attended a writing workshop recently and started re-reading two books on mystery writing that I picked up a while back. While there are a ton of books out there for the would be novel writer, many are cliché filled ("write what you know") from writers who seem to specialize in how to books rather than novels anyone would want to read.  These two stand out as being tailored to mystery writers and are written by successful novelists.

James N Frey wrote several popular novels in years gone by, but then began focusing more on the craft of story telling.  He has written a slew of books on how to write a "damn good" novel.  While they are all good, you really only need one of his books, whether it's this one or the original in the series.  Frey focuses on the story behind the story to help you uncover the motivations of the characters.

Similarly, Robert Ray wrote a book called "The Weekend Novelist" and then later a more specialized one on mystery writing.  Note that if you buy the original book, the first edition with a yellow cover and no co-author gets much better reviews than subsequent editions. One nice thing in this book is that they dissect two popular books in the genre, one by Agatha Christie and one by Martin Cruz Smith. Even if you have not read these book, it provides practical examples of the techniques. Ray also provides a 52 week schedule which enables you to, at least in theory, complete your opus in a year.

Both books are available from Amazon in print and in Kindle editions. If you have other recommended books on fiction writing, please let me know by adding a comment below.

 


John Gardner's Secret Generations $0.00 on Kindle

Secret generations

Not sure if this is a mistake or a clever marketing ploy at Amazon, but the first volume of John Gardner's famous espionage trilogy "The Secret Generations" is now priced at $0.00 on kindle.  Jump on it now, this could be a 24 hour sale.  You can thank me later.

Update: Ok, the price went back up to $2.99 after a couple of days.  But it's still a bargain.