Mason had one of his friends spend the night last night. While I was driving them to 7-11 to buy some party snacks at 10 p.m. (because that’s what cool dads do), the boys had a discussion about whether they should learn to play guitar or the drums.
“Drums are louder, but guitars sound cooler,” said Mason’s friend.
I’ve been a guitar guy my whole life. When I was five or six years old, I used to practice my guitar skills by “playing” baseball bats and tennis rackets. When I was in second grade, Santa brought me my first guitar, a red, acoustic one that got more use as a prop in home videos than it did anywhere else.
That’s my buddy Andy on the “drums,” a set of brown pillows.
That red guitar made appearances in lots of home movies.
Decked out in sunglasses, a trucker hat, and a Chicago Bears vest, in this video I bang on the guitar for several minutes while shouting “look out, Mick Jagger!” for some unknown reason.
I actually did get a set of drums, when I was ten years old. I remember them being in my room for a little bit and then I remember them being in the garage for a little bit and then I remember them being gone. I don’t remember what happened to them but my daughter had this little electronic toy that never stopped making noise and one night while she was sleeping I took the batteries out of it and threw it into the garbage. I suspect my drums might have met a similar fate.
This is me in the mid-90s, still playing guitar and acting like a fool in front of the video camera…
…and here I am a year or two later, doing the same thing with Mr. Moonpie.
These days, my guitars spend more time hanging on the wall than they do hooked up to amplifiers. The world has enough bad versions of “Iron Man” out there without my contributions.
When I tell my friends that my writing professor (Deborah Chester) wrote the book on writing genre fiction, I’m being quite literal. Okay, so maybe she didn’t write the book on writing genre fiction, but she wrote a book on the subject, and a darned good one too. It’s called The Fantasy Fiction Formula, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. In 264 pages, Chester walks you step-by-step through the process of writing a fiction novel.
If you have stared at a blank computer screen wondering where to start, or started writing a novel only to hit a dead end and wonder what to do next, this is the book you are looking for. This book walks you through the entire process of writing a fictional novel from beginning to end, from creating characters and plots to writing dramatic openings and grand climaxes. This book won’t tell you what to write about, but if you have an idea and don’t know how to begin (or end), this book will help you, guaranteed. As someone who has both read the book and attended Ms. Chester’s novel writing class, I can tell you that this book and her class are very similar. I would never trade the opportunity of having a published author read my work and offer me feedback and advice in person, but if taking a graduate level course on writing in Norman, Oklahoma isn’t in the cards for you, this book is the next best thing.
As I stated in my review of the book on Amazon.com, my only minor quibble is with the book’s name. From my Amazon review:
My only (very minor) complaint with the book is with its title — specifically, the word “fantasy.” While most of Deborah Chester’s books are works of fantasy and science-fiction, the techniques included here apply to every genre of fiction writing. If you’re not specifically writing fantasy, don’t let the title scare you away. No matter what type of genre fiction you are writing, the formulas presented here will work for you!
Deborah Chester recently did a six-part podcast interview with the Manchester University Press, who (for some unknown reason) has buried the links to the podcast deep within the bowels of their website. Here are the links:
Fantasy Fiction Formula interview with Deborah Chester: Part 1
Fantasy Fiction Formula interview with Deborah Chester: Part 2
Fantasy Fiction Formula interview with Deborah Chester: Part 3
Fantasy Fiction Formula interview with Deborah Chester: Part 4
Fantasy Fiction Formula interview with Deborah Chester: Part 5
Fantasy Fiction Formula interview with Deborah Chester: Part 6
Each episode is about ten minutes long and touches on one of the subjects covered in the book. They’re not a substitute for reading the book, but they’ll give you an idea as to whether or not the book is right for you.
Congratulations to my professor on her book and the podcast interviews! I know that in a few years after I have forgotten everything I learned in class, I will still have this book for reference material!
Back in January at the beginning of last semester, I created a side blog (write.robohara.com) to track the creation of my novel. The semester’s over and my work on the novel is done, so yesterday afternoon I exported all the posts, deleted the blog, and imported them over here into the Writing category if you want to read them. If you subscribe to email updates for this blog, it’s possible you received a flurry of emails from my website when I imported them. Sorry about that.
I got the grade for my novel’s rough draft back last week. I got an A-. I also got some valuable feedback on ways to improve things from my professor. This time around I didn’t take the critiques as personal criticism. I framed them as, “here are things you could do to make your novel better.” That helped take a lot of the sting out of them. In fact, I didn’t feel any sting at all this time. Instead, I feel motivated to retool the novel a bit and possibly shop it around. It’s not really the genre or style of novel I plan on writing long term, but it might be worth shopping around just for the experience.
I’m not taking any classes this semester, so I plan to use the extra time developing another novel for next semester along with keeping my skills sharp with a few short story ideas I have floating around.
Thanks to everyone who supported me along the way. I’m excited about what the future might hold.
Earlier this week, (geeky) news outlets reported that Wes Copeland has achieved a “perfect” game of Donkey Kong with a score of 1,218,000. While the truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than that, it is true that we are not likely to see a higher score on Donkey Kong any time soon.
If you’re into classic arcade games, you probably know that Donkey Kong has what is known as a “kill screen” — a point where the game simply crashes. Several other classic 8-bit arcade games (including Pac-Man and Dig Dug) also have kill screens, typically the result of poor variable handling.
In some games, this leads to a finite score ceiling. For example, the highest possible score in Pac-Man is 3,333,360. I am ashamed that I didn’t have to look that up. In Pac-Man, the player’s current level is stored in a single eight-bit binary register. That means level 0 is represented as 00000000 in binary, level 1 is 00000001, level 2 is 00000010, and so on. The largest number you can store here is 255, which is represented as 11111111. When the player beats level 255, the machines tries to increase the level to 256. Since 256 can’t be stored in a single 8-bit memory location, this is what happens:
Every level in Pac-Man contains a finite number of points. Each level has 240 dots, 4 power pellets, and 4 ghosts than can be eaten a total of 4 times. If you eat everything possible (all the dots, power pellets, ghosts and fruit) on every single level without dying, congratulations — that’s a perfect game of Pac-Man. Your score will be 3,333,360.
Donkey Kong is different. In Pac-Man, there’s a maximum number of points that can be achieved on each level. In Donkey Kong, there’s not, because many of the scoring events are random. For example, if you jump over a single barrel in Donkey Kong you’ll earn 100 points, but if you jump two at a time you’ll earn 300 points (three will get you 500). There are techniques that can help you group barrels together in order to maximize your score, but in some cases it just comes down to luck. Occasionally you’ll jump a barrel and get no points at all. It’s not fair, but it happens.
The goal of Donkey Kong is to score as many points as possible before the game crashes. In King of Kong, Steve Wiebe scored 1,064,500 points in Donkey Kong before reaching the kill screen. A year later, Hank Chien was able to score 1,064,500, but since then, people have found additional methods of “point pushing,” or intentionally running up the score. At one point it was thought that 1,100,000 was the game’s ceiling. In September of 2015, Wes Copeland scored 1,170,500 points. Six hours later, Robbie Lakeman scored 1,172,100.
The reason for these tiny increases in score is that it takes roughly three hours to reach the kill screen in Donkey Kong. For three hours, players must not only avoid dying, play an essentially perfect game and squeeze every single point possible out of the game, but also be lucky. In the case of Copeland and Lakeman’s scores, a difference of 1,600 points is literally collecting two additional 800 point items over the three-hour game’s play time.
Wes Copeland’s current score of 1,218,000 represents all of that — a game in which Copeland not only didn’t die (which allowed him to use his extra men to play the level prior to the last level multiple times and gain extra points), but every single lucky coin flip went his way. For someone to beat Copeland’s latest score, someone would have to play another perfect game of Donkey Kong and somehow get even luckier than Copeland. It doesn’t seem likely or possible for this to happen.
When it does, I’ll let you know. ;)
If you have three hours to spare and would like to watch a quintessentially perfect game of Donkey Kong, here is a video of Copeland’s recording breaking game.
The year my best friend moved away, I was forced to make some new ones to fill the void. Riding the bus home from school one day, I found one. Duane and I didn’t have a whole lot in common, but when you’re in third grade, you don’t need to. We both had bicycles and liked playing in the creek. When you’re eight years old, sometimes that’s enough to base a friendship on.
It’s been so long that I don’t remember much about Duane. He grew up in Mississippi, and had the accent to prove it. His toys were low-tech compared to mine. In 1983, my days were filled with video and computer games. At Duane’s, we played with green army men and Playmobil figures. To be honest I don’t remember spending too much time in his house, or him in mine. Mostly, we just spent the summer riding our bikes and playing in the creek.
One day I rode my bike over to Duane’s house and discovered he had moved away.
I haven’t thought about Duane in more than thirty years. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a garage sale at his old house. The driveway leading up to the house is unique, and looks just how it did back in 1983 when the two of us set up a ramp and jumped our bikes off of it into the ditch below.
Years ago, that would have been the end of the story. Today, I found Duane online (thanks to a fairly unique last name) in about two minutes. Based on his Facebook profile, he was in the military, and now lives in Texas. I didn’t send him a note or anything (what would I say?) but it was nice to see that Duane is doing okay. If he ever comes back to Oklahoma, we can go ride bikes together again.
They paved the creek.
Earlier this week I turned in my novel.
Not just an electronic copy, but a printed one as well. 261 pages. It felt weird to print something that large and think, “I wrote all of those words.” I don’t think I ever printed out either of my first two books. Even though 52,500 words puts this book closer to a novella in size than a true novel, I’m still pretty happy with the length. It took me two years to write Commodork, which has 59,000 words, and another two years to write Invading Spaces, which has just over 63,000 words. 52,500 in roughly three months isn’t bad.
I’ve been working on this post off and on for
two three days now because I’m having a hard time summarizing everything I’m feeling. As far as my school is concerned, the novel is done. In a week or two I will get my grade back, but the work has been done. I don’t know if I will do more work on it or not in the future. I don’t feel like this is “the” novel for me. It started off as an idea that I plugged a couple of characters into to make it work. I didn’t love the characters, and I think the final product shows. I’ve learned a lot over the past four months while working on this project, and I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is, it’s important to create characters that the reader cares about.
After kicking things around for a couple of days, I think I’ll be closing down this mini-blog after I get my final grade. If the novel’s done, I should stop talking about it. Right now I kind of don’t want to stop talking about it. I suspect this is what empty nest syndrome feels like. I’ll export all of these posts and import them over on my main blog, RobOHara.com.
I’m supposed to get my grade back next Thursday, so I’ll probably do one final post after that and then close things down over here. Thank you to everybody who joined me on this journey and gave feedback along the way. For everyone who subscribed to the mailing list, I’ll be sending out copies of the draft later this afternoon.
I spent a couple of hours upgrading my WordPress theme today. I’ve been running the Mandingo theme for several years and I really like the way it looks, but it’s limited to 1024 pixels wide. I plan on adding some new things to my website soon, and to prepare for that I wanted to change from a two-column to a three-column design. Mandingo’s fixed width squeezed the center column so much that things started breaking and I knew it wasn’t going to work. I did some searching this morning and discovered another theme that met my needs: Atahualpa. I am literally amazed at how far themes and theme configuration has come. When I first installed WordPress, any theme customization had to be performed by hand-hacking the html, modifying PHP code, and manually editing the CSS files. None of that, anymore! It’s all point-and-click now! These kids, what will they think of next!? In an hour or two I was able to get things looking mostly like (or close enough to) the old theme. The header at the top of the page (those blue flames with the Wizard of Wor guy to the left) is only a placeholder until I can slap something else together.
I also spent a bit of time organizing my WordPress categories. I don’t think most people use that feature, but I hope to better organize my posts so that people can follow what they want to follow and read what they want to read. I deleted some of the old categories that only had one or two posts in them. Don’t worry, the posts just default back to the Main category (which contains every post). I’m not sure why I thought Mick Rib needed his own category at one time, but he had one. With one post in it.
Now that the rough draft for my first novel has been turned in, I’ll be closing down write.robohara.com shortly. I’ll be exporting those posts and moving them over here into the “writing” category. As I continue to write about my writing (how’s that for meta?), or writing in general, I’ll add them to that category.
When I first launched RobOHara.com, there was no “theme” — I just wrote about whatever topic I wanted to write about. One day I might write a post about some diet I was on and the next day I might write about some goofy computer project I was working on. For some reason I convinced myself that I was driving people crazy (or away) by writing about things they weren’t interested in. I worried about it so much that I launched multiple other blogs. I had one just for my tech posts, another just for my reviews, and so on. I think I ended up with half a dozen different blogs — maybe more at one time. Anyway, the end result was that I split my audience into little pieces, people had to follow multiple blogs to read all of my posts, and some of the blogs got abandoned. I recently found myself doing that again, but I’m making an attempt to reign things back in. Instead of having a different blog for my writing and a different blog for this and for that, I’ll try to keep most of my ramblings here. For now my podcasts will remain separate (although you can find links to them from this page on the left hand side), but other than that, I’ll try not to lead you guys all over the place just to see what I’m working on and writing about. Scope crawl’s a bitch sometimes.
It’s been quiet around the blog for the past couple of weeks — my apologies for that. I hate writing blog entries that don’t say anything more than “sorry for not writing blog entries,” so I’ll add a bit more.
Graduate school has turned out to be more time intensive than I estimated. I’ve spent the past four months writing 50,000 words for my Writing the Novel class. Over the first two months I wrote and turned in the first 25,000 words, and I’ve spent the past two months not only writing the next 25,000 words but also fixing all the problems with the first 25,000 words — not just typos and grammatical errors, but errors in logic and plot as well. The project is due this week, so we’ll see if my hard work paid off. I am not in love with the final product but I love what I have learned while doing it, and I think whatever I write next will be better for it. I have been told that this class weeds out a lot of “wanna be” writers who don’t want to put the time in. Looking back, I can see that. I have stolen time from just about everywhere to finish my book on time.
My Readings in Mass Communications class hasn’t been quite as intense, but over the past sixteen weeks we’ve had to write three book reports, do a ninety-minute class presentation, and write a 10-20 page report.
I haven’t recorded or released a new podcast episode in almost a month. I know listeners of You Don’t Know Flack, Sprite Castle, and Cactus Flack’s are getting anxious. I should have new episodes beginning again next week. If you want to listen to some back episodes to tide you over, links to everything can be found here.
That leaves the blog, which hasn’t been abandoned, but has definitely been sparse over the past few weeks. Once I’m done with everything at school, expect my goofy ramblings about life to ramp back up.
I am not taking any classes this summer. During that time I plan to finish up work on the audiobook versions of Commodork (in time for the 10th anniversary) and Invading Spaces, finish up a couple of writing projects, and be as productive as hell. The older you get, the more you value time.
Happy Star Wars Day, everyone — May the Fourth Be With You!
I’m pretty sure I stated that my 1977 Bradley Watch was the first Star Wars thing I ever owned. If it was, this was a close second. The Star Wars Storybook was a Scholastic Book that I purchased through my school’s book club when I was in kindergarten. The school didn’t traditionally bring the Scholastic handouts to kindergartners because most of them couldn’t read, but I could, and someone must have provided me with one.
On the first page, readers are treated to a “who’s who” of the Star Wars universe. Some of the pictures are from the movie while others, like Luke and Vader, are promo pictures. I have no idea what Mark Hamill is wearing in his picture — a black t-shirt? I remember being temped as a kid to cut these out and start my own trading card collection. As an adult, I’m sure glad I didn’t.
The book was compiled before the movie was released, and as such a few deleted scenes (like this one with Luke talking to his buddy Biggs about joining the academy) never ended up in the film. I read this book so many times that my mind played tricks with me and I swore that I had watched this scene in the movie theater, even when I hadn’t.
Back before the internet and DVDs and even VCRs, this is what we had — record albums and picture books. This is the only picture in the book where something (Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter) flies out of the picture frame. It really conveyed a sense of speed and action to me as a kid and I remember loving this page specifically. Even though I only saw the original movie once or twice in theaters as a kid, I must have read this book a thousand times.
The back of the book features this picture of Vader that also appears on the picture disc. I also had it as a poster (probably also from Scholastic). I like this picture now because it looks like Vader is standing in front of one of those generic family photography backdrops. “Show me angry, Dark Lord!”
I own probably a hundred Star Wars books including hardbacks, paperbacks, picture books, comic books, and all kinds of things, but this was the first one that started it all.
I’ve mentioned before that one of the suggestions my professor made after reading the first half of my first draft was to delete chapter two. It was a good suggestion — chapter two slowed down the pace and it was a terrible place to put a bunch of back story — but that left me with a few problems. The first of which was, some (not all) of the back story was important. A second problem was, the entire design of the chapter was a bad idea. A guy on the run doesn’t have time to sit around for an entire chapter — especially not in chapter two — to feel sorry for himself and mull over his options. The third problem was, there were some things in that chapter I really liked.
Now that I’ve hit my 50,000 work mark for class, I’ve spent the past week going back through and beginning to clean things up. When you write a short story (which I am much more familiar with), there’s only so much editing you can do. Mostly you’re dealing with between three and five scenes, so it’s unlikely that you’ll end up adding or deleting major characters while editing. When working on a novel, I’ve learned, it happens.
Even before I began the editing process, I removed chapter two and placed it in its own Google Docs document. In its place I wrote a much more exciting chapter two. Instead of waiting around in a guest house waiting to escape, I put my protagonist on the run — running through an outdoor party in a busy part of town where he was exposed to the public and the people chasing him could theoretically be lurking in the crowd. By doing that, I completely destroyed the old framework of my previous chapter two.
But I didn’t delete it.
Here’s a screen shot from inside Google Docs. Working from the bottom up, the text with lines drawn through it were things that told the story of Skip hiding out in the guest house. I couldn’t use that stuff, so it was marked out.
The yellow highlighted text has a note attached to it that says “Chapter 3” in the margin. (I LOVE Google Docs’ note feature!) I ended up pulling this bit out and adding it into chapter three. By the time I re-wrote it, you can hardly recognize it. The top part of the text, I hadn’t marked out or used. There are several unmarked passages that I can go back and possibly use.
Here’s how that yellow highlighted text ended up being used in chapter three:
As you can see, it barely resembles what I originally wrote. All that garbage about functioning neurons and buckets of beer is gone, but I really liked that last line and hung on to it.
I have another document called “Clips Removed” that is exactly what it sounds like. Each time I cut a scene or change the plot, whatever I cut gets pasted into that document with annotations added.
Note that everything above was never edited, so some of it appears pretty rough. Some of those things got cut because the sections were too long. Some were cut because the plot changed and I had to figure out new ways to get the information back into the story. Some parts, like the “Fast Food Detour,” got cut from the book completely.
Before I’m done with this final draft, I’m going to go through these cut bits one final time and see if there’s anything in them that I need for the story. If not, I’ll permanently delete them.
The final copy of my rough draft is due next week. I’ve learned so much through this process and I can’t wait to polish this one and start on the next.