Tiny bits, late June edition

My lower back’s been killing me since last Thursday, and I exacerbated it by sitting in front of my computer for several hours last night playing through most of the original Creeper World again.  I woke up this morning with a realization that I had better move very, very carefully today, or I will be laid up for days.

I’ve been on hold with the USPS for an hour now.  They destroyed a package sent from Germany and are supposedly sending me paperwork to file a claim for insurance… but it’s been two weeks and they haven’t yet.  Their website is horribly broken, too.  Putting in my claim number causes it to have a server error.  Confidence level of me actually getting my insurance claim: near zero.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a great book, but I can only read it a chapter or so at a time.  What was meant to read as a dark parable at the time of publication comes off much more dire in today’s political clime.  I haven’t even touched the second season of the show on Hulu, partly because I want it to finish airing, partly because I’m not sure I can handle it right now.

I’m on my second day of a fast.  I had two Atkins shakes this morning (along with a multivitamin and an Advil), and I don’t plan on having calories again until Thursday.  I’m not happy with how much my appetite has grown over the last couple of months, and fasting is the best way I know to reset that… but while it’s happening I find myself occasionally thinking longingly of the taste of paper towels.

Reading back over this, it sure seems like a big bucket of negativity, but that’s just a consequence of the moment.  A positive: I placed another order for Japanese puzzle books yesterday, and it’s coming in tomorrow, because Japan has their stuff seriously together when it comes to international shipping.  I even got a dot-to-dot magazine, because apparently those are okay for adults to do now, and I’ve always secretly loved them.  My lines aren’t very straight, but there’s something deeply satisfying about connecting things in numerical order.  A tiny ordering of the universe, a pushing back of entropy.  And you get a pretty picture as a side bonus.

Cardboard pushing down on me

Tonight was an extended game night, the first we’ve had in a while.  We played The Princes of Florence, one of my favorite games of all time.  And I was so stressed out the entire game that I’m a little surprised I didn’t have an actual panic attack.

I consider Android: Netrunner to be one of the finest game designs I’ve ever experienced.  I also just flat-out can’t play the game with any seriousness; the act of play stresses me out so much that I feel completely exhausted, wrung out, useless after even a single match with someone.  I enjoy teaching the game, but playing competitively?  I just can’t do it.

What do these two games have in common?

They’re both driven by knife’s edge decisions.  Winning or losing often hinges on bidding just once more–or not–in Princes, on making that daredevil run against an unknown server–or not–in ANR.  And they both have many of these kinds of decisions over the course of a single game.  Any one of them could secretly be the one that costs you the game, and both games make you painfully aware of this fact; it tends to be in the final accounting in Princes, but you often just flat-out lose ANR if you make the wrong choice.

This sort of super-tight decision-making process does not go well with my demeanor.  Anyone who has played more than a couple of board games with me learns two things pretty quickly:

  • I’m delighted to teach you a game and help you in your first couple of plays, and
  • I am really, really competitive once you know how to play.

I manage to hide a third thing most of the time in my adulthood, but sometimes it becomes obvious too:

  • I’m a sore loser.

This is a holdover from a childhood spent for the most part as the only kid in the family, a childhood where people made the crucial mistake of letting me win games that I shouldn’t have won just to keep me happy.  I have worked hard over the years to get over this particular problem, and I’d say I’m about 60% there at best.

It doesn’t help the situation that I’m pretty damn good at most board games, even when I’ve never played them before, and so have a high winning percentage; that just makes the voice in the back of my mind think that I deserve to win more, and makes it petulant when I don’t.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of why I love teaching games so much is that it is an inherently imbalanced situation: I’m more familiar with the game than the people I’m teaching, by definition, and so am all the more likely to win.  Ugh.  (Fortunately, I also enjoy teaching other things that aren’t about winning or losing, and love learning from people who know more than me, so I think I’m only somewhat horrible here, not completely so.  Still: ugh.)

So: tonight’s game of The Princes of Florence was with four other players.  Two were new to the game and two had played before.  One of the returning players got into a very good position by the second turn (of seven) in the game, and I didn’t like how the future looked from that point on until the absolute last moment of the game.  I was actually rocking on the bench where I sat the entire, a giant ball of stress-wires firing constantly in my head.  Said returning player commented that he had never seen me so freaked out at a game.  (It’s true; he and I never played competitive Android: Netrunner, or he would have seen it before.)

I ended up winning by a small handful of points, so the little voice in the back of my head says, hey, all that stress was worth it.  You won, right?  But that’s definitely wrong.  Like I told another of the players–one of the two who had never seen the game before, but who came in a strong third–I probably play at somewhere around 90% of my hypothetical “peak skill level” when I’m not stressed out and hyper-focused on the game, rather than the 99-100% when I am.   But the experience is at least ten times more enjoyable for me when I’m not buzzing in semi-terror at every move of the game.  Is performing 10% better at the cost of feeling like I need to take a two-hour cold shower afterwards worth it?  If lives were on the line, perhaps.  For an evening out with friends?  Absolutely not.

A game I love and play a lot is Dominion.  It has a large strategic depth as well, but also a lot of randomness, brought on by the shuffle of the cards.  I stopped playing Dominion at that 99% level ages ago, because the luck of the draw had a much larger effect on my wins and losses than that 10% improvement.  And because of that I can play Dominion back to back for hours, winning and losing and having a great time the whole way through.

I need to be able to play like that with every game.  And maybe, hopefully, spelling it out like this will help; the first step is admitting you have a problem, after all.

As it is, if I don’t play Princes again for another six months or so, I’m fine.  I’ve had enough of its knife’s edge for now… at least until I figure out how to blunt that blade.

Letting loose the cardboard dogs

I’m currently in conversations with a large Internet board game resale site about giving up the vast majority of my board game collection.

Those of you who know me know that I have an enormous set of games.  Somewhere north of 2000, if my logging on BoardGameGeek is to be believed.  And while there are games in there that I would be loath to give up–my copy of Princes of Florence has genuine sentimental value, for instance–they are few and far between.

I’ve gone back and forth on this a lot over the last year or two, but the facts are:

  • my house overfloweth,
  • my time at the table has dropped dramatically since retiring, and never really supported the meatier games in my collection, and
  • moving this collection to wherever I end up going after North Carolina would be… tricky doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The idea of paring that enormous collection down to less than a hundred or so “essentials” really appeals to me.  I love my board game collection, don’t get me wrong, but in the end it’s just stuff, and worse, stuff that isn’t getting used.

I have no idea if this particular stab at reducing my collection will succeed; it requires driving halfway across the country with a truck filled with board games, not to mention getting a good enough price for said games to make the trip worthwhile.  There’s an eBay consignment shop in town that I need to talk to as well, but anywhere like that is likely to have a problem with the volume… not to mention the fact that some of the games just wouldn’t sell.  If I’m shedding my collection, I want to shed it pretty much stem to stern.

Fortunately, I’m not in a rush.  I can look at different options and see what will work out best.  And, hey: if everything else fails, there’s always bonfires.

Principles of most surprise

My recent blog post about my day-to-day routine prompted a question from a few of my tech-aligned friends: why don’t I use an RSS reader, or some other form of syndication/collection service, to manage my daily reading?

First, let me say that I have no problem with RSS feeds and the like; there’s one for my blog over there to the left.  That said, I don’t use them and have no plans to do so in the future.  I’m glad they exist, because I think for a lot of people they provide a lot of value, but they’re not for me.  I think there are two fundamental reasons why I don’t use them.

The first is that I really enjoy routine and ritual.  Presumably said blog post made it clear, but I find life most comfortable when it follows a consistent trajectory.  Small day-to-day changes are fine; I’ll read a book now, play a video game tomorrow.  But no change and all the same makes Phil a happy boy.  And morning reading is a well-worn routine; think of the classic cliché of reading a newspaper at the breakfast table.  It’s a thing I’ve been doing every morning since I was a student worker at LSU almost twenty years ago.  Something about the act of making it A Thing puts me into the proper mindset for the day ahead.

The second reason is a little loosey-goosier, but I think it might actually be more important for me.  We live in an age where surprise is uncommon.  Movies used to have trailers and maybe an article in a magazine; nowadays every summer blockbuster is completely analyzed by the entertainment media from before casting even begins.  Current political climate aside, there just really isn’t that much disruption in the world any more, and most of it (current political climate not aside) is negative, not positive.  As we’ve grown older we’ve become harder to buy gifts for and find it harder to do the same, often leading us to simply asking the giftee what they want… or forgoing the process all-together.  And if you find something confusing or mysterious, a couple of well-worded Google searches are all that stand between you and understanding that St. Elmo’s fire is actually pretty much completely understood nowadays.  (Well, maybe not the movie; it was always my least favorite Brat Pack film.)

And so.  Pulling up a bunch of bookmarks each morning, particularly when several of them have very sporadic update frequencies, is a way to bring a little surprise back into one’s life.  I could be notified every time that Jimmy Maher makes a new post… but I don’t want to be.  I like that momentary flush of excitement when I pull up The Digital Antiquarian in the morning and see he’s written another 5000-word treatise.  What a treat! I think.  Time to dig in.

Perhaps these two views make me come off as something of a stodgy old man; anyone who knows me knows that isn’t the case.  And in some ways the two reasons contradict each other: I like routine, but I also like surprise?  What sort of mealy-mouthed wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo is that?  To which I can only say, hey, welcome to humanity.

 

Waking up, falling out of bed

Over the past weeks and months, various people have asked me with curiosity, incredulity, even suspicion: what do you do all day?

First, it’s important to know that I’m a creature of habit.  I enjoy it when things are much the same today as they were yesterday, and am looking forward to a tomorrow that looks a lot like now.  For many people that would be simply the worst, and I respect that even as I respectfully disagree.

Second, I don’t blame you if you fall asleep halfway through this post.  My life is simple, rote, Spartan in habit if not in clutter.  Expect no big revelations.

Times are approximations, standard rules and regulations apply, no purchase necessary.

0745-0900ish: Wake up.  Sometimes it’s as early as 0600, sometimes it’s as late as 1000, but 0800-0815 is by far the most common window for me awakening.  It doesn’t seem to correlate terribly well with when I go to bed, either; a lack of sleep here usually (but not always) portends a nap later in the day.

I break my fast with a pair of Atkins shakes and a multivitamin.

0830ish: Morning dailies.  Two of the free-to-play games I engaged with, Gems of War and Let It Die, have their 24-hour cycles pop while I’m generally asleep, so I spend time in the morning logging into them and doing the minimum daily requirements.  Occasionally I’ll actually play one for a while in the morning, particularly Let It Die, for an hour or so, but that’s actually relatively uncommon.

0900ish: Morning bookmarks.  I have a set of websites I check religiously every morning.

  • The CRPG Addict (new content several times a week): Chester Bolingbroke (likely not his real name) is playing through a bunch of old computer RPGs and writing them up.  The writing is engaging and he’s willing to put up with even more willfully (unintentionally?) terrible design than I am, so it’s enjoyable to read and has regular doses of schadenfreude.
  • The Digital Antiquarian (new content a couple of times a week): Jimmy Maher (actually his real name) is an excellent writer, and he’s been covering early computer and gaming history for a long time.  I actually came across one of his books, The Future Was Here–part of my long-time favorite Platform Studies series–well before I found his blog.  Articles tend to be long and meticulously researched; my archive binge nine months or so ago took weeks, and I’m a fast reader.  Right now he’s writing about Sid Meier’s Civilization, which also means he’s been diving into the details of Communism and the role religion has played in the development of society and other such topics that obviously come from analyzing an old computer game.  Always a fascinating read.
  • Dinosaur Comics (new content several times a week): My favorite comic for a decade plus.  Don’t let its use of the exact same panels for every single strip fool you; it’s regularly smart, clever, and funny as hell.  My avatar just about everywhere is a very light edit of T-Rex’s head from this strip.
  • Dumbing of Age (new content every day, weekends included): I never read the previous “Walkyverse” comics, and it turns out that there’s no need to; Dumbing of Age stands alone as a paean to college, adolescent naïvete, and deep questions about identity.  It’s funny and really serious, oftentimes both in the same strip.  (It’s also extremely continuity-heavy; prepare for some binge reading of the archives if you pick it up.)
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (new content several times a week): It started out as a darker, edgier The Far Side, and while those strips still happen regularly, it’s more often a nerdy  look at questions of identity, sexuality, and the future.  But, you know, funny.
  • Electoral Vote (new content daily): Run by Andrew Tenenbaum of MINIX fame, this site used to only update in the run-up to presidential elections.  In the utterly insane world we live in today, Tenenbaum decided to stick to a daily update schedule “until things calm down”.  (Spoiler alert: they haven’t.)  It provides precisely the right amount of political news and analysis I can generally handle on a daily basis, presented in a trenchant tone that makes it way more readable than most news sites.  It also provides links to all of its sources, which is way more than most political sites do.
  • A couple of Tumblrs and Twitter feeds for fannish crap that aren’t worth sharing.

1000ish: Time to head to Walmart and pick up a rotisserie chicken.  They’re $4.98 plus tax, which is way, way cheaper than I could do on my own.  Plus I’m lazy.

1030ish: Time to eat said rotisserie chicken.  This is earlier than I like eating, but they start putting the chickens out right after 0900, so they start to get a bit soggy if you don’t get there early, and they definitely don’t improve by sitting on the countertop.

1100ish: Comedy TV time.  I allow myself to watch only one episode each of the various shows I’m consuming, and noontime is when I watch the funny stuff.  Right now that’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man on Earth.

1200-1900ish: The first big open window of the day.  I’ve been reading a lot lately, so that happens here; this is also when I usually loop back around to Let It Die and actually put some time into it.  If I’m in the middle of a normal, non-free-to-play game (right now it’s the original Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System), progress happens here.

I also do puzzles.  I keep a pair of stacks of puzzle books next to my recliner; I tend to only do one of a type (a Sudoku, a Slitherlink, whatever) before switching off to another puzzle type, or grabbing a book, or snagging the controller.  I don’t remember being this unfocused in my solving before retirement; not sure what that’s about.

If I’m tired due to staying up too late, not getting enough sleep, or just, y’know, feeling like it, I’ll take a short nap somewhere in here too.  It’s not usually for more than an hour or so, but sometimes it’s 2-3 hours.  That’s fine too.

Usually dinner’s just another pair of Atkins shakes somewhere in here.

1900ish: Drama TV time.  Anything serious I’m watching happens here.  Right now that’s just The Punisher, but it’s been up to three different shows at the same time.  If it’s a bit creepy, like Stranger Things, I’ll push it later to make sure it’s dark outside when I watch it.  Ambiance is important, y’ken?

2000ish: Evening dailies.  Warframe and Spelunker World have daily events that pop at night, so I do those.  I always do Spelunker World first, because Warframe often has some missions to do as well, and I like to finish off with them.

2100ish until: Evening variety time.  I watch Twitch, read, solve more puzzles, play more videogames, until I get tired and hit the bed.  Sometimes that’s as early as 2200, sometimes it’s as late as 0400.  I don’t really worry about the timing.  After all, I can always nap the next day.

As you can see, it’s super action-packed exciting times!  But I like the slow rhythm of my days quite a bit.

Now, it’s 1120, which means it’s time for some Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  If you’ll excuse me…

Solving, portably and electronically

I love puzzles.  Specifically, I love paper logic puzzles; even more specifically, I love the sort of paper logic puzzles that are commonly referred to as “Japanese,” which is pretty much exactly as dumb as the whole “Eurogame” nomenclature for board games.  As the most obvious example: sudoku, the ur-Japanese logic puzzle, the one basically everyone who’s been near a newspaper or computer in the last ten years knows about… was invented by an American and appeared in Dell Magazines‘ publications for years before it became a Thing.

Anyhow, I digress.  I love puzzles so much that I regularly place orders for books and magazines with amazon.co.jp, because the market for the genre is so much more robust there.  It’s not that the American Amazon site doesn’t have tons of puzzle books; on the contrary, it actually probably has more.  But most of them are computer generated, dumped out from open source programs with a cruddy cover slapped on and sold via CreateSpace.  Ugh.

So: let’s talk about computer generated puzzles.  As much as I love my Japanese magazines, it’s kind of a pain to bring them, along with the requisite pencil/eraser/clipboard combo, everywhere I go.  It turns out that, yes, computers don’t make puzzles quite as good as people–at least not yet–but given that we live in a future where everyone reading this blog likely has a supercomputer slowly overheating in their pocket, using those supercomputers to solve puzzles is a nice solution to the… ah, I can’t do it… problem.  Here are two apps worth installing on your phone or tablet; I also link to the original desktop versions of both, which are honestly superior but also, definitionally, less portable.

The first application, Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection (Google Play Store | Apple App Store | Desktop), is actually the source of a whole bunch of those toss-off puzzle books on Amazon.  It’s because the desktop version has a mode where it’ll spit out Postscript versions of the puzzles and their solutions, from which it’s a ten-minute process to make an eBook and throw it online.  Don’t hold that against STPPC, though.  The actual application is a wealth of different puzzle types, almost all of which are highly configurable.  You can do sudoku, sure (it’s called Solo here), or my personal favorite Slitherlink (Loopy), but a whole bunch of other puzzle types sit alongside those.  It’s also totally free and open source… which means there are a lot of cruddy plus-ads versions on the various app stores.  Use the links above for the real deal version.

The second application potentially costs real money (gasp!) but I want to plug it anyway: Everett Kaser’s Sherlock. (Google Play Store |Apple App Store | Desktop) The first two links take you to the free version for handhelds, which only have a few puzzles; depending on how much you spend, you can get the game with many tens of thousands of additional puzzles.  Sherlock is an implementation of the sort of classic logic puzzles you may have seen in old Dell puzzle magazines, of the “Judy won’t sit next to the girl in the red dress, who isn’t drinking Rivella” sort; more specifically, it’s an implementation of a particular type sometimes referred to as Einstein’s Puzzle or the Zebra Puzzle.  The desktop version of Sherlock has many more puzzle sizes and, in its earliest incarnation, dates back to the DOS days; I have friends who remember playing it back in the Stone Ages of shareware.  But having it on a phone is nice, and depending on the size of puzzle you choose it can be a five-minute affair or quite the involved experience.  Everett’s done a bunch of iterations on the concept over the years, some of which I prefer over Sherlock, but there’s something appealing about the classic minimalism of the first game in the series, and it’s where I’d start anyone who is interested in checking out his oeuvre.

At some point I think I’m going to do reviews of all of Everett’s games; they’re some of the only Windows applications I still keep WINE around for despite my Linux Master Race tendencies, and I’ve been helping to beta-test them for over fifteen years now.  But if you’re looking for ways to occupy yourself on your phone that are healthier than the latest free-to-play gacha game, STPPC and Sherlock are excellent places to start.

(Added bonus content: The moment I started thinking about the old DOS version of Sherlock, I thought: I bet the Internet Archive has it available.  And, sure enough, here you go.  It’s perfectly playable on the Web, if nowhere near as nice or full-featured as the modern versions.  I am totes in love with the rainbow “generating puzzle” animations, though.)

The little dead

My post late last week on all the lengthy writing I’ve done made me want to look back at the so-called “4K corpses,” the novels I stopped writing at some point during NaNoWriMo, switching gears to something generally trashy but easy to write.  I thought I’d break down those stories and what I remember aboud them, including why I tossed them aside to write something else.

Lion Rampant, High Above (NaNoWriMo 2010; 4,315 words; fantasy): This was the first 4K corpse.  To be honest, I had expected at least one in the 2005-2009 timeframe, but apparently I was a stronger-willed person back then… or I had better ideas.  (Sinner Soldier Seeker Saint definitely implies the former, though, because it’s definitely not the latter.)  It was to be a fantasy novel where nations were on floating islands in an endless sky, and as they moved around they waged war on each other.  As an idea it was all right, but it wanted more plotting than I was willing to give it, particularly given that it was during 1M10 and I was already way, way, way behind on word count.  Enthusiasm–or, at least, the ability to vomit words on the page at high velocity–mattered way more to me than high concept at that point, so Lion Rampant went away and I wrote The Golden Band instead.

Apparently I jumped straight to the trash in 2013, but not before procrastinating at the beginning of the month by making a bunch of typo fixes across six or seven short stories from 1M10.  (Thanks, revision control, for making these investigations easy!)  Was I looking for inspiration or just procrastinating?  Sadly, I can’t remember.

Inclusion (NaNoWriMo 2014; 9,860 words; science fiction): This was the Iain Banks pastiche novel I alluded to in the earlier post.  I reread what there is of it a couple of months ago, and it’s honestly not bad; the real problem is that I didn’t start it until the 17th of November, and it turned out that being even a quarter as witty and clever as Banks on a two-week deadline is rather too much to ask.  It was also even more aggressively a copy of Banks than Second Law is of Egan, but at least in this case that was intentional.

Looking this up led me to realize that I wrote Ridden in less than 72 hours, from late on the 27th until a bit after noon on the 30th.  Unlike The Escapist, though, Ridden just drops dead at 50K rather than having a real conclusion, so I don’t consider it in the same category.  (Also, it’s much worse.)

The Innocent (NaNoWriMo 2017; 1,725 words; science fiction?): This was my attempt to write the “other side” of The Leftovers, a frankly amazing show in HBO, parts of which I’m potentially spoiling by even writing this sentence, so I’ll stop now.  As you can see, I barely got anywhere in it.  Something about the subject matter was just too dark for me last year, so I set it aside after a few days.  I’m unlikely to continue it, either, given the complicated nature its IP would have; although it would be easy to file the serial numbers off, that seems like cheating, and I don’t really have a passion for the story anyway.

Honorable mention goes to One Less Traveled (1M10; 11,511 words; alternate-history road trip/literary fiction), which while not done during NaNo was definitely in the mold of the other corpses.  It had an all right premise, I suppose, but it turns out that this particular picaresque in an alternate history just didn’t do anything for me.  And of course there’s Runaway, which I wrote about at greater length in the previous post.

The first surprise to me is that there were actually less of these corpses than I remember.  What that probably means is that I had other story ideas on some of those years–2013 is a likely one–but didn’t even write a single word of them down before tossing the idea in the trash.  Love in the Time of Data absolutely should have been a 4K corpse, but I toughed it out, and other than the usual “getting all the bad words out” motivation for writing a bunch of words I think I would have been much better off putting that particular novel out of its misery early on.

The second surprise is that while 4K kinda-sorta happens to be close to the actual average length, it’s actually really variable… although with only three real data points I’m not even comfortable making an engineer’s proof about it.  I stuck with Inclusion probably longer than I should have, at least partly due to the impending end of NaNo that year, and I tossed The Innocent out the back of the truck before the month even really started rolling.  I’m not sure there’s anything to learn from that, but it’s interesting to me nonetheless.

And, of course, my hard drive is littered with many other failed attempts at writing, from a couple of chapters long to just the first ten sentences or so.  Such is the life of a writer.  Will any of these aforementioned stories get picked back up and turned into something real?  I doubt it.  But anything’s possible.

Words about words

[Warning: This post is long.  But buried somewhere in here is a link to an actual story I wrote.  I won’t tell you where.  Cue evil laughter!]

I finished rereading the Culture series on my Kindle while I was in Louisiana.  Before I started something new–the Wheel of Time books, which I’ve never read and apparently contain approximately three point seven billion words, because I hate myself–I took a bit of a detour and reread a few of my own stories.

I do this fairly regularly, actually.  Most of my books are relatively short, right at 50,000 words due to the requirements of NaNoWriMo, so they’re a quick reread for me.  And while I’ve never done any serious editing on any of them, I still catch typos and malapropisms and fix those as I go.  (Yes, of course they’re all in revision control systems meant for software, because I am a geek through and through.  Subversion, Bazaar, and finally Git, if you must know, charting my own usage over the last decade and a half.)

Because people have asked me over the years, I thought it’d be worth cataloging all of the major writing I’ve ever done.  If nothing else, it makes this an easy blog post to point back to in the future.  Note that a non-trivial amount of my stuff is “personal”, by which I mean it was written for me and me alone.  The longer works will still be listed here, but don’t bug me about the details.  Demon exorcism is never pretty work.

(Most works have given word counts.  For reference, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is about 46,000 words long, The Catcher in the Rye is 74,000ish, and The Hobbit is around 95,000.  Mumble mumble War & Peace mumble lots more.)

Anyhow:

Cycle’s End (ca. 1991; ~20pp.; science fiction/fantasy): I started to consider “that writing thing” when I was eleven, and this was the result, the first twenty or so pages of a singularly awful novel written in a WordStar clone (StarWriter, I think? [Days-later edit: After doing some research, I’m pretty sure it was just a pirated version of WordStar.]) on an IBM XT clone my father bought on the cheap back in ’89 or ’90.  Given the time period, perhaps heinous is a better descriptor.  On the other hand: eh, I was eleven.  Somehow my oldest sister kept a copy of this around for over 15 years and returned it to me, missing the first couple of pages; I “lovingly” transcribed it.  It’s even on the Web, although I won’t be pointing you to it.  It’s bad.  Real bad.  Then again, eleven.

A thirteen-year fallow period ensues, during which maybe I wasn’t really into “that writing thing,” other than a couple of terrible short stories in high school.  I did write a metric crap-ton of semi-professional videogame reviews in this period, but they’re all awful, and non-fiction besides.

Lying in Arcadia (NaNoWriMo 2004; 105,036 words; science fiction): When I decided to really start writing again, hoo boy, did I do it in earnest.  I pooped out a 100,000+ novel in 28 days.  It’s awful; the beginning uses a bunch of dumb words I made up to try to make myself seem smart, and the plot barely holds together, but it’s got a beginning, middle, and end, which is more than I can say for most of my later writing.  Sigh.  Exactly one clever thing came out of this novel, a solution to a near-the-end predicament that I had set up without realizing it 100 pages back.  It’s the sort of thing I figured clever writers went back and inserted into their novels to make them look smart–hiding Chekov’s gun back in the third chapter–but it just happened naturally.  It was a bit of a sea change in my mind as to how much conscious control I really have in this whole writing business.

Sinner Soldier Seeker Saint (NaNoWriMo 2005; 70,046 words; weird fantasy but actually science fiction): Lying was basically completely unplanned.  For S4, I actually did quite a bit of thinking about the setting, the characters, and the plot before November.  The result… was terrible.  The characters are wooden, the writing stilted–6,600 of the words are a glossary of the made-up words scattered throughout the novel like rat turds–and the story unengaging.  I started hating it at about the 40,000 word mark, really loathing it around 55,000 or so, and finished it off as best I could without really resolving anything.  A hot mess that turned me off of preplanning for NaNo for years.

The Escapist (NaNoWriMo 2005; 51,819 words; science fiction): That’s not a typo.  I was super unsatisfied with S4 and my family all disappeared on Thanksgiving evening, my mother and sisters to go shopping at an outlet mall a few states away and my father to a long hunting trip, so I decided I’d write a second novel for NaNoWriMo.  This is a personal one, so no real details, but it’s important for two reasons: it’s followed by Second Law, below, and it’s the single fastest novel I’ve ever written.  I finished that Sunday afternoon, having written over 50,000 words in around 67 hours.  Yes, they included meals and sleep.  No, I am not a robot.  Yes, it’s a much better novel than S4 despite having been vomited onto the page with great force.

The Trees Near Podkamennaya (NaNoWriMo 2006; 43,372 words or 50,047 words, depending; “literary” modern-day “romance”): Having proven that I could write two novels in a month back in 2005, the next year was a time for stuntin’.  I had written what amounted to science fiction my entire life, so I thought: what would be the most different thing possible?  I know!  Semi-literary first-person modern-day romance!

Somehow, it’s… actually okay.  Not great, not awful, but okay.  It’s too short; I finished the story at 43K, so ended up going back and adding framing chapters around the real tale to have it crack the magical 50K for NaNo, but were I to ever publish the novel (I won’t) I’d toss those chapters entirely.  The title is about 75% too clever for itself, which… is in grand lit-fic tradition, I suppose.  But it was nowhere near the disaster I expected it to be, although I hated it at the time.

The Worldbreaker (NaNoWriMo 2006; 53,380 words; gonzo science fantasy): Yeah, another year where I wrote two novels.  Don’t worry, I got over that.  The setting for this came out of a “game” I “invented” which was a bit popular in the NaNoWriMo IRC channel for a bit, a sort of “yes, and” improv jam thing but for setting design.  I decided to actually write a story set in the world of the very first game session.  It’s pretty nuts, and the story ends at what is clearly the Act I break in a three-act play, but it has some clever bits.  I think it’s fundamentally unsalvageable, though, not least because the rights to the novel would be a damn mess thanks to the collaborative nature of having come up with the setting.  Thanks, copyright law!

And the Heavens on Fire (NaNoWriMo 2007; 54,556 words; science fiction): A return to form for 2007.  The novel is basically my own take on the idea of the Great Filter. It’s actually not a bad first act-and-a-half, but it’s got some fundamental structural problems that came from it needing more pre-plotting than I was willing to give my NaNovels at the time.  It’s at third place (of three) in my list of “novels I might actually be willing to rework into something that isn’t total garbage for publication,” henceforth the List.  It’s the first novel of mine that I reread back at my Mom’s house.

Second Law (NaNoWriMo 2008; 50,728 words; hard science fiction): My take on Greg Egan’s brand of hard sf.  This was the second novel I reread back at Mom’s, and I have to say that it’s a little too Egan-y, bordering on “creepy fanfic” territory rather than really staking its own claim.  It’s also missing acts three and four and half of the fifth and final act, which is a problem.  That said, the core of the novel is actually solid, the characters are interesting, and I actually quite like some of the little details scattered throughout.  It’s also a (distant) sequel to The Escapist, which I’d totally elide in a rewrite, since that novel is never, ever going to get published.  It’s in second place on the List.

Invisibles (NaNoWriMo 2009, plus a lot more in 2010; 99,076 words; science fiction): A personal novel.  Trash, but wordy trash…

…because in 2010 I embarked on a crazy journey to write a million words before the end of the year.  I very much didn’t succeed, managing 308,801 by December 31st.  That’s still a hell of a lot of words, but it’s also quite short of the goal.  That said, quite a bit came out of that year.  There were a bunch of random vignettes and short stories, my completion of Invisibles, stuff for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (yes, I was stretching for things that counted as words), and…

The Organization stories (~15,000 words; modern-day science fiction/horror): I wrote several stories in the same milieu, heavily inspired by the SCP Foundation.  One was about vampires, one about mummies, and one a weird take on Chernobyl.  Like Second Law, they’re probably too close to the original inspiration in their current form, but the mummy story in particular is actually pretty good.

Runaway (15,179 words; science fiction/mystery): This will forever be “the one that got away.”  It’s the first third of a gritty near-future mystery story with aliens where I had the key hook in my head, forgot to write it down, and put the story aside for too long.  I can’t for the life of me remember whodunit, although I do remember how, and am still pretty pleased with that.  I’d like to take another stab at the story, or a different one in the same setting, at some point, as the world I painted in it is still one of my favorites, something very different than anything else I’ve written.  As is, it’ll never be finished.  Sigh.

The Treehouse (32,957 words; historical literary fiction): A personal novel, notable only because it’s a relatively long work I finished outside of the confines of NaNoWriMo.  The only such work, unfortunately.

The Fable of the Little Robot (1,909 words; children’s science fiction): I’ll let this one speak for itself.

The Golden Band (NaNoWriMo 2010; 51,026 words; science fiction): A direct sequel to Invisibles, and equally personal.

I wrote a short story or two in December, but that was the end of 1M10.

Rewind (NaNoWriMo 2011; 36,719 words or some barely-over-50,000 word count; science fiction): Number one on the List, and my return to pre-planning for NaNo six years after S4 soured me on the idea.  I started with a single mental image: a young person standing on a street corner, taking a long drag on a cigarette, and then rewinding time so that they don’t actually get the lung damage.  I spent a lot of time pre-November on the metaphysics of time travel, and I think it shows in the novel.  There’s a lot more going on in the story, but given that it’s the book I actually plan on rewriting for publication in the near future, I don’t want to get into too many details.  Like Trees before it, I finished the story without hitting 50,000, so there’s a lot of filler text that I don’t consider actually part of the story.  Unlike Trees, I actually could add a bunch of stuff to the story before publication to make it the length of a real novel.  We’ll see.

I failed NaNo in 2012, mostly because I was so stressed out about my impending departure from Louisiana and move to North Carolina that I couldn’t concentrate on writing.  I cheated and “won” by transcribing dialog from TV shows I was watching with my Mom until I hit 50K, then revoked my win a day later.  I’m not proud of that.

Darkly (NaNoWriMo 2013; 50,151 words; science fiction), Ridden (NaNoWriMo 2014; 40,757 words plus guff to hit 50K; science fiction): A pair of personal novels.  Neat settings, both, but terrible stories.  Technically Ridden is in the same setting as Invisibles and The Golden Band, but that matters to precisely one person in the universe.

Love in the Time of Data (NaNoWriMo 2015; 50,644 words; modern literary fiction/trainwreck): One thing I’ve elided from this already way-too-long chronology is the littered “4K corpses” of NaNoWriMo.  I often start a given November with a bright idea, write one to five chapters, then absolutely hate it and throw it away.  Many of the personal novels come from those years, when it’s easier to switch over to something just for me than come up with another idea or fight through the misery of that first failed one.  Love in the Time of Data is the result of not letting myself drop yet another 4K corpse in 2015.  It’s a fictionalized account of working in the tech industry, littered with asides that are fictionalized accounts of events in the main character’s life, and you’re reading “fictionalized account” as “thinly veiled version of myself” then give yourself nothing because it’s the obvious conclusion.  It’s awful to the max, but damn it, it’s one less 4K corpse on the NaNoWriMo road.  Never again, though, after this one.  Never again.

Super (NaNoWriMo 2016; 50,355 words; superhero fantasy/romance/humor): I actually really like this one, even though it’s incomplete and needs some heavy reworking.  The core concept is “B-lister superhero has to pick up the slack when all the heavies are out of town”, which has been done before, but I’ve reread Super a couple of times and actually laughed out loud at some of the bits, something no other novel I’ve written can manage.  It has a fundamental publication problem, though, in that the main character’s superpower runs on something that is Not Family Friendly.  If I ever wanted to go the self-publishing route, Super would move up to number one on the List, but as-is it would require a whole lot of rewriting to make it salable.  That puts it at fourth place on the real List, but unfortunately that list only has room for three novels.  Sad trombone.

Tutelage (NaNoWriMo 2017; 50,267 words; science fiction): A personal novel, written after yet another 4K corpse that was going to be my take on a particular story related in the last episode of the TV series The Departed.  Unreadable garbage, both the corpse and the novel.

Phew.  That’s, by an order of magnitude, the longest blog entry I’ve written here so far, but it’s a pretty thorough examination of most of the fiction I’ve produced over my life.  I haven’t asked for reader feedback in ages, and I doubt anyone will actually read this entry all the way through, but if you do: which of the works described here intrigues you the most?  Why?

The pleasures of simplicity

I’m back in North Carolina, and glad to be back.  My reaction actually surprised me; I opened the door to my house with a bit of trepidation, but it smelled like–felt like–home from the moment I stepped inside.  I’m still not fully unpacked from the trip, but I made a start of it last night, and already did the necessary errands around town this morning to get my mail, buy another clipboard after I left mine at Mom’s, and so on.

That said, it was a wonderful trip.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, this trip was pretty much designed-slash-planned to be neither designed nor planned.  Back in Baton Rouge, I saw people who put forth the effort to contact me after an initial “hey, I’m in town” blast to old friends and coworkers, and didn’t worry about the rest.  There were lots of days spent lazing around my mom’s house, solving puzzles or watching Broadchurch, and I ate out probably half as much as I typically do when I visit.

There were a lot more lunches and dinners at restaurants in Fayetteville, but the visit was still pretty low-key.  Dan and I spent a lot of time playing couch co-op Diablo III, which is just about as non-committal as you can make a videogame.  Any less thought involved (at the low levels, at least) and you may as well be “playing” Cookie Clicker.  The only really planned outing was to Crystal Bridges, and the plan for that changed several times throughout the week as other things came up.  In previous times that would have stressed me out.  But, no, we went on Sunday and it was really nice.  I could have stayed for hours and hours more; I love museums.  But it gives me something else to look forward to on the next trip to Arkansas.

All along the way, my general response to any planned outing, get-together, or choice of meal was “sure, why not.”  Back in Louisiana, the few evenings with Stuff Happening were strictly first-come, first-serve, rather than my previous attempts to satisfy as many people as possible, even if it meant shuffling a lot of things around.

And the lesson?  That old way is for chumps.  Cutting scheduling down to the barest minimum doesn’t just make things less stressful, it makes them more fun, because there’s room for spontaneity when before there was too much “oh, no, I’m meeting whoever at whenever, I can’t do that”.  Keeping it simple also kept it pleasant, and when your trip has God-awful drives all around it, you can do with as much pleasantness as possible.

(Also, no matter how much I kvetch about the drive, it’s still better than flying.  You lose a day either way, but most airlines don’t have the ability to satisfy a craving for a Blizzard, or a desire to just get out and not be moving for a few minutes, at 30,000 feet.)

So my future plan, even for the Big Holiday Visit, is to keep it low on planning and high on “yeah, sure”.  I’ll try and make sure the one big game night happens, but that’s about it, and if even that falls through I won’t be too sad.  Heck, I played Concordia four times while I was in Baton Rouge, which is roughly infinity percent more than I expected, and half of those games were spontaneous ones with the neighbors.  Who knows what other fun I’ll discover later this year?

All the comforts

Being back home has been very nice.

Part of it is that my obligations here are pretty low-key, bordering on nonexistent.  I’ve had several meals with friends and family, played some board games with my neighbors, and watched some movies with my mother.  But I’ve also played quite a bit of Let It Die, solved a ton of puzzles, continued reading the Culture series (I’m up to the last one, The Hydrogen Sonata), and watched plenty of Twitch.  These last are, essentially, the same things I fill my days with back at my house in Lenoir.

In earlier years, I would have felt a little guilty about that.  I used to cram as many different restaurants as possible into every visit, coordinate visits with the maximum number of old friends and acquaintances, spend as much time as possible with family.  But now?  I know I’ll be back for the holidays, and then again sometime later next year.  And when I visit I know I won’t be time constrained.  So why force it?

Because of that, I’ve been enjoying it a lot more.  It was always nice to visit, but there was always an undercurrent of maximizing the efficiency of my visit–even of some of that was “spending as much time as possible watching the new season of Black Mirror with Mom”–that made it all more exhausting than it should’ve been.  Not so much this time.

I’ll be leaving Baton Rouge to visit a friend (and fellow early retiree) in Arkansas early next week.  I expect that trip to be a little more packed, a little more stressful… and that’s fine, because it’s not home.  Home should be easy.

And, for the first time in a long time, it really is.