Friday, September 28, 2012

How To Use Verbs; Verbing; Verbosity

This is a problem that comes often when someone is writing:  There's an action going on in whatever it is that's on paper, and you (the author) have no idea how to explain it.  For example, your protagonist is going out to Mc'Donalds, but you've already used that phrase twice.  Repetition can be a serious problem in a story, so you need a better way for them to explain their plan to their friends, other than "Going out to McDonalds."

"I'm on a McRun," the hero says, dashing off to get his fries.

A second character responds, "Wait!  What's McRunning?!"

And you, the author, are left saying, "Huh."

Verbs, as we should know through reading my old Parts of Speech Infographic, are "action words."  They describe what people, characters, what-have-you are doing.  "Drive" is a popular example.  "Describe" could be another.  These are things that we do.  But using them in an appropriate, effective manner is another story entirely.

Sometimes, a verb can stand alone.  "Running" can serve as a classification of a hobby; people like "running," and regularly use it as a Google search.  Sometimes you just need to use good adverbs.  Adverbs are words used to better describe a verb.  Let's take, as a simple example, "He drove expertly."

"He" is a noun; "drove" is the past-tense of "drive," so it's our verb in this short sentence; "expertly" describes how this random guy drives.  A reader will know, therefore, that "he" is an expert driver.  Of course, you could nit-pick something this isolated-in-the-void (void-dwelling, perhaps?) down - "He drove expertly" implies that in at least one incident, said "he" happened to indeed seem like an amazing wheelman, but that this past incident might well have been a lucky shot and...

...Wait, what just happened?  I just found another way to explain "he drove expertly," while simultaneously mocking that very phrase!  Words are like that; they have connotations as well as denotations - they have interpreted meanings which can differ from their literal ones.  A "Wheel Man" sounds like a beast from a video game; a "wheelman" is an ace driver.  Of course, the term "wheelman" is also often used in crime stories, to refer to the guy who drives the vehicle and must, therefore, drive expertly.  And in-so-far as being something can be being that verb, being a "wheelman" is something you always are; "wheelmanning," or "manning the wheel" is what you sometimes do...

Maybe we need another example.

Let's look at "Blogger."

A "Blogger" is someone who "Blogs."  A "Blog" is...Well, this is a blog, but that doesn't explain much!  This is more like a place for some crazy word-ninja to write down random ideas at 11:00 PM!  In all seriousness, though, a "blog" is basically a journal where an author writes up and distributes articles.  With me so far?  And I have no idea how the word "blog" got started - I'm sure there's a good reason, I just don't know it off-hand and I don't feel like researching it.  Call me lazy.

What I do know is that the authors of a "Blog" were immediately "verbed," with their writing suddenly referred to as "Blogging."  "Bloggers" was a natural evolution; it's simply someone who "Blogs," which is the act of "Blogging."  But if you look wayyyy up at the top of your address bar, you'll notice that this website is a .blogspot website - a spot for blogs, right?  Yes - and no!  For "Blogspot" is actually a Google-owned sub-company called "Blogger."

I am, now, a blogger.  I write blog posts.  I write entire blogs!  Yet I am not Blogger, the service.

You will notice, by now, that I seem to be going off on tangents a lot.  You might even have noticed that this blog entry's title begins with "How To Use Verbs."  It does not say the following...

How to Use Verbs Effectively

The reason why I've waited until now to "get serious" is that, frankly, writing is about timing.  The first thing this rule implies is that everyone has their own timing; when timing differs between writer and reader, there can be a dissonance which can make the writer's work hard to read - if not render it altogether intolerable!

More importantly, however, is the fact that timing means knowing which verb to use, when, and how.  A lot of times this is simply technical; to write, as a sentence, "Next, the computer activated" is entirely mysterious. Does the computer activate on its own?  How?  Is it artificially intelligent?  It's just a lot of questions, and if there aren't any immediate answers, readers will start to sense that aforementioned dissonance.  They will get lost.  Instead...

"Next, Bob activated the computer."  Now we know that Bob is involved in this picture, and that he activated the computer.  Suddenly a reader has an idea of what's going on.  But how did Bob activate it?  Did he just tap an on switch?  Or, like a movie hero, did he turn it on with his mind?  Maybe that sentence needs a little more work.  Let's step up our game!

"Next, Bob knelt down and plugged in the old computer tower; it roared to life, courtesy of its creaky fans which discourteously spat dust back into Bob's face."

Wow.  So now we have a real clear picture of this Bob Plus Computer shindig.  His motivations are unclear, and while one might make inferences (he's searching for an ancient file!), that's for another sentence to explain.  From what's written in this example, you can see that by sprucing up the diction (word-choice) and adding a hint of complexity, we've actually taken a lot of the guess-work out of what's going on.  We know that Bob plugged in the computer.  We know its old.  We know Bob physically had to do things, and we know Bob isn't gonna be happy about all that dust in his face.

All in all, I only wrote this article because I was curious what my take on an article about verbs would be.  I've never really written one before, and here we have it!  It's not scholarly, it's hardly serious, but it has a point it's trying to get across.  Hopefully you'll agree that a point was made.

Shameless self-promotion

And, hey, if you like my style, buy my book!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: Firefly

Welcome to our third installment of the "Cancelled Before Prime Time" series!  As I mentioned previously, Summer Glau has an unfortunate lot in life; she's talented, but when she pops up in a show it tends to go the way of the dodo.  I felt it only fitting to explore the first of many such series - Firefly!

Image from

No!  Not that firefly!  This firefly!

Image from

Firefly debuted on Fox on September 20th.  It lasted until December 20th.  That's right, folks - Firefly only had a grand total of fourteen episodes produced.  Not all of them aired.  But enough spouting on about the Wikipedia article's bottom-of-the-barrel facts, lets...Yammer on about more facts, actually.

Joss Whedon.  There, I've said it.  This man has serious hit-or-miss potential.  In the late nineties he created a tiny little movie-and-TV-show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Y'might have heard of it.  It had a spinoff series as well as an "expanded universe," I.E. comics and the like.  No big deal, right?  Well, here's the trick: Whedon's huge hits have always been betrayed by his, ahhh, smaller ones.  Firefly?  Smaller one.  Oh, it's a really good series!  But it's not Buffy.  Dollhouse is one of his most recent TV productions, and it didn't do so great (it also had some Summer Glau in it), but what came right after that?  The Avengers, that's what.

So Whedon goes from up to down faster than a manic depressive switching off between methamphetamines and booze.  And that'll be our offensive joke quota for this section of this article.  Let's look at character development.

The Souls Aboard the Serenity

In a startling departure from the ordinary "Name your series after a character or object in it" policy, Firefly is not the name of the starship carrying our protagonists around.  It's just the model; the actual vessel is called Serenity, and it's named (of course!) after a battle that our hero, Malcolm Reynolds (played by the Nathan Fillion) fought in and lost.

Serenity isn't a warship like the Death Star or a peaceful-but-deadly vessel like the Enterprise.  It's a small but resilient little transport ship.  That'd be fine enough, but it's inhabitants take Serenity on all sorts of crazy adventures.  There's an overarching space empire called The Alliance, which Mal's side fought against and lost to, and their grasp on their frontier territory is, well, exactly as great as a historian would imagine it to be.  There's also weird, half-legendary half-people called Reavers, who are crazy and barbaric and so therefore terrorize the fringes of Alliance space.  See:  The Native Americans (not the real ones, of course, but the mythical version).  So the Serenity's staff zips across the galaxy and transports priests as well as illegal contraband.

Malcolm himself is the heart-and-soul of his ship.  He's incredibly loyal to his friends, an unusual trait among outlaws but one that keeps Serenity's crew from dying, like, every episode.  There's Kaylee, a nice girl who is cute, quirky, and in charge of keeping the ship's engines running.  You've got your stoic second-in-command Zoe, a soldier who fought under Mal's command; she's married to Wash, your kooky pilot who fears the relationship the two old friends have...Waiiiitttt!  Why am I starting to sense stereotyped characters, here?  It's almost as if this is a spaghetti western!  Next you'll be telling me there's a priest who happens to have awesome skills with a gun and...

Image courtesy of

...No!  Not him!    There is, however, Shepard Book; one of my favorite characters, he's a man who clearly has a history with the Alliance but has renounced his old life in favor of peace...Save that he's trapped in Serenity's hi-jinx and, furthermore, that we never get a really good explanation of what that past is.

See, this is the problem Firefly might have come across.  Many of its characters were reincarnations of old western themes with a space-faring twist on them, and that's great!  Hell, I genuinely loved many of the characters who fit those very stereotypes!  But it might have led to some viewers tuning out, saying "I've already seen this flick, only with horses," and moving on.

Where Firefly really broke with tradition was with the Tams.  Simon is a mild-mannered medical-genius prototype, just innocuously impressive enough to have a nasty little backstory all to himself.  It's revealed in episode one, when he's found to be carrying around a rather naked Summer Glau - his sister, River.  She's your "crazy, broken girl psychic" character, which I don't really remember being anywhere in the old westerns.  Anyway, she's a secret Alliance weapon of dubious nature, and her presence is a constant thorn in Mal's side.

There's also Jayne, the mercenary; Inara, the companion; "Saffron," a con artist who marries her marks, and other characters who are all awesome in their own rights, but not exactly the most original characters on the block.

Where Firefly Fell, Serenity Soared

As I mentioned earlier, maybe it was just that it felt like a rehash of a western to some people, but Firefly wasn't all that successful.  For a major network like Fox (who, you'll see, is a recurring villain in my series on cancelled projects), an average of 4.7 million viewers per episode just wasn't enough.  It got the 'ol axe. This didn't make those, y'know, millions of fans very happy - they launched all sorts of crusades.

In 2005, to shut up the aforementioned fans, a movie was slapped together, fittingly enough called "Serenity."  It's box office just about made back it's costs-of-production, while Node 3 of the International Space Station was almost named "Serenity," probably after this series.  Of course, the official poll was discarded and the name "Colbert" almost won it as well, so maybe that's not such a great sign to look toward...

...Anyway!  Serenity sold well enough to break even, but that doesn't get movie sequels.  On the other hand, there's a whole expanded universe - comics, novels, and even a roleplaying game!  For hardcore fans, some of these products might well be worth looking into, as might the fan-created sequel, Browncoats:  Redemption.

When it comes to an autopsy, however, there's really no reason at all why Firefly died; other than, perhaps, due to low ratings.  It's story was largely unexplored, but with eleven aired episodes (and fourteen produced, including one of it's best), the fact is that the series was never even given a chance.  4.7 million viewers really isn't that bad an average; but ten years ago "Reality TV" was starting to make it big, and perhaps that's the greatest lesson to be drawn from Firefly:

Great writing and development are little match for low-cost production.

Shameless Self-Promotion!

Wow.  That doesn't speak well for my chances as a writer; but, hey, you could always check out my latest novel and see if ya like it!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: City of Heroes

Y'know how sometimes you come up with plans to write about certain topics?  Like, how there's not one but two Summer Glau series which I could explore in this column?  Oh yeah.  There's an NBC series that relates to the subject that's now pre-empting the aforementioned Summer Glauness, however.

Because this weekend, much to my surprise, NCSoft announced it was ending the long-running MMORPG "City of Heroes."

City of Heroes Memories

I have to admit, I didn't play CoH for that long.  Why?  Well, I was between MMO's at the time (My first love was Asheron's Call).  Some friends recommended it and we loved it, but we ultimately never stuck it out.  What was the #1 feature in such a game?  This:

--Gameplay Image Courtesy of Gamespy.

As you might notice from the above credit link, this character design system is so expansive that actual comic book characters have been "knocked off," and lawsuits have resulted from how incredibly detailed it is.  Aside from the character's design, a player chooses the powers their avatar wields.

My character, "Luitennant Dan," (I was unable to come up with good names, nor spell them right) was what the game called a Scrapper.  In World of Warcraft terms, he'd be a melee DPS character, dealing close-quarters damage.  He used a katana.  I decked him out in army gear but made him about four feet high.  I loosely based him on the character Lieutenant Dan from the movie "Forrest Gump."  For a travel power (acquired when travelling long distance becomes a factor in the gameplay), Dan had the power of super jumping - leaping across continents.

I was pretty young and stupid, and I didn't expect to play the game as much as I did.  I enjoyed, but failed to complete, some of the Task Forces that marked end-game play.  I thought about, but ultimately couldn't find the dedication to play the expansion, City of Villains.

The Fall of City of Heroes

Less than a year ago, City of Heroes went to a Free to Play model, following games like Tribes:  Ascend and League of Legends, hoping that expanding it's player base would lead to more income.  By many accounts, City of Heroes has still a fair number of players dedicated to the game.  Unfortunately, the company which owns City of Heroes, NCSoft, has made the decision to sunset (end) the game.

"Private" servers, usually used to allow people to play subscription-based games for free, seem poised to rise up and allow true City of Heroes fans to play well after the game's death.  There's also Champions Online, a similar game.  But why did the game get so anemic in the first place?

For starters, World of Warcraft.  WoW sucked up all of the MMORPG market for years, and while it's hold might arguably be weakening in the face of games like Guild Wars Two (An NCSoft project, ironically), WoW'll be around for a decade to come, in all liklihood.  With WoW in the way of the generic MMORPG fan, and with Champions Online (and DC Universe, but they're a franchise) cropping up to siphon off the hardcore comic crew, City of Heroes was limited in it's potential player base.

When subscription-based gaming lost it's stranglehold over the market, well, the end of steady income and the rise of server load being dedicated to non-paying players limited profitability.

Still, it makes me wonder why the owners of NCSoft didn't even attempt to do a server trimming, and to cut their number of servers to reduce expenses and repopulate player worlds.  That would have brought the game more life, probably - and more reasons for players to spend money, to add even more life to the much beloved game.