Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dr Who: My theory on Season 5

OK, prediction time: Matt Smith is a decoy Doctor.

I'm actually pretty confident that Matt Smith will be good in the role of the new Doctor. Team
Who have excellent taste in casting and he's got a really interesting look about him.

But I remember the rumours about casting the new Dr Who before it was relaunched. James Nesbitt's name was floated a few times and (based off my impressions of his performance in Cold Feet) I felt he would make a great shambling around Doctor in the spirit of Tom Baker. When I couple that rumour with his performance in Steven Moffat's Jekyll, well ...

My prediction is that Matt Smith will be killed off mid-way through Season 5 and replaced by James Nesbitt.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Movies: October to December

There will be Blood was great on a rewatch, but I still haven't managed to perfect my Daniel Plainview impersonation.

I expected Rescue Dawn to be a man-against-the-jungle movie, but it turned out to be far more of a prison break film. Nice to see Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn get some serious screen-time (and it reminded me of my favourite Steve Zahn performance - in Sahara, where he plays a cocky guy who doesn't realise that he's Matthew McConaughey's sidekick.)

Drag Me to Hell: Torment porn from Sam Raimi. I really enjoyed it, even though the last half hour had that inevitability that comes from figuring out a key plot point a little too early. This film provided a powerful reminder to me that inappropriate bodily fluids being forced through people's mouths is what true gross-out horror is all about.

The Science of Sleep is Michel Gondry's film about dreams, love and hope. At first it uplifted me, but in the end it left me terribly terribly sad.

The Godfather Part 2 didn't seem as clearly plotted to me as Part 1, perhaps because the identity of Michael's antagonist is hidden for so long, but the intercutting between timelines is elegant. It's a satisfying, classy story of revenge, and a timely reminder never to go fishing on Lake Tahoe.

Priceless is a fun sexy French comedy with a totally coherent storyline and sexy selfish characters I really cared about.

Twilight was brilliant because when it turned out that Bella's mum was played by Sarah Chalke (Nina Myers on 24), I learned that my flatmate is a huge fan of 24 too, so we spent the last half hour of the film talking about that.

Green Street Hooligans is a fun B-grade movie (that wants to be an A-grade movie) about Elijah Wood learning to be a football-hooligan. Worth watching for the climactic fight where the film-makers were unable to afford the rights to Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, and instead had to create a similar-sounding song.

2012 is totally worth $16 at the movies. It feels like a video-game with some pretty annoying things to say about how women should look after the kids and not take any independent action, but it blows stuff up amazingly. A really (often unintentionally) funny film, with the best cast of actors of any Roland Emmerich film so far.

I still like Miami Vice, but I suspect my opinion may change after a few more viewings. Perhaps it is the The Phantom Menace of Michael Mann films.

12 Monkeys is a movie I'd forgotten I'd owned. It gets increasingly strong as the film goes along, and Bruce Willis gets saner and saner. I'm not a fan of overly expressive camera angles, but I am a fan of doom.

Last Days is Gus van Sant's take on Kurt Cobain's suicide. I got through about half of it before having to turn it off. While it's brilliantly shot, performed and written, with a really quiet quiet way about it, Last Days was just taking me into an emotional place that I didn't want to go.

The Waters of Mars had some nice scary imagery in it - reminiscent of The Event, actually - but overall felt like stuff I'd seen before. Loved the final two or three minutes though. The Doctor as 'arrogant' is something I'd like to see more of, and I can't wait for the fifth Dr Who special.

Torchwood: Children of Earth. I don't know if I'm on the record about Torchwood, but I don't think it works as a show. Season 1 veered between broad comedy and OTT angst; while it had a few good episodes, I found Season 1 so inconsistent that I didn't even bother watching its finale. I certainly didn't bother watching any of Season 2. So bear that in mind when I say that Torchwood: Children of Earth, a 5-part mini-series about alien abduction. Is. Fucking. Awesome. If you're in to dark British SF at all, it's a must-see.

Enemy of the State is a movie I've only watched in bits and pieces before. Having now sat through the whole thing, I feel exactly the same way. It's excellently crafted to stress you out though, and quite amazing in how quickly (and implausibly) they make scenes move through plot points in order to destroy Will Smith's life.

Zombieland is one of the feel-good films of the year. The way it turns zombies into an element of the setting, rather than a threat helps focus the story on the survivors and their rom-com / buddy movie relationships. Also: a fascinating example of how you can make splatter completely acceptable as long as you surround it with a sight gag or a really funny line of dialogue. Highly recommended.

The Plan is the final film in the Battlestar Galactica reboot. It's the story of two Cavils who find themselves in different parts of the war. I found that seeing the Galactica-based events of Season 1 from Cavil's POV gave me a lot of insight. Unfortunately, the other Cavil (based on Caprica) didn't have enough screen-time to really justify his change of character for me. As a result, I'm calling this one insightful but not essential.

I found Where the Wild Things to be a melancholic film about gently damaged people. It was not the movie I'd hoped for. Rather than being full of subtext, there were a few too many sequences for me where what was happening on screen was all that was happening - which made the movie a little too simple in places. It is, however, beautifully shot, with spectacular images, great performances and an interesting message about how complicated human relationships are. I'm torn about this one - but I'm coming down on the side of "it's good and worthwhile seeing."
It's pretty much an art film in

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The 2009 Black List: Stories I'm interested in seeing

The Black List is an annual ranking of the year's most-talked-about unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. The 2009 Black List has just been published, and I thought I'd copy down the log-lines that particularly appealed to me.

I've divided the log-lines into three groups:
  1. my favourites
  2. noteworthy premises
  3. ideas I'm totally curious about - depending on how they're executed.
As with the Scriptshadow Logline Competition, I may dig into these a bit later on to see what I can learn about my tastes in stories or hooks. In the meantime, check out the projects below and the rest of the ones on the list. What do you think?
My Favourites

Owens' Manual by Greg Ferkel
What's it about: "A mild-mannered IT guy finds an 'owners manual' to his dull life but struggles to manage the realities of it when he reaches the end of the manual."

Allies with Benefits by Elizabeth Wright Shapiro
What's it about: "The female President of The United States falls for her old college fling, the now Prime Minister of England."

Notable Premises

The Voices By Michael R. Perry
What it’s about: Jerry, a schizophrenic worker at a bathtub factory, accidentally kills an attractive woman from accounting. While trying to cover his bloody tracks, Jerry starts taking advice from his talking (and foul-mouthed) cat and dog.
The Days Before By Chad St. John
What’s it about: A man from the future keeps hopping one successive day into the past desperate to stop a vicious race of time-traveling aliens from wiping out humanity.
BURIED by Chris Sparling
"A civilian contractor in Iraq is kidnapped and awakens to find himself buried in a coffin in the desert." (I've read this. Thought it was a great, quick read and a great idea for a low-budget film: set it all in a coffin.)
JIMI by Max Borenstein
"The life story of rock legend Jimi Hendrix."
"Renko Vega, once a hero and now a rogue thief wandering the galaxy with his hyperintelligent spaceship the Jennifer 9, is forced to become a hero once again when the young daughter of the President of Earth is kidnapped." (According to Scriptshadow, this is a rolicking sci-fi action movie. The script is available for download, but I don't want to know too more about it.)
Ones I'm curious about
MIXTAPE by Stacey Menear
"A thirteen year old outcast finds a mixtape that belonged to the deceased parents she never knew, accidentally destroys it, and uses the song list to go on a journey to find all the music in an attempt to get to know her parents."
"A suburban ‘neighborhood watch’ group, actually a front for dads to get some male bonding time away from the family, uncovers a plot bent on destroying the world."
"A liberal New Yorker realizes he isn't as open-minded as he thinks he is and sets out to make a black friend."
THE GUYS GIRL by Nick Confalone and Neal Dusedau
"Three male best friends realize they’re each in love with their mutual female best friend when she gets engaged."
"Based on the comic book written by Gerard Way. After being raised by a brilliant scientist and a hyper-intelligent chimp, six super-powered former ‘child superheroes’ reunite to stop one of their own from leading a violin symphony that will destroy the world." (Obviously I've included this one for Svend)
THE HAND JOB by Maggie Carey
"A coming-of-age comedy about a teenage girl who gives her first hand job (among other life experiences)." (This one seems squicky. I'm fascinated about how you execute it without making it gross.)
THE CURSE OF MEDUSA by J Lee and Tom Welch
"An origin story of Medusa the Gorgon."
MEDIEVAL by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch
"An unlikely group of imprisoned warriors are forced on a suicide mission to steal the King's crown in order to gain their freedom. They soon realize they've been set up to take the fall for the assassination of the King."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Media: Create ideas that will be spread

Seth Godin gives a talk on the publishing industry that adds a powerful new question to my process of deciding which project to work on next:

Will this idea spread?
Here's the link to Seth's talk:

And here's a summary of the points he's making:

1. Ideas that spread, win.
This implies that I need to ask myself, "Is this an idea that people will want to spread?"

2. Free ideas spread better than ideas you need to pay for.

3. An idea spreads when people benefit from telling others about it.
You'll do way better if other people blog, tweet or talk about what you've created. Ideas should be designed to encourage (or make) other people write about it. Seth's talk gives 10 real world examples of how he's marketed his books.

... wait, wait, wait, I said at this point. How do you make money if you're giving your ideas away? That's when Seth completely turned the idea of publishing on its head for me.

4. You're not selling a book; you're selling a souvenir (of the experience of having read the book).
The idea is that people will want an souvenir of an experience they've already had and enjoyed. Instead of thinking you're in the business of selling books, think of yourself as being in the business of creating souvenir editions of ideas that have already spread.

Seth goes on to discuss how this is unnecessary for people who've already established themselves as a brand (Stephen King, Dan Brown, Vincent Baker, Meg Cabot). I've seen this in action for myself - I am sorely tempted to buy a paperback copy of Cory Doctorow's 'Little Brother', which he distributed for free online.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Earlier in the afternoon, Tuvalu's Prime Minister, Apisai Ielemia, said the aim should be that global temperature rises should peak at well below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which was "non-negotiable".

"This meeting is about our future existence," Ielemia said.

But New Zealand backed a 2 degree cap on temperature rise, Key said, because the harder the target, the harder it would be to get an agreement.

"I think we all understand the anxiety of some of these small island states and the very real risk that climate change presents to them, but we're also in a position where there are now 193 countries who need to collectively agree on a target that can be achieved and who are prepared to take the necessary steps in their own economies to see that target achieved.

"In my view it would be better to take a more realistic view to that and see some progress made because unless we do that then this conference is going to fail."


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interested in discussing how to organise your life?

I'm thinking about doing a series of posts about ways to organise your life so it runs more smoothly. The series would draw off books and blogs I've been reading over the last 5 years, and stuff I've been trying out in my own life. It'd cover a mix of big and small stuff, like:

- to-do lists
- managing projects
- keeping track of the big picture of what you want to do with your life
- paying bills on time

Is this something you'd be interested in? I imagine it'd depend quite a lot on people asking and answering questions in the comments, so I thought I'd throw it open for discussion now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

New Media: Audience, Self-Authorisation, and the Death of Video Stores

A couple of excellent videos linked to by Bill Cunningham at Pulp 2.0.

Here's an excellent panel discussion about how to build an audience on the internet. Some points I took away from it:
  • I really like internet celebrities like Kos and Jonathon Coulton. They have a really low-key vibe about them
  • Coulton talks about building an audience by releasing a song every Friday, regardless of whether he thought it was good
  • The idea that people surf the internet by rotating through 5 to 10 bookmarks rings true for me. The trick is to get into that rotation.
  • Go and get involved in popular sites, and be available to communicate with people. Schedule time to keep in contact ... but have a 'hub', an site that's yours that people can come back to
  • Get your audience involved in a project; give them ownership of something they think is cool
  • Don't neglect to actually spend time creating
Here's the video:

This second video is about the importance of net neutrality, but I loved the first two minutes which provide inspirational examples of how easy it is to start creating web-based solutions to problems. It's helping me do some thinking about what my next New Thing might be.

And David Poland identifies something that eluded me: while everything is going to get digitally streamed to us, it's going to be increasingly difficult for third-parties like Netflix to do it. The studios who own the movies, music and TV will try to be the ones providing us with the content in order to maximise their profit. The studios will try and eliminate video stores, Fatso, and pretty much anything that draw eyeballs away from themselves.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Synopsis: Made to Stick (An Overview)

Made to Stick is the most interesting book I've read this year.(*) It shows you how to make your arguments and presentations more memorable and more believable.

(*) 'Made to Stick' ties with 'In Praise of Slow' for the book I've read this year that's been most useful in my life.

The authors, two brothers called Chip and Dan Heath, describe six principles that make your story 'sticky'. By 'sticky', they mean that an audience is likely to remember what you've said, believe what you've said, and then tell other people what you've said.

The six principles are:
  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories
In the spirit of using acronyms to help you remember, the Heath brothers point out that these six principles spell out 'SUCCESs'.

I'm going to go into more detail on each principle in later posts. For now, here's a preview:

Simplicity: you need to create a proverb
In order to make your message sticky, your message needs to simple and profound. Easy to remember and easy to pass on. A good example of what you're aiming for is a proverb (for instance, 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you').

To achieve this simplicity, you'll need to be ruthless in your efforts to reduce your message to its core. You'll need to exclude everything that doesn't matter.

Unexpectedness: this sub-heading demonstrates my point
People will remember your message if you suprise them. Be counter-intuitive; violate their expectations.

You can also ask questions that reveal to your audience they have gaps in their knowledge. That generates interest and curiousity, and they'll listen to you as you fill those gaps.

Concreteness: talk about people, not percentages
You need to explain your ideas at a human, everyday level. Use real examples, vivid images, and natural speech.

Credibility: how do you make people believe you?
This section talks about how to craft your message so that it helps people test your idea for themselves.

Emotions: how do you make someone care?
Mother Teresa once said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

You make someone care by making them feel. We are wired to feel things for people: specific people, who are known to us, or seem real. It's not easy for us to feel something for a mass of people or an abstraction.

Stories: preparing us for action
Stories teach us how to act once we believe in the message.

Keep a message simple so that people can remember it and pass it on. Craft your message so that people want to learn more, believe what you're saying, and know what you want them to do next.

Why do we need these principles?

Can you remember ever explaining something and then suddenly realising that your audience wasn't really following what you were saying?

Specifically, can you remember doing stuff like:

  • discovering while you were talking that there was something vital they needed to know in order to understand your point
  • using jargon
  • assuming your audience knew about things that had happened earlier in the week
  • skipping over the basics and discussing reasonably advanced or complicated details
  • not finishing sentences, because it was very clear in your own head what you meant
  • realising that you'd told the story out of order
The Heath brothers call this "the Curse of Knowledge". This is a flaw common to most people (I certainly have it): we forget what it's like to NOT know something. As a result, we forget what it's like to know absolutely nothing about the things we're interested in.

The six principles are weapons that can be used to fight the curse of knowledge and create a story that your audience can follow, understand, remember and spread.

I'll dig into them in later posts. In the meantime, here' sTrent's review of 'Made to Stick', over at The Simple Dollar.

Here are my first impressions of the book.

I first mentioned Made to Stick way back when I was synopsising Presentation Zen.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Under the Dome: The Conclusion

As I mentioned in the previous post, Stephen King's is a 900 page novel about a small town that's been cut off from the outside world by an invisible force-field. By the time we hit pages 600 to 700, Under the Dome has to resolve three big questions:

+ What is the Dome?
+ Will they get out?
+ How will the political situation in the town be resolved?

I felt the end of Under the Dome was a bit of a let-down, actually. The book spents most of its length setting up a series of impossible-to-resolve-happily relationships, bringing everybody into conflicts that seem like they will only be resolvable through extended guerilla warfare and public executions. King instead chooses to spin this around and in one vividly written sequence refocuses the story on three scattered groups of people, and chooses to completely ignore the conflicts between them.

I'm being intentionally vague about this section of the book, because I don't want to spoil anything. However, this choice removes a lot of the Lord of the Flies-esque tension I saw in the premise of the book. I have heard that a TV series version of Under the Dome is being planned, and I can totally get behind that as a concept - using the novel as a starting point, I think there's a lot of tensions that can be explored (and subplots that can be invented) that will give this story the sense of epic scale that I sense its striving for.

In fact, if I were to sum up the reason why I don't think Under the Dome quite works as spectacularly as I think it should, it's that it feels caught between doing two things well: being an extremely fast-paced airport novel about people under pressure versus being a mean-spirited and leisurely observer of humans trying not to give in to the worst elements of their nature.

I also think that it doesn't play hardball enough. I won't go into details, but at about page 500 I started giggling because I thought I'd figured out where the novel was going to go. It suddenly occured to me that in the sort of novel King was writing, there was actually no guarantee that any particular character would survive. (And no particular reason for them to, either - this is a pretty great example of an ensemble cast of characters.) The story is primed to deliver a sucker-punch of such magnitude that it'd leave the reader reeling, wondering what would happen next. I leave it to you to discover what actually happens.

As for the resolution to the story: What is the Dome? Do they get out? ...

... You might remember I pointed out that this town exists in the same universe as Castle Rock and Derry. The long-term King reader might also note that this implies it exists in the same universe as Haven - which in turn implies a pretty neat explanation for the existence of the Dome.

(But that's not where the story goes.)

I was actually fine with the explanation for why the Dome exists, and the finale reveals that the whole novel has an admirable thematic consistency - it's a nice examination of hate and empathy, qualities that all the characters have been touched by.

In total, I enjoyed Under the Dome but felt it played a little too safe. A slow start, an INCREDIBLE middle section, and a resolution that I felt deflated a lot of the tension that had been built up. (However, that resolution did contain a great little scene in a fallout shelter.)

I'm looking forward to re-reading this one.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Under the Dome

by Stephen King

King's latest book returns to familiar ground: a small town in Maine.(*) The premise is simple: the town of Chester's Mill has been surrounded by an invisible force-field. No-one can get out and nothing can get in. The town is completely cut off from the outside world.(**) What happens next?

* See also Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, and Bag of Bones. In fact, Chester's Mill is located just outside of Castle Rock and TR-90 - the settings of those last two books.

** In fact, Under The Dome feels like a cross between The Simpsons Movie and Lord of the Flies.

The book starts well: quickly establishing the situation and exploring it in clearly described scenes that feel truthful and reasonable. Over the next 200 pages, though, the book starts to bog down a little bit - moving from scene to scene between a vast number of characters; Under the Dome has such a large cast that in the earlier stages I often lost track of who I was reading about or what their story was. I also found myself not caring about many of the characters - something I've never experienced in a 'small town' King novel before. King has a gift for rapidly establishing why a character is worth paying attention to - something which seemed to occasionally missing here.

At some point between pages 200 and 300, however, the story picks up. Characters begin to interact with each other, their scenes and stories begin to tie together. Most importantly, it became clear to me that the first 200 pages had set up a series of questions I desperately wanted to know the answers to. As I sped through the next 400 pages of the book, at first it was because I knew exactly what disasters and crises I wanted to read about and King kept paying them off in better, more intriguing ways than I'd imagined. And then he started to spin the situation into chaotic directions I didn't expect, and as a result I surrendered myself completely to his story-telling.

The middle section of Under the Dome is a pleasure to read.

If I have criticisms of the first two-thirds of Under the Dome, it's that on my first read the deterioration in the town feels too quick. Partly that's because people react in extreme ways very quickly once the dome goes over the town; partly it's because there are a couple of utterly bugnuts crazy people already in the town. Chester's Mill is unstable before the Dome goes up, which is great for creating drama, but not so great for observing what would happen to a bunch of normal people in this situation (which I think is what I was expecting to read).

Which brings me to the end. Under the Dome has to resolve three big questions:

+ What is the Dome?
+ Will they get out?
+ How will the political situation in the town be resolved?

I'll deal with that in the next post.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Scriptshadow Logline Competition

One of my new favourite script-writing related sites, Scriptshadow, is holding a competition at the moment. Readers have submitted loglines for their screenplays, and Carson (who runs the site) has chosen his favourite 100. Here's the original post with the full list;

I thought I'd share my favourites. In general, it looks like I picked material where I'm genuinely intrigued about how the situation will be resolved, or it seems like a fresh take on an idea I've seen before, or it has something to do with sex. Here are my picks:

Title: Silent Night
Writer: James Luckard
Genre: Thriller
Logline: With a brutal serial killer stalking Nazi Germany at Christmas, the Berlin detective on the case gets reluctantly partnered with a Jewish criminal psychologist released from Auschwitz to profile the killer.

Title: Traders
Writer: Hugh Quatallebaum and Joe Graceffa
Genre: Comedy
Logline: Two best friends in a Chicago trading firm are starting to question their relationships with their live-in girlfriends and starting to wonder if maybe the other guy has it better. Then one day, they wake up in an alternate world where....they've swapped girlfriends.

Title: For You, My Love
Writer: Tess Hofmann
Genre: Drama
Logline: Despite being a closeted homosexual, an affluent New England family man lives for the health of his marriage -- until his oldest son comes out and makes him reconsider his decisions for the first time in decades.

Title: The Fake President
Writer: Crawford Funston
Genre: Comedy
Logline: A whip-smart Senior Advisor -- secretly running the White House for a
daft President -- suffers a head injury, and wakes up under the delusion
that HE is the President. Denied access, he builds his own makeshift
White House, and begins running the country, setting up a showdown
with the real President.

Title: Couples
Name: Edward Ruggiero
Genre: Comedy
Logline: The friendships and marriages of three couples are tested after they share a group sex experience while vacationing together.

Title: Senioritis
Writer: A.J. Marchisello
Genre: Black Comedy
Logline: An over-the-hill Principal plays hookie to relive his glory days with a burnt-out high school senior.

Title: When the Hurly-burly's Done
Writer: Jonah Jones
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Logline: Living people are turning to dust everywhere on the planet. A world-wide team of police, spiritualists and scientists, led by a British detective, tries to track down the source. They discover the purpose of life on Earth and the reason for its imminent conclusion.

Title: Played
Writer: Deborah Peraya
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Logline: A total womanizer transforms his female best friend from clinger to player, finds himself attracted to his new creation but has taught her a little too well.

Title: The Murder at Cherry Hill
Writer: Joe Pezzula
Genre: Thriller
Logline: When murder strikes the oldest and wealthiest family in Upstate NY, the prime suspect's confession reveals a stirring cross section of social class, corruption, and deceit, all of which explode across headlines, resulting in the last public hanging in the region's history circa 1827.

Title: Aftermath
Writer: Jared Waine
Genre: Drama
Logline: After a giant monster attack on Miami, three disparate people- a retired sailor, a burnt-out virologist, and a torn rescue worker- deal with love and loss amongst the ruins.

Title: Run-Off
Writer: Jordan Innes and Mo Twine
Genre: Adventure Comedy
Logline: A pair of mismatched deadbeats embark on an ill-fated rafting odyssey
down the urban toilet known as the Los Angeles River in search of
adventure and a fresh start.

Title: Ground Work
Writer: Patrick C. Taylor
Genre: Action/Thriller
Logline: His flight from LA to NYC canceled in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, an Arab-American hitman must travel across the country to complete a job, facing the most hostile environment possible for an Arab with a gun and a guilty conscience.

Title: A Constant Variable
Writer: Chris Rodgers
Genre: Sci-Fi/Drama/Comedy
Logline: A quantum physics professor finds himself on the outside of his own life, looking in, when he time travels twenty-four hours into the future and gets stuck there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Play: November 2009

It's time for me to play around with a few ideas, to try and figure out what my next project might be. This time round I'm looking at:

Destinies: a web-series based on a Primetime Adventures game I played a couple of years ago. I want to have a brainstorming session with a few people in the next couple of weeks.

Bad Family: I've been working on an elaborate version of this game for a few months now - a version that fully explains to a new reader what they have to do in order to play. However, with Kapcon coming up, I probably won't get a chance to finish this version to my satisfaction in time. Instead, I'm going to do a massive cut-down of the material and playtest it to see if it works.

Threat Level: I've started fleshing out some ideas for something I'm pitching as "24 the role-playing game". I'm pretty happy with how it's turning out.

The Orphans: I'm having a lot of fun outlining a horror movie for kids, and I'd like to keep working on that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Media: No more CDs! No more DVDs!

I suspect reading about what the media landscape is going to look like over the next five to ten years has made me decide I'm not going to buy CDs or DVDs ever again.

First off, EVERYTHING is going to be available for us to download. This BBC article about has convinced me that having access to everything and not needing to own it is the way forward.

I'm looking forward to owning less stuff. As I see it, there are three tiers of media: stuff I'll watch once, stuff I'll watch more than once, and stuff I develop an emotional attachment to. It's only stuff in that third category I really need to own. The other stuff I'm happy to download as bandwidth becomes cheaper. (In fact, I watched the first episode of The Cult on TVNZ on Demand and thought the experience was fine.)

But, obviously, this raise concerns about the companies providing these downloads censoring material or restricting access to them (through price, digital rights management [DRM], or whatever. But the counter to that is torrenting.

I also think that JP's concerns about not being able to own the physical artifact are going to be addressed through:

i) treating the physical items as rarities
ii) being able to manufacture any item you want in-store (burn a CD, if that's what you want, or print any book you have the files for).

I also recommend checking out Amanda Palmer's post, 'why i am not afraid to take your money':
artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks.

please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money.

dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.

And a bit of an RPG geek-out: The Future of Tabletop Gaming. If that post was too long, and you didn't read it, then here's the summary: Technology is going to change gaming. That's inevitable. So figure out what tech-assisted games are going to look like, and go out and make them.

Tabletop gaming favours young people.(*) Pretty soon, we're all going to be carrying around extremely powerful computers (iPhones, smart phones, PDAs). The costs for developing programmes for these ubiquitous technologies is getting cheaper.

(*) As you get older, it's tough to get people together for a game once you factor in family commitments, transport, and work.

Therefore, we'll move away from books, and into creating technology assisted imaginary spaces. And the business model will change:

... [Do] whatever it takes to get people playing your game. The old model was Selling More Books = Making More Money. That’s gone. Already gone. The future is more people playing = making more money.

... Sell your content. No, I don’t mean your fifty pages of history for your setting. I mean new classes, new skills, powers, gear. Stuff your players can use. Stuff they can play with.

... The lesson here is not “Augmented Reality is going to change tabletop gaming.” AR is just one component of it. The fact that all the players in the target demo will live with and on their personal mobile web devices complete with cameras and social networking is the lesson. The fact that they’ll pay you $5 for a new class or race is the lesson.
I think I disagree with one minor thing in the article: I can see how tech like virtual tabletops and Skype can get older people together, while still balancing families and work. But the rest of the article seems pretty damn sound to me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Facebook: Signing up and playing defence

So I recently joined Facebook. Apparently everyone who does this comes up with a justification for it. Mine's that I'm extremely lazy, and I want to keep track of keep in touch with friends overseas with minimal effort.

The thing that scares me about Facecrack Facebook is variable reinforcement. The problem is that there isn't something new on Facebook every time I check; things update randomly, so that I feel I need to keep checking in to see if anything's changed - and I'm rewarded by that often enough that pretty soon I started looking at it whenever the urge takes me. That, alone, would erode my willpower ... but couple it with the fact that people might be responding to something I wrote about myself, and pretty soon checking Facebook becomes the most important thing I have to do. And I have to do it right now.

I realised most of that going into making this decision. Possessing the ... unique character traits that I do, I did a lot of research about Facebook before signing up - trying to figure out how to stop myself from wasting as much time on it as I could. That hasn't been successful at all, but I figured I'd share what I discovered here.

But I also want to know your tips and tricks for using Facebook. How do you set it up? What are your suggestions for minimising procrastination? I need your help!

The most useful I've done is create lists, grouping my friends into different areas. For instance, I've got separate groups for university friends, people I've met, online people, Australia, and Auckland. By dragging those groups up above Status Updates and News Feeds, I can make them the first thing I see when I log on.

(You can create lists by going to the menu on the left of the home page, clicking more, and creating a new list. The process is straightforward from there.)

Next I changed my privacy settings so I wasn't searchable via google, or viewable by anyone other than friends. Not quite sure why I did that, but it felt right. Check this article for more details on privacy.

The most important decision I made was "No games. Ever ever ever." If they show up in my feed, I hide notifications about them. Facebook games would destroy my life.

In order to not get enticed onto the site all the time, I initially turned off all email notifications for everything. No emails whenever someone becomes my friend, or posts something to something I've written about. But, in some way I can't articulate yet, I think that's a mistake. What I need to figure out how to optimise my use of notifications. I want the emails I get to satisfy my Facebook desires and discourage me going on it so often. Perhaps I should change the settings so that they email me only when someone has posted updates to statuses I've commented on?

I try to remember to use the hosts file to block facebook when I'm working. There's a how-to here, but essentially I need to open a .txt file in your computer, enter:

and I win. It means that I can't open that website anymore.

I've also read that you shouldn't poke, so I don't.

So those are my tips. What about yours? As I said: I need your help!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Left Coast: The First Playtest

Back in 2005, I wrote a game called Left Coast, where you play science-fiction authors in 1970s California who are all struggling to write novels and hide your growing insanities from your families. It's a quirky, funny setting with a very clear target audience - and until last Sunday no-one had ever played it.

What that meant is that I had an idealised version of the game in my head. I was pretty confident I knew what sort of stuff would happen, what sort of fun would be had, and what problems would emerge. I was making a lot of assumptions, and the process on playing and testing the game on Sunday was really a process of challenging those assumptions.

I thought that setting creation would be fun and easy, and that the characters would wander around hanging out and having conflicts naturally emerge. What really happened was that setting creation (which involves brainstorming a sprawling relationship map) was fun but slow, and when we started to play, it wasn't at all clear what should happen in a scene. Additionally, I became disturbed that:

+ the game lacked subtext
+ there was no process for turning the stuff in the setting's relationship map into scenes
+ there was no sense of what the characters should do.

(You can find a previous thread discussing this game, here.)

In this post, I'm going to briefly describe the characters and setting Simon and Malcolm created, and give an equally brief description of the two scenes we played through. After that, there's a short list of the huge issues that this playtest threw up for me. I'm hoping that Simon and Malcolm will join in with their thoughts on the playtest, so I can see it from their point of view.

In other words, I don't have a clear 'goal' for this playtest report yet. What I'd like to do is gather some impressions and mull the experience over. (Also: I'm not actively working on Left Coast yet. My current aim is to finish Bad Family by the end of the year and then start thinking about what's next. The opportunity to play Left Coast is an important part of that.)

Characters and Setting

Characters in Left Coast are defined by the type of author they are, a first or middle initial, a significant relationship, and a goal. Malcolm created K. Joshua Fresnel, a Jewish right-wing idealogue whose dog 'Benito' talks to him. Fresnel's goal was to find someone to put on 'Traktofaktori!', the musical satire of communism that he wrote while locked up in a psychiatric facility.

Simon came up with Richard H. Long, a hack and a pervert (think: your worst sterotyped assumptions about the author of the Gor novels) whose most significant relationship is with his feminist daughter. Long's goal was to find a publisher for his serious novel, 'The Wandering Years'.

Setting design consists of brainstorming elements to do with Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien activity. This was a fun but problematic stage of the game, but we came up with elements such as Behind (an alternate reality), Karl Hickenlooper (editor of 'Stories from Beyond'), Rabbi Schlomo Troutmann (who Fresnel owes money too), and Richard Nixon.


We played out two scenes - one for each author. I was disappointed in myself (as GM) during both of them. Primarily because the game doesn't provide a way to turn all of this interesting setting material that the players are excited by into scenes.

However, there were also problems in:

+ identifying conflicts (and whether conflicts, in fact, need to exist)
+ what to roll when the conflict doesn't fit into one of the existing arenas (Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien), and
+ taking a 'Californian' approach to scene selection - leaving what dice to roll undefined until the conflict is clarified.

I'll let Malcolm and Simon talk about the specifics of what happened in their scenes if they want to. The short version is that both scenes were supposed to be about the author taking a step towards their goal only to have someone interfere with that. As a GM, I felt I was being pretty clumsy about introducing an obstacle/NPC into the scene, and that things felt increasingly adrift as the scenes went on.

The Big List

I took notes throughout the playtest, and afterwards the three of us spent quite a bit of time debriefing. I tried to identify some of the fundamental issues that I'm going to need to address if this game is going to end up working. I've ordered these so that the issues I think are most important come first ...

What is Left Coast about? What's its subtext?
The major thing that threw me during the game was while Simon very reasonably started to explore what the first conflict in the first scene was actually about. We were talking about whether there was stakes-setting in this game, the free-and-clear phase in Sorceror and IIEE. And all of a sudden, Simon asked, "What is this game about?" Which completely threw me - it's a question I don't have an answer to; it's a question I've usually needed to play a game a couple of times before I start having an answer to it.

Related to this was that in the two scenes we played, the game lacked subtext. There was no story going on underneath the events we were playing out; there were no NPCs with hidden motivations; there were no conflicts or agendas pushing back against what the authors wanted; and there was no sense of significance or resonance to the events we were playing. That felt like a problem to me; the game felt hollow.

What's the situation? What do the characters do?
Left Coast seems to be a game with a strong idea of who the characters are and a clear setting (in fact, I felt all three of us were a little bit in love with the setting - I certainly am). The game just lacks a situation that combines the characters and the setting together.

When Simon and Malcolm pressed me on what the characters do, I thought about it for a while and then said, "They try to form meaningful relationships." I'm not sure if that's 100% right; I need to think on it more.

Why do you have conflicts?
When do you hve them and what do they resolve?
The main reason I pushed for conflicts was that they are the way of introducing more stuff into the setting. They're also a way for the PCs to advance towards their ratings. But that's not an answer to the question of 'Why do you have conflicts?' It's got to be more than just me as a GM putting obstacles in front of the characters, doesnt' it?

How can I make it easier to GM? How do you turn the piece of paper with all the setting elements written on it into scenes and conflicts?

How can I make setting creation flow smoother?
It needs to be more fun. It needs to be faster. This was probably the area of the game we discussed the most, and had the most ideas about. Starting points to explore include: reducing the number of facts each player has to create; introducing elements via playing out scenes with them; using Apocalypse World's technique of 'walking around the setting' during the first session, just to set everything up.

Should I amalgamate the Nuttiness and Alien ratings?
These two ratings felt like they covered similar terrain - imaginative, weird stuff in the setting. In addition, 'Alien' is supposed to be about abductions, UFOs, government conspiracies, invasions, etc. When we were playing, it felt like that was locking down the subject matter of the game too much; as the person who'd written the game, I'd pre-decided what the weird elements of the setting where going to be - and that didn't interest me when we sat down to play it.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Poker: Time to quit

Maybe you know that I've been going through a phase of learning to play poker. Well, I recently realised that it's become a cul-de-sac; playing poker has reached a certain level of reward for me, and spending more time on it is probably not going to increase the satisfaction I get out of it.

How do I know that? Well, I've just gotten two books on poker strategy out of the library and have started studying them. They've confirmed for me that there's no way I'm ever going to be the best in the world at poker - all I want to do is achieve a certain level of local competence, and unlock the next level in my cellphone poker game.

Once I've done those two things, I'm going to massively ease back on my efforts to study and play poker. However, this has made me realise I'm interested in learning a little bit more about probability.

In the meantime, I'll use this post to record what I've learned from reading these books:
  • You have to give your consent if you want to lose money in poker. That's why going all in can be a terrible move. Sure it'll intimidate a lot of people, but it's also totally risky if you're called on it by someone with a better hand or no idea what they're doing.

  • The objective is to stay in for as long as possible - the fewer the number of players, the easier it will be to bluff and have better cards than they do. To achieve this, all you need to do is win money equal to the big and little blind ever hand.

  • Don't call. Don't let your opponents see your cards for free. Raise or fold. And remember that the people who stay in after you raise probably have a strong hand.

  • You must have high start cards to win (AA, KK, QQ, AK, or AQ) - you should strongly consider not folding on these hands. If you're feeling like taking a chance, then you can play moderate starting hands like (K-10, Q-10, J-10, J-9, or 10-9). You can also play anything with an ace in it - however, from A-9 down to A-4, only play if the cards are the same suit.

  • Don't count on the Flop improving your hand. It usually won't. The chances of the Flop not giving you a pair are about 68%. In addition, if a card that's higher than the ones you're holding hits the Flop ... consider folding.

  • The hardest players to beat are the patient players.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Supernatural: Season 4

Supernatural, the show about two brothers beating the crap out of monsters every week, got darker and more interesting through Seasons 3 and 4.

Season 3 dealt with Sam and Dean Winchester trying to simultaneously fight an army of demons that had been unleashed on earth, and figure out a way to evade a particularly nasty deal with the devil. I actually liked Season 3's storyline a lot (especially its character arc for Dean) and thought it would have benefitted from the writers compensating for the season being cut short by the writers' strike by delivering many more character-centred episodes.

As it was, Season 3 contained many what I call 'bookend' episodes - a character issue is presented in a scene at the start of the show, the events of that episode's hunt unfold (with maybe an occasional reference to that character issue), and then in a dramatic scene at the end (usually a conversation between the two brothers in their car) the issue is progressed or resolved. That structure felt very unsatisfying, and only the fact that many Season 3 episodes were FRACKING GREAT (Mystery Spot, Jus in Bello, A Very Supernatural Christmas) compensated for it.

Season 4, however, changed all this. Rather focusing episodes around a monster of the week, the writers started breaking stories by deciding on the issue in the brothers' relationship they wanted to showcase, figuring out the emotional beats of that story, and then designing a monster around that. As a result the show began to feel like it was drawing from the best work of Freaks and Geeks and Everwood, as well as any number of monster of the week series.

Even the bookend episodes are better (as a result of this change). Take something like Episode 4, which deals with Dean's suspicions about Sam's blood, and the question of whether people can choose to not be a monster gets strongly. That issue gets set up at the start, and the writers take quite a long time establishing it, until we really feel it. And then that issue is not only present in the monster, but addressed in actual scenes between the brothers during the episode. Sure, it's pretty on the nose, but it's also satisfying.

The tone of the show has become darker, a bit more sombre. There are still wisecracks, but taking itself more seriously. And it's more satisfying as a result.

The show grows stronger and more interesting throughout the season. By halfway through, I felt it had become a dark, funny, slightly morally complex war story. By the end of the season, I felt it was teaching me how to write TV - treating its characters with respect while being unafraid to damage them, and exploring exactly how much series mythology and continuity the show could stand.

Whereas Seasons 1, 2, and 3 had ... patchy episodes, Season 4 is pretty much strong across the board. In fact, the episode 'The Monster at the End of This Book', manages to combine hilarious entertainment with an such an unbelievable amount of meta (while being vital to the show's mythology) that I'm going to use it as a touchstone for the series I'm currently developing.

Grades so far:

Season 1: B- (except for the finale, which is an A+)
Season 2: B+
Season 3: B (but contains a couple of A+ episodes)
Season 4: A

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting: Summary

Back in August I took a little dip into Alex Epstein's book 'Crafty Screenwriting'. I was looking to see if it had anything to add to the ideas about how to create stories that I'd been reading in 'Presentation Zen' and 'The Elements of Persuasion'.

It was another case of doing three blog posts and not much synthesising of the ideas. So I thought I'd start to rectify that by doing a summary of my summary of 'Crafty Screenwriting'. While there's a lot in the book that I didn't cover, I did write about hooks, pitching, and the elements of a story.

A Hook is a brief description of your story that intrigues the audience into wanting to know more.

I keep reading about reducing your story or presentation down to its core idea, to a single catchy phrase. There's a reason for this: we all have multiple demands placed on our attention every day, so how do you cut through the noise and make someone pay attention to you?

You have to make them want to know what happens next.

Hooks make people want to see how things turn out. That means they're simple, intriguing, and a fresh idea.

For as long as possible, DON'T write your story down. Instead, actually tell it to people.

That's the best way to find out if your hook or story works. Tell it out loud, over and over again, to whoever will listen. See what people respond to. And because you're not writing it down, you can see what bits of your story are memorable and stick in your head - and at the same time, you can hear when YOU get bored or confused while telling it.

Telling your story to everyone forces you to create a story that's so simple, clear and logical that you can remember it.

Here are three questions to think about while you're telling your story:
  1. Is your listener interested in your hook at all? If not, then (a) rephrase it and try again, or (b) come up with a better idea.
  2. What does it remind them of? Check these other, similar stories out.
  3. What do they tell you? They may have ideas and criticisms. Listen to them. Even if they're off-base, you'll find out what sort of things they expected to hear or see when you told them your pitch.
Writing it down 'freezes' your story, making you reluctant to make big or necessary changes to it. Writing it down also makes it easy to overlook your story's flaws.

And if the idea of telling someone your story completely freaks you out, you can:
  • tell it to yourself
  • write down the basic beats of the story on cards, mix the cards up, and try to put them back together in the right order
  • (... or my favourite) write your story down. Hide those pages. Rewrite it again from memory. Hide those pages. Repeat.
The Elements of a Story
Here's the summary of what Crafty Screenwriting says are the elements that make up a compelling story:

A MAIN character
... who has a GOAL that we (the audience) care about.
... The main character is RISKING a lot
... and they have at least one but ideally three basic OBSTACLES in their way:
  1. An External Antagonist or Obstacle: We have to care about the antagonists, even if they're an obstacle (like crossing the Antarctic)
  2. An Intimate Opponent: Someone on the main character's side who is working at cross-purposes to them.
  3. A Tragic or Comic Flaw (A Psychological Opponent):
Main characters can be unlikeable, but we do have to care about what happens to them. There are a few things that could make us care:
  • their situation is familiar to us
  • we want to walk in their shoes
  • we find them fascinating and want to know what they'll do next
  • they're caught in a dilemma and we want to know how they'll resolve it (Tony Soprano trying to negotiate between the pressures of his criminal life and his family life - which is also a 'family situation: job vs. family)

We need to care about the character's goal, whether it's internal (psychological, emotional) or external (save the world, fall in love). A person may be a jerk, but if we can admire or get behind their goal, then we can root for them as a protagonist.

NB: Characters without goals lead to stories without drama.

The main character is risking something; they have something to lose that is worth caring about.

What makes us care about that possibility of that loss? This is what I've extrapolated from Crafty Screenwriting: The hero (who's someone we care about because we identify with them or want to be with them) is now at risk of being transformed, harmed, or losing something vital to their life. They are in play; the thing that they are risking is (essentially) something that's core to their identify.

The hero is at risk of being changed, fundamentally and for the worse.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Movies: August to October

My Neighbour Totoro really deserves the warm fondness that Jenni and Svend use when they talk about it. To me, it felt like an essential film in building up my understanding of Japanese fairytales and its spirit world. There is also a scene at a bus stop which plays out an incredibly audacious intersection between our normal world and the spirit world; the whole movie slowly, plausibly builds up the idea of spirit creatures living in the forest ... but this scene is simply incredible in the way it matter-of-factly brings Totoro in the lives of the main characters.

Bruno is pretty much a masterpiece of script writing. Much like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it features a protagonist who believes he's competent but who fails at every single turn. Bruno has an outer motivation of becoming a celebrity and an inner motivation of finding true love - and the film brings both of those motivations (and Bruno's dominant character trait of outrageous hyper-homosexuality) together for a draw-dropping climax. The only problem for me was that I felt many of the comedic set-pieces featured people who were in on the joke. So, the script = great; the candid camera stuff veered between okay and freaking brilliant. I now want to check out Borat.

Desperation adapts a very large Stephen King novel into a tele-movie. That means a TV budget, so instead of an actor like Terence Stamp or 1980s Peter O'Toole playing Johnny Marinnville, you have Tom Skerrit. Which, I admit, is an interesting choice. The film feels forced, in that typical Mick Garris way, with lots of extreme camera angles and stupid jump scares (a slot machine that pours blood? Really? He didn't get enough of that bullshit when he had the cash register ring up 'No Sale' in the mini-series version of The Shining?). In fact, by about halfway through I felt that Desperation was taking its visual cues from a Resident Evil game, rather than 100 years of cinematography.

On the plus side, Desperation's score has a simple memorable main theme, and it contains a couple of great flashbacks and an amazing establishing shot of the mine at the story's centre. Overall, though, I felt it rushed through the emotions of the book: there were quite a few instances where I didn't feel for the characters, or where the story moved along so fast that it was hard to follow. Also, this is a story that is very much about God ... and unfortunately God's presence in the film felt cosmetic to me, rather than heavy and urgent. All-in-all, I think this one is ready for a smarter version with a slightly bigger budget.

Weird thing about that music - it reminds me a lot of the theme from Moon; there are a lot of interesting parallels that I lack the vocabulary to describe accurately. Here's the first 10 minutes of Desperation (the music is in the first minute thirty):

(There's no embed for this, unfortunately.) Now, here's the trailer for Moon - and beware! Spoilers. If you haven't seen Moon yet, I wouldn't watch this.

District 9 is great fun. Mostly an excellent film, with frequent moments of awesome and occasional bursts of greatness. Warning: Contains action, aliens, robots, racists and an extremely funny pig. My favourite thing about the film was the inexorable escalation of violence between the different factions as the movie pushed its way towards the end - there was a great moment where I realised, "But if they do that, then the Nigerians would have to do this, and that would mean the MNU would have to respond like this ... oh shit!" Cue an extremely satisfying finale to an impressive film.

Coraline was remarkably more subdued than I expected. For most of the movie I didn't quite feel a sense of excitement about the magical other world that Coraline was exploring - possibly because, for me, her real world seemed just as interesting, and possibly because the script didn't build up the sense of wonder and awe for me. However, once the battle of wills really started between Coraline and her Other Mother, I was seriously into it - the talking cat, the small world, vampire dogs ... it all worked for me. But the end result was a smaller, more intimate film than I was expecting. And the 3D was definitely not essential to the experience.

After three viewings, The Godfather finally worked for me. Perhaps I needed a break of a decade, and to watch The Sopranos and The Wire, but now I can see exactly how influential it is and more importantly how simple and clear the story is: after two introductory sequences (meeting the family at the wedding, seeing how the Corleones operate in Hollywood) the story deals with the implications of a single decision to say no to a man with powerful backers. I cannot wait to watch Part II.

Jenni and Lee arranged a screening of Hopeless. I had a blast watching it for the first time in about three years - I'm now pretty confident about the audience response to the film - the slow build, the scattershot laughs and then the second half of the film jelling more and more. It's funny looking back on it; Hopeless is about young, insecure characters who don't really know how to talk to each other or be in relationships. The film is similarly a little insecure - dashing around the place and aiming to amuse. Which it does ... but watching it, I can't help feeling that we should have gone for the dramatic throat a bit more: that it's not Richard who Phil makes his confession about but rather the guy standing next to him; that Ben actually declares that he loves Maryann (rather than that he loves her as a friend). And it's only in retrospect that I can see the movie seriously pulses with suggestions of bisexuality and polyamorous relationships - that would've been some seriously awesome stuff to explore.

I watched the last hour of Southland Tales, and then the next day watched the whole thing. I'd actually kind of recommend this - knowing where the movie's going eased me into putting up with how it gets there. It kind of feels like Strange Days as directed by Terry Gilliam and written by someone from the 1980s influenced by Repo Man and Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The film sprawls and the script doesn't really make it easy to let the audience in on what's going on, instead preferring to consistently make an odder choice than you'd expect. But the use of the screenplay inside the film to represent fate, and the ultimate destinies of the characters ... well, I found they moved me on my one and half-th viewing.

Stardust is like a darker, more epic version of the Princess Bride. Slightly less witty, more episodic and possessing more protagonists to keep track of. I recommend it though - it was a good reminder for me of how powerful fantasy can be in delivering an emotional kick.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Goal-setting: 12 Things in 2 Years

I've been setting goals for a long time now, and I've used lots of techniques to articulate and arrange them - stuff like a list of 50 things to do before you die, and making them S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound).

It's all good, and I made some scattershot progress on them over the decade and a half I've been doing it. But nothing to blog about.

A couple of years ago, I ran across the idea of creating a list of 101 things to do in 1001 days. Immediately I got excited by that and started putting all of the goals I was most interested in onto this list, grouping them by category, figuring out the stuff I was most interested in. Being the sort of person I am, I also put "Finish my list of 101 things in 1001 days" onto my list to get the satisfaction of ticking it off.

For a long time (between six months and a year) I used this list during my weekly sit-down where I review what's going on in my life. I'd tick things off, figure out what to do next. But I was vaguely dissatisfied with it, and I had no idea why.

Clicking around aimlessly on the internet as I often do, I found a site called, which is a goal-setting community where you make a list of 43 things you want to achieve. "Eureka," cried the organisation part of my brain. "That's what's wrong. 101 things is too intimidating for me. It feels unachievable, demotivating and hard to select my next goal from. What I need to do is create a list of 43 thi --"


That was another part of my brain speaking up. It realised that if I could cut the list down to 43 items, then I could make it any number I wanted. I could choose a number of items and a timeframe that was right for me. I wanted it to have a bit of alliteration, so 12 things in 2 years became the immediate front-runner.

12 things is an amount I can keep track of. Two years is a decent period of time to do it.

Now the trickier thing was what 12 items to choose.

I'd recently finished doing a life review (which maybe I'll talk about later, but it's basically a series of questions designed to help you see what's going well and what you need to work on). A couple of the items from that review stood out as things as things I needed to fix or work on urgently. So they went on the list.

Next I had a look at the things I needed to get done and was already in the process of doing: getting my full license, setting up a retirement plan, pay off my student loan. Easy (but freaking meaningful) achievements; they went on the list.

Finally I looked at my list of 101 Things and the two folders I have that are filled with other goals. What I was looking for were goals that would make me feel like I was getting closer to being the person I want to be. Stuff like 'Learn to dance', and 'Learn 500 words of Te Reo and 100 basic phrases'.

Now I had my list of 12 items, and a deadline of 18 April 2011 to do them in. Next I had to decide how to deal with the fact that my life will change over the next two years and that some things might become redundant or other more urgent goals might emerge.

I decide to use the concept of the 'Will Do' list:

  • All 12 items are things that I'm committed to doing.
  • To avoid feeling overloaded, I can't add new items to the list; in fact, I drew a big black line under the list to emphasise that.
  • If I decide to drop something, I highlight it but I do NOT add a new item in its place. That way the list gradually keeps going down; I want to make this easy on myself.

I figured that there would be urgent or crisis goals that I'll need to deal with over the next two years, but that I would treat this list as a touchstone to keep returning to, to keep me on the right path.

So far I've completed two goals, and have made significant progress on five more. As I complete each one, it gives me more time and energy to focus on the remaining ones.

That's it. That's my goal-setting system as at 2009. What about you? What's yours? (And if you've got any questions, just ask.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

500 Days of Summer (2009)

scr. by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber

There's a lot to enjoy about this relationship comedy, much of it centring around its playful structure.

Pay attention to the difference between how Tom and Summer are presented. Tom is definitely the main character of the film: the story is presented mostly through his eyes, and it's sympathetic towards him. We have way less psychological access to Summer and what's going on with her; as a result, to Tom she appears to flip between being his dream girl and a complete bitch. And there's at least one point in the movie where Summer does something that makes no apparent sense whatsoever.

But ...

Here's the thing when you watch it: accept that Summer is not the main character but play a little mental game and pretend that she is the protagonist of the film. The one who has to make choices and change.

Go further and pretend that Tom is her antagonist. From the Elements of Persuasion:
Antagonists keep the Hero from achieving their goal.

Antagonists don't create conflict; they "clarify what the conflict is about"....
[Stories] aren't about 'defeating' the Antagonist, they're about us discovering
what we need to change in order to defeat them.

Keep that in mind and you might find the script's structure is not only playful but extremely balanced.

I highly recommend this film - so far it's in my top 5 for the year.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Synopsis: Made to Stick (Introduction)

This will be the last of my 'How do you make story' reviews for a while, but before I dig into what Made to Stick is about I wanted to mention how impressed I am by its design.

I was feeling pretty overloaded yesterday - stretched at work between deadlines and training someone, having to run a game afterwards, and dealing wiht a few relationship issues. So when I finally hopped into bed and picked up 'Made to Stick' I was torn between wanting to read a bit of this book that I'd finally been able to pick up from the library, and finally going to sleep.

So, I pick it up (just to check it out) and the first thing I notice is its cover:

Immediately, I try to peel away that 'To' label ... but the library has carefully plastic-wrapped the cover. So I turn to the inside jacket, to read a bit of a description, and see that part of the book is going to be about discussing urban legends and conspiracy theories and why they spread so effortlessly. Reading through the rest of the jacket's copy, I can see that this is going to be my sort of book.

And it reminds me of this post by Seth Godin: The Purpose of a Book Cover

Is the purpose of the cover to sell books, to accurately describe what's in the book, or to tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact?

The third.

... Tactically, the cover sells the back cover, the back cover sells the flap and by then you've sold the book.

So I turn to the back cover, again not intending to read the book, just checking it out, and this is what I see: A list of the six qualities of 'stickiness' that the book is going to discuss together with page numbers illustrating the points. Like so:

Simplicity: How do you strip an idea to its core without turning it into a silly sound bite? See how Army commanders force siplicity into their battle plans - page 25

Credibility: How do you get people to believe your idea? See how NBA coaches engineered an experience that made the dangers of AIDS more palpable to their players - page 162

(That AIDS example is genius, btw. If you're just interested in flicking through the book at the library, I'd recommend it.)

So I check out the examples - which are well written, entertaining and illustrative. Then I check out the table of contents which says there's an 'Easy Reference Guide' at the back of the book. That guide is a 5 page summary of the ideas in the book - which is exactly what I want most books to have, because it saves me the work of doing it myself.

By this point, I'm intrigued and entertained enough that I read the whole introduction (which you can check out here, if you're interested).

Basically, this is exactly how I'd like a non-fiction book to be designed. Easing you into the subject matter, giving you a summary of what it says right up front (rather than hiding it in the last chapter), and providing entertaining, concrete examples. I'm looking forward to reading this.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bad Family: Starting to develop a pitch

I need to figure out how to pitch and market Bad Family.

Andy Kitkowski developed a set of 19 questions to figure out how to market a game.

I'm going to fill in those questions as I get the inspiration and time. If you know anything about the game, I encourage you to help me in the comments.

The idea is to take the finished stuff to nzrag and gametime for further development, and then off to Story Games (the big leagues).

Here we go ...

Andy's Narcissist Self-Interview 20


1) Here is the name of the game, and how I came up with the name.

Bad Family.

I started with names based on the central mechanic of the game. So, it was stuff like 'Good or Bad', 'The Hand You're Dealt'.

Then I decided to focus on the family that is at the heart of the game, and at the same time introduce the idea that things will either go really well or really badly for them. So I had names like 'The Fortunes of the Joneses' and 'Lucky Jones'. That didn't sit well with me, and I began a search that may have lasted six months or a year for a name that worked better - and by better I mean I felt good about saying it out loud to other people.

Eventually I settled on 'Bad Family' - it's a riff on Bad Santa, it feels a bit current and catchphrase-y, and it clearly emphasises that it's about a family and that they may well do bad things to each other.

2) How would the "back cover blurb" for the game go? Imagine it being read by the "Movie Commercial Guy" ("In a World...")

Imagine your family - loving, complex, weird, and a little screwed up. Now imagine each of them having the worst day of their lives at the same time ... today. Imagine your family - you love them, hate them, and they're a little screwed up. Now imagine everyone in your family is having the worst day of their life.

Bad Family is the game about that day.

Bad Family: answering the question of whether you love the selfish jerks who are trying to stop you from getting what you want.

Alternatively, I have this:

Do you like animated sit-coms like
The Simpsons or Family Guy?

Do you like stories about dysfunctional families, like The Royal Tennebaums, or Malcolm in the Middle, or Married with Children, or American Beauty or pretty much any TV show ever?

That's basically what Bad Family is about: together we'll create an episode of an animated sit-com about a dysfunctional family.

You'll play one of the Family Members, and as part of the game you'll set up a goal your Family Member wants to achieve by the time the episode ends. You win the game by getting what you want before everyone else does. You can increase your chances of winning by creating horrible situations for the other members of your family. Horrible situations like you'd see in any episode of a sit-com.

3) This is a brief example of what play might look like, involving three players and no more than 10 "lines" of text.

Okay, we're back to your turn Elise. Now, if I remember right, your character's Want is to 'Prove he's not gay'. Where did we leave him, and what are you going to do next?

The party had just gotten started at my parents house, and all of my friends from school had arrived. So I think the music's loud, we're all dancing, and everyone starting to get drunk. And that's when Katie shows up.

I'll play her. "Lee, great party! I've never been to your place before - it's not as weird as they say at school."

"Thanks ... uh, do you want to have a look around?"

"I'd love to see your bedroom. I mean get a look at where you sleep. I mean -"

I'll there. So the best case scenario is that you go up to the bedroom, and - who knows - you might get up to all sorts of horrible embarrassing hijinks in the course of proving you're not gay. My worst case scenario, on the other hand, is that Brian arrives. And he chooses just that moment to get down on his knees in front of you, and Katie, and everyone at the party, and declare his love for you.

Oh shit. Okay, I'll draw a card ... Failure. Crap! ... Well I'm not going to let that stand. I'll spend a Bonus and redraw.... Failure. okay, okay ... I need to save my Bonuses for later so, crap, I guess Brian arrives and does his thing.

(in sympathetic embarrassment)

Do you want to spend a Bonus to continue the scene?

No. Guess I'll pass the turn to you.... Crap.

[Hmmm ... I'm not sure - does this come across as homophobic? It's based on a real moment in a playtest, and when we were playing it was awkward, sympathetic and felt true. I'm not sure how it reads, though.

4) This is my target audience.

+ People who want to play a comedy game.
+ People who want a complete game in an hour.
+ Board gamers, maybe.
+ People who haven't played an RPG before (I want Bad Family to be accessible and non-geeky).
+ Groups of friends who like to take the piss together.

This is a really important question and I need to put more thought into answering it.

5) These are other games, media, etc am I blatantly stealing from (or, what I am inspired by)

The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, and Angel. In fact, Angel was the original inspiration because I noticed that in the show was never about how skilled a character was - they either succeeded or they failed when they tried to do something. I wanted a game that would be that simple.

Primetime Adventures is an inadvertent influence - the game has turned out like a stripped-down version of PTA.

6) Here is one single sentence which describes 1-2 things about my game idea that other games don't currently offer (to my knowledge).

I totally don't know how to answer this. I don't think there are any other games that aim to create animated sitcoms. Cartoons, yes (Toon, Cartoon Action Hour); sit-coms, no.

7) Here, in no more than three sentences, is what the game is about in general.

Dysfunctional family.
Worst-case scenarios.

Obviously that's more than 3 sentences but I'm happy to brainstorm on this one and then winnow it down.

8) Here are one to two vignettes about the game's setting.
Depending on the group, the setting can veer all over the place from realistic to totally surreal. Occasionally I've had playtesters who think this is a problem - but over time I've grown to see this as a feature; each group sets up a particular tone for their game.

On the realistic end of things, one player wanted her character to be a teenage boy who was struggling with whether or not he was gay. He ended up at a party, with the girl he was interested trying to lead him upstairs to a bedroom - while at the same time his best (male) friend from school gatecrashed and declared that he loved him in front of everyone. It was an extremely awkward moment in the story that made all of us cringe in sympathy.

Towards the more surreal, I've seen a grandmother character stoned on peyote, stripping off all of her clothes under a hot sunny day while cycling to her weekly bridge game. And one young kid accidentally invented a time machine when he tried to soup up his bicycle with some spare parts stolen from a local army base.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Elements of Persuasion: Summary

Recently, I did a bunch of posts summarising a book called The Elements of Persuasion, which is about how to construct stories that people will pay attention to and agree with. I felt that those posts got a bit caught up in the details, so I wanted to create a summary of that summary. Which is what you're about to read.

According to the book, there are five elements of persuasion: Passion, the Hero, the Antagonist, a moment of Awareness, and the Transformation into taking action. Here's a bit more about each of those five elements:

How do you get other people to care about the idea or cause that you care about?

To begin with, you need to be personally committed; it needs to be your passion. So before you tell your story, you need to ask:
  • Do I really care about what I'm about to say? Do I need to tell this story?
  • It is true?
If the answers are 'No', you should pick another idea to talk about.

Your Passion is the key to making anyone else care about your story. If people aren't connecting with your story at an emotional level, if they aren't feeling your Passion, then you're telling the wrong story.

What are the advantages of Passion?

Passion cuts through all the competing demands for an audience's attention and makes them listen to you. Check out this presentation by a 13 year old girl to the United Nations:

Passion is communicable. If your story connects with people emotionally, they will spread it for you because it's fun to tell.(*) At the start of this talk, Seth Godin shares an example of a story that spread - a story about a man who worked for the SPCA in San Francisco.

Speaking with Passion has a few more benefits:
  • Passion gets your audience ready to want to listen to you; it warms them up

  • Passion makes your story seems more vivid and more real

  • The more passionate and personal your story is, the easier it is to overcome stage fright; Passion helps you tell your story in a way that makes you appear natural and relaxed
Apparently, stories that are personal and told with Passion are easier for people to remember, and that it the first step to persuading them. Personal stories also increase your likeability and show that you're authentic (because you're talking about something that means something to you).

The Hero
The Hero personifies the story and shows us how change our lives.

Heroes are changed by living through the story, and they take different actions because they've been changed. That means heroes show us how to change our own lives, and live according to the values in the story.

To use this idea when you're writing your story, start by reducing your story down to its central concept. Then transform that concept into actions. Finally, choose a hero who demonstrates how to take those actions.

It's vital to find the right hero for your story, and if you want to change people's minds and lives then it's best if your hero is real rather than fictional.

One final advantage of having a hero is that it allows the storyteller to unify the audience. By 'unify', I mean that the audience all see and interpret the events of the story through the same point-of-view.

The Antagonist
Antagonists keep the Hero from achieving their goal.

Antagonists don't create conflict; they "clarify what the conflict is about". (I wish I'd taken more notes on this point, because it seems profound!) At the moment I interpret it to mean that stories aren't about 'defeating' the Antagonist, they're about us discovering what we need to change in order to defeat it.

If you're going to persuade people, then they must remember what you've said. Memory and recall are improved when you experience strong emotions. Think about how much you love to hate the villains in Die Hard or Star Wars or [insert a more topical movie reference of your choice here]. Using an Antagonist lets you easily generate strong negative emotions, but at the same time audiences will associate those the negative emotions with the Antagonist - which keeps your Hero sympathetic. And the audience's dislike of the antagonist will get them on the Hero's side.

Choose the 'right' antagonist. One that can be overcome, but not one that's a straw villain (either imaginary, or whose threat is overinflated). And don't demonise the Antagonist - instead, give the hero and the audience a change to learn from them.

You want to create a moment of Awareness in the audience where they see the problem for what it is and the actions they need to take to fix it.

Hopefully by this point you'll have also created the Passion to change things and given them a role model of how to change (the Hero). Awareness applies both to the Hero and to the audience; ideally, the audience should share the Hero's realisation that something needs to change.

Taking action and changing things transforms you and the world around you.


Here are the links to the rest of my posts on the Elements of Persuasion.

The First Element: Passion.
The Second Element: The Hero.
The final three Elements.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lost: Second Impressions II

I'm rewatching episodes of Lost, Season 1. Just gotten through eps 6 to 12.

The pacing of the show starts to seem a bit off from about episode 6 (the Sun flashback). All of a sudden the show stops watching these characters, and starts forcing them to make decisions, such as 'Stay on the beach or go live in the caves'. It's a huge plot point that gets rushed through - whereas, staying true to the tone that the show's set up, it should take at least an episode to work through.

That's followed by Charlie's episode (saving Jack from the cave in), which feels very traditional in a 'Here's the plot, and here's the metaphor' kind of way.

Basically the pacing of episodes and character motivations in the stories have become faster, more traditional / conventional. Sort of treating the characters and plots like playing pieces in a game to be shifted around into more interesting positions.

For a while I found it less satisfying, but then I started getting into the accelerating pace -
as if the first 9 episodes were an overture. Now we've been hit by the plot - three seemingly separate events that are in reality closely related:
  • Clare is kidnapped by someone who was already on the Island
  • Locke and Boone discover the Hatch
  • Sayid finds Rousseau and learns that there are Others, whispering in the jungle.
There have also been a couple of good character centred episodes (Sayid, Clare). Clare's episode, in particular features three moments of note:
  • Her psychic has a baffling change of heart, expanded on in this post
  • An amazing dream sequence that features Locke with white and black eyes (significant given Season 5).
  • The statement that Aaron is a significant figure in the destiny of the Island.
Jack and Kate are still central, and Kate is still fantastic - highly involved in everything, taking charge. Sawyer is, at most, an amusing annoyance.