Month: October 2016

Kicking Off

Being Social

I’m really bad at write-ins.

I like them, don’t get me wrong – I think they’re useful, and I always like meeting other writers – but they tend to be in the evening and my evenings are already pretty full. I find I write most consistently in the mornings, on the bus, and over lunch. I know that for some folks write-ins are a way of gaining focus and motivation to put words on the page, and that has not generally been my problem.

But because I am so bad at getting to write-ins I always try to get to the regional kick-off party to connect with other Portland-area WriMos. This year’s event was at the Central Library in downtown Portland, and it was very good. There were a number of things about it that were improvements:

  • tables – the room was arranged with tables to sit at. This was such a big improvement over the rows of chairs, however they were arranged. You were face to face with a small group of writers and it was a much more comfortable structure than the serried ranks. The only down side was having to turn your chair for the intro segment when the MLs were speaking from the front of the room. My neck didn’t like that bit.
  • time limit – there was an explicit one minute time limit per speaker in the going-round-the-room-introducing-yourself part, and that was so successful that no one exceeded it. Things haven’t been too rambly in previous years either, but having a firm time limit focussed everyone’s attention.
  • plot ninjas – one of my favourite bits of the kick-offs has always been the opportunity to write down plot twists and hand them to other writers to use for inspiration. These plot ninjas are often silly but can help in shaking loose something from your skull that moves the story forward. However, they can also sometimes be irrelevant to your story: having a plot ninja that suggests a magic mirror be discovered in your high stakes legal drama doesn’t really help.
    Hence this year’s exercise, which was to write a short summary of your story at the top of the page and then have others make plot suggestions that are tailored to that story. I’ve got a couple of plot ideas from that already, so I’m quite excited about it. This exercise was also a lot more fun to engage in than the usual form.

Bravo, Theo and Max. Thank you.

Being Solitary

Ultimately though, like dying, you always write alone.

I’ve been chewing through the steps to prep for November, and it’s been hard: I realised that one of the reasons I didn’t do well with this story ten years ago is that I didn’t have a good ending.

Fortunately, it turns out that one of the characters I have added is actually going to be the main character – certainly, she’s more interesting than the perfect god-like character I had at the centre of things before. I should still be ready to go for next Tuesday.

Back to the outlines.

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Magic On The Cheap: Part 1 – Why Is Magic The Gathering Expensive?

I play Magic the Gathering. It is not an inherently cheap game. This is a short series about  how to manage that cost, but the first step in is to understand why Magic is expensive to play.

Part 1: High Casting Cost

There is a great deal about Magic that is very interesting and worthwhile as a gaming experience. Drafting is fun, sealed is fun. Building constructed decks in various formats is enormous fun, and actually playing the decks you build can be incredibly rewarding. Sometimes frustrating, sure, but usually just good fun.

But, all of these different ways of playing come with a cost. With most board games you buy a box and play the game. You might then buy expansions for that base game. Those expansions may cost as much as the base game if they are big, or just be a fraction of the price if it’s a small enhancement. Some games are predictable, while others allow many different combinations of components for a very widely varied gameplay experience. However it plays, you spend $30-$60 on a game and you play it.

Magic isn’t really like that.

The basic unit in which you buy Magic cards is the booster pack. These packs are each 15 cards with specific proportions of cards sorted by rarity: ten commons, three uncommons, a rare (or mythic rare), and a basic land1. There’s also a token of some kind. A pack is not a playable thing on its own2.

These packs are designed to be played in a draft. This is where a group of players (eight, optimally) each have three packs. They each open one pack and select a card to keep, then pass to the left, continuing to select and pass until the first pack is exhausted. Then they do the same thing with the second and third packs, but alternating the pass direction: to the right for the second pack, to the left again for the third. Once all packs are exhausted you build a 40 card deck from the cards selected, although that 40 card count includes basic land which you can add freely. The upshot is that you will pick 45 cards and play 22-25 of them.

A draft like this costs three packs plus basic land, usually $12-14 at a game shop (depending on prize support). Now, playing the games themselves is several hours of entertainment, and there is a lot of deep skill involved both in the drafting process and building the decks, so if you compare it to (say) going to the cinema it’s pretty reasonable. But that’s still $12-14 every time you play.

Other formats are more expensive, not less: sealed is six packs per person, constructed decks in the main formats (Standard, Modern) can easily be hundreds of dollars to buy if you don’t have the cards, and so on.

Selling Out

One mitigating factor for the cost of Magic is that you can often sell cards to pay for some or all of it. This is not an MTG finance piece and I will not be discussing this in detail, but sometimes you will pull a card during a draft that is worth $20, $30, or more, although the chances of that are low. The Masterpieces added to packs in recent sets are a case in point – they have high value, but they are also very unlikely. It truly is a lottery whether the cards you open match the price you paid: the Professor plays the Booster Box Game to demonstrate how you always lose in the end.

Still, I’m very bad at selling cards. I’ve sold approximately three. I like collecting them too much, so although you can sell cards, I am not going to claim that that’s a great way to control costs.

That’s some of the reasons why Magic is expensive. Next time I’ll write about some ways to manage that cost.

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Today I feel hollow.

There are a few reasons I sometimes feel hollow. If I’ve exercised a lot in the last couple of days or I’m fighting off an infection then my body can feel a bit empty, as if all the chips* and carbs in the world couldn’t fill it but you have to try anyway. This is what Suzanne Collins alluded to in The Hunger Games: “a hollow day”. That could be what I’m feeling today, although mostly on the infection side.

There are times when I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that I’ve forgotten about something important, and not only is it too late to do anything about it but the consequences are going to be long and painful. That’s more an existential terror kind of hollowness, a yawning gulf over which I feel suspended, cartoon-like, waiting for gravity to assert itself. I don’t think that’s what I’m feeling today.

Then again if I have something I have to do and I’m not quite clear how it all fits together then I can get a feeling of doubtful hollowness. I call this the unexamined assumption feeling, the sense of having not properly checked all my inputs before starting work: a gap behind the brittle facade of confidence. There could be a bit of that today, since there are things I need to do that I know I can finish but which I have doubts about actually having all the information I need. This feeling of doubtful hollowness is, I suspect, also an aspect of imposter syndrome, a manifestation of doubt in my own abilities which I have learned is unfounded but which I still feel and still struggle with.

Of course, being in the middle of NaNo prep reinforces that feeling. “You’re doing this again?” my subconscious whines. “And on a story that failed before? There’s no way this can work.” Well, it will. I know that intellectually, but my feelings are less certain.

Trust the process, trust the skills.

And then there’s tiredness. This is obviously part of my deal today, since I slept fine last night but not for long enough and I am about to dive into a month of abbreviated sleep and more intense work. In fact I could do with another cup of…

Oh, that’s why I feel hollow. I forgot my tea.


[*] or fries for my American readers.

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November Looms

it is, you know

it is, you know

It is almost time for National Novel Writing Month. This will be my thirteenth go at it, and although I no longer need it in order to write, this frenzied month is still when I do most of my initial drafting.

But what to write? And how to prepare?

This Year’s Story

The novel I am writing for 2016 is a story that I have tried to write before, a story about superhumans and the end of the world. I last tackled this story in 2006 and it was very close to being a disaster: that’s the year I came closest to not finishing*, and the result was bad. Not all the way through, of course: there are scenes and fragments in there that are worthwhile still, but the total assembly of words was awful.

It was still a story I wanted to tell, though. I began one alternate approach to it as a bedtime story for my oldest, although it never got more than a few scenes in and I didn’t write it down at the time. I’ve also been pottering about with superhumans in my roleplaying setting A New Dawn, and as I restarted that again I realised I wanted to have another go at the abandoned novel.

So here I am, turning over the soil, looking for the bones of the story.

This Year’s Prep

Last year I took part in a trial outing for a NaNoWriMo prep course being run by Kim at MuseCraft. I’ve been using those same steps this year, since they seemed to help before.

I have to admit, however, that I only began these steps after a couple of false starts.

The first thing I tried was to capture the opening scenes from my bedtime retelling of the story, which led me into the same traps as the original failed novel since it was freighted with many of the same issues (I also couldn’t remember all that much except that there were a couple of things I definitely did not want to use). The second thing I did was to build a character network using the Fiasco method, which works a lot better when the characters have some direct connections at the start of the story. Then, finally, I remembered the successes of last year’s prep exercises and fell back into those.

But all of this has been helpful in uncovering the story I want to tell and the way I want to tell it. There are no wasted words**.

I’m getting into the plot part of the prep next and then it’s time for chapter outlines.

This Year’s Enthusiasm

Two weeks to go. I’m going to be ready. Are you?

[*] there is a thing in NaNoWriMo culture that the second year is the hardest, but for me it was the third.

[**] … as I say to myself when justifying abandoning eight years of work.

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