“Grumpy Cat” for the Atari 2600

14/03

I’m in one of those lacunae that pop up in the middle of an author’s life from time to time. My editor gave me a heads up that the first round of edits for Brothers in Arms will be arriving in my mailbox imminently. Once it does, I will need to drop everything to review the changes and notes, and start out on the rewrites stage.

Of course, being hip-deep in Crush Story could have been an obstruction. To prepare myself to go back into the universe of Bobby, Sarah, and Gabriel, I needed to get Jason and Sam (from Crush Story) out of my head. So I put the novel aside to clear my mental palate and be ready to work.

Of course, my brain doesn’t like being inactive. It wants challenges. It wants to create. So I wrote a video game. To be specific, I wrote a game for the Atari 2600.

SONY DSCFor those of you under 30 (which honestly is most of my fanbase) the Atari 2600 was the first widely available reprogrammable video game system. It pioneered the ability to change games by plugging in a different cartridge. It popularized the joystick as a control medium. And it led the way for every system that has come since. The games were simple, but addictive and compelling. And while today people might sneer at the bad graphics and simple sounds, from 1978 through 1982 it was state of the art.

The main challenge in writing a game for the 2600 is to make it as small as possible. The average game for the 2600 is 4K. That is one ten-thousandth the size of “Angry Birds” on your phone. And you only had 128 bytes of memory for your variables. We don’t even talk in bytes any more, only in millions (Gb) and trillions (Tb) of bytes.

So I sat down to write a game. All of the best 2600 games made up for their simplicity with great theming, backstories, and creativity in imagery. So I decided to make my game about Grumpy Cat.

GrumpyCat.bas.bin

For the action, I recycled a concept I’d used three decades before when I taught myself game programming for the Atari 800 by writing a game called “Herple” which I never released. Your character moved around the screen while being chased by a number of different enemies, trying to collect items that popped up in random places. Easy mechanic, but one that can become challenging when your opponents start to move really quickly.

The theming for the game fell into place naturally. Tardar Sauce wants to eat in peace. But the universe is out to annoy her, which it always seems to do. The player needs to move Tardar Sauce around the screen eating the “noms” (the yellow dot in the screen above). Simple goal, easy to grasp.

Of course, a game needs obstacles, so I created a bunch of “monsters” that would chase through the screen in different ways that the player would have to maneuver Tardar Sauce around.

GrumpyCat.bas.bin_2I came up with five obstacles based on things that Grumpy Cat hates. I drew a smiley face, which would represent happy people. I drew a rough representation of a camera to represent a photographer out to get the meme picture of the year. I drew a Valentine’s heart to represent the concept of love. I drew a “Bluebird of Happiness,” which would flitter up from the bottom of the screen, and I drew a Shiba Inu Doge.

One of the tricks in creating the game was for each of the five “monsters” to move differently, essentially having different artificial intelligence code for each. I made the Happy Person the simplest, moving from the top of the screen to the bottom while chasing after the player as it does so. It moves the slowest of all the monsters.

The photographer moves down the screen twice as quickly as the happy person, but is the same speed as the happy person in going from left to right.

GrumpyCat.bas.bin_8The Doge is the toughest enemy. Like the photographer and happy person it will chase you down, but while it moves from top to bottom at the same speed as the happy person, it’s twice as fast in moving from left to right. At higher speeds, you have to try and get above the Doge as quickly as possible, or it will chase you down.

For the hearts I needed something different. They also move from the top of the screen to the bottom, but I didn’t want them to chase Tardar Sauce down. Instead, they will pick a direction (left or right) and move in a diagonal as they move down until they hit the side of the screen, at which point they just move straight down.

The Bluebird of Happiness was tricky. I decided that it was way too easy to just hang out at the bottom of the screen to dodge enemies before moving up above them, so I had the bird move up the screen, flittering back and forth randomly as it did so. You can’t hang out near the bottom all the time without running the risk of running into the bird.

216562503-mainI have some folks out there play-testing the game (as I call it, poking it with a sharp stick) right now, and will be fixing bugs and making improvements with an eye toward releasing it. Of course, since Grumpy Cat is trademarked and licensed all to heck, I won’t be able to sell the game. However, I will make the binaries available for anyone who wants to play it. And I’ll probably have two cartridges manufactured of the game: one for myself and one for Tardar Sauce’s owners as a thank you for not suing me.

If you know a thing or two about 2600 emulation and homebrew games, or want to learn, you can check out the thread about the game at AtariAge.

Senseless Sensibility

13/02

There was a great hashtag going on Twitter yesterday.

what if YA protagonists made ENTIRELY SENSIBLE decisions? #sensibleYA

Granted, my reply was brief and a little snarky (“Then we would have no plots”) as were most of the direct replies to the tweet, but a lot of other users ran with it and made it hilarious.

sensible2

Of course, as tends to happen with me, the jokes got me thinking. The truth is that most YA fiction is, in fact, driven by kids who make stupid decisions. In adult fiction, a book that was driven by a protagonist who made one stupid decision after another would send readers screaming and demanding their money back (although there are some notable exceptions) but in YA it’s not only acceptable, it’s almost expected.

Why is this so?

sensible3

I think the main reason is that kids like protagonists that they can identify with. The heroes and heroines of YA need to “feel real” for kids to connect with them. Young protagonists have to sound, think, and act like actual teenagers if they’re going to click with a teen reader.

Occasionally you can get away with having a protagonist who is forced by circumstance to grow up early (due to a hard life, out on the streets or in a dystopian world) but for the most part YA protagonists have to act like the teenagers we claim they are, and that means they do stupid things.

sensible4

Some basic facts to consider when plotting a YA book:

Kids are impetuous and reckless

Kids think with their hearts and jump into action. Where an adult might take a second to reason out all (or at least a few) of the consequences of an action, kids jump in head first.

Consider The Hunger Games. The initiating action that starts the whole story is Katniss’ volunteering to be tribute instead of her little sister Prim. If you sit back and think about it, this is a very stupid decision.

Katniss is the provider for her family. She knows how to hunt, she knows how to bargain, and she has essentially been the mother of the family since her father has died and her own mother went into shock. With her gone (which would send her mother into another downward spiral and make her useless again), Prim would have no one to care for her. Plus, Prim would be totally incapable of taking care of her mother and as a result both of them would be doomed. Prim would be doomed anyway. The logical, adult thing to do would be for Katniss to try to pull the pieces together and take care of her mother with her sister gone.

Katniss does not think logically; she thinks with her heart. She can’t stand the thought of Prim dying in the Games (although her demise and suffering without the Games would still be all but certain and much more prolonged) so she steps up.

This is not the logical move. But it is the right one. That is why Katniss is a hero. And why The Hunger Games is a classic.

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Kids are inexperienced

The main reason that kids are so impetuous and reckless is simply because they haven’t learned as much as adults. They haven’t experienced enough to make reasoned, logical decisions in all cases.

Consider Paper Towns by John Green. Q is so taken by Margo’s impetuous actions that when she disappears he becomes convinced that she wants him to find her. He assumes that everything he sees is a clue meant to lead him on to find her.

Experience would tell Q that most people who run away don’t want to be found. They mean to leave their previous life behind in its entirety. He might also come to realize that what he loves about Margo is her mystery, not the girl herself.

So much frustration, exhaustion, and really stupid decisions could have been avoided if Q had just been a little more familiar with life. But he isn’t, so he chases after the mystery girl. And as a result, Paper Towns is a compelling story.

sensible6

Kids learn by doing

Not to demean our educational system, but the way kids’ brains are wired means that they learn much more easily from doing things than from being shown or told things. This is why we give blocks and similar toys to kids: so they can figure out some of the basics of how things work. Things fall down. Check. Wide bases are best for building tall structures. Check. You can’t fit a big thing into a small hole. Check. Different objects have different shapes, check.

As kids get older, the lessons they learn are much more complex than the basic lessons of babies and toddlers, but their brains are still wired to learn through experimentation and action. They don’t know whether something will work until they try it.

Thus it’s easy for a kid to get a harebrained idea into his head and try to see if it will work or not. Of course, if the kid were to do some research into the idea the feasibility could easily be established, but that takes too long and gets too boring. Faster and easier to just try it and see what happens. That also makes for better reading.

Conclusion

The trick to creating realistic YA is to have your protagonists think and act like actual teenagers. Teens are rash, reckless, inexperienced, and often do the wrong thing. But they learn from doing it. You cannot have your protagonists be sensible (although a Voice of Reason supporting character can be handy to have from time to time); not only is it bad drama, it’s not how the world is.

A Centsible Proposal

07/02

As happens regularly, people are talking about getting rid of the one cent coin (“penny”), saying that it costs too much to produce and has too little value.

Some say that without the one cent coin we would just round every transaction to the nearest five cent mark, but that’s wishful thinking. Every example of where the lowest denomination coin has been eliminated has shown immediate price inflation. Plus, since Americans have been trained to think of their coins not as multiples of cents but fractions of a dollar, the dime will immediately become the lowest effective denomination to many people with the five-cent nickel relegated to the status of half a dime (which was actually what the five cent coin was called from 1792 until 1873).

And when you consider the fact that the US loses more per coin minting the nickel than it ever did on the cent, very soon there will be a push to eliminate the nickel. This will make the dime the de jure, not just de facto lowest denomination.

The answer is not to just stop minting cents and nickels, but to make them cost effective. And the best way to do that is to do what the US did in 1857, 1864, 1873, and 1965: revamp our coinage system almost completely.

The Half Dime

First, to save the five cent coin, we need to actually step backward for the answer. As mentioned above, the five cent coin from 1792 until 1873 (with a seven year overlap at the end with the nickel five cent coin) was a silver piece called the Half Dime. We need to go back to the original concept, and revive the Half Dime as our five cent piece.

The last Half Dime minted in 1873 was 15.9 millimeters in diameter, significantly smaller than the dime. I propose that we make the new half dime the same dimensions as the 1873 model, and make it of the same clad composition as the dime, quarter, and half dollar. To make it easy to tell from other coins in your pocket, I suggest we use what is called an “interrupted edge,” where the edge alternates segments of reeding (the vertical “bumps” on the side of the dime, quarter, and half) and smooth edges.

Since the weight of the new coin would once again be about half of that of the dime, it will remain economical to mint this coin as long as it is economical to keep the same composition for the dime and quarter.

The Smaller Cent

Next, we need to take a lesson from the Eurozone, and make our one cent coin smaller. The Eurocent is currently 16.5 mm in diameter, compared to the current U.S. Cent at 19.05 mm. I suggest actually going slightly smaller to avoid a clash with the Half Dime and the third leg of my reform stool, which I will mention below. I propose a Cent of 15 mm exactly.

The new Cent will look similar to the current cent, since it will keep its copper coating. However, the inner core will no longer be zinc, but steel as is used by the Eurozone, Britain, and Canada. Between the smaller size and the cheaper (and sturdier) material, the coin will be less expensive to produce and last longer.

To ease the transition, I recommend using the current designs (Lincoln/Shield for the Cent and Jefferson/Monticello for the Half Dime). This way, people will have some continuity between the old coins and the new, to help them get used to them.

As old coins arrive back at the Federal Reserve, they can be retired and melted for their constituent metals, to be made into new coins. Since the current Cent and Nickel have more intrinsic value than their face value, this will actually mean a net profit to the government. Both old coins, however, will still remain legal tender and can be spent for years to come.

These two changes are not the end-all, be-all of the change, however. There is still one way to cut down on the number of Cents that are needed each year without suffering the economic consequences of eliminating the denomination altogether. We simply lessen the demand the same way we did during the Civil War.

The Tuppence!

The U.S. had a Two Cent coin from 1864-1873, which was designed to take up some of the demand for Cents, which had been driven out of circulation by hoarders during the Civil War (back when they were made of nickel, which was a semi-precious metal at the time). I say we not only keep the “penny,” but give it its proper sibling again, as have the British and the Eurozone: the “tuppence.”

US 2 Cent Coin 2016

Since the main use of the Cent nowadays is in making change, adding a Two Cent coin into the mix makes this process easier and cuts down on the number of Cents needed. The Two Cent coin can be minted for only slightly more than the new Cent will be, and would have twice the value, so only half as many would be needed. Where three or four coins are needed today, only two would be needed with this new addition. Instead of three pennies, hand back a tuppence and a penny. Instead of four pennies, hand back two tuppences. And, of course, hand back one tuppence instead of two pennies.

I propose that the Two Cent coin be revived at a diameter of 18.8 mm, slightly larger than the current dime. To distinguish it from the new Cent, Half Dime, Dime, and current Cent and Nickel, it will have a scalloped edge as can be seen above. This edge will make the coin easily distinguishable both visually and by feel. You will know you have a tuppence in your pocket, and can easily distinguish between the four small coins either by looking at them or touching them. And even with this distinctive edge, the new coins will still be able to stack and roll in vending machines, coin counters, or automatic change dispensers.

The tuppence will be the same composition as the new penny, and will change along with it should a cheaper material ever be required.

For a distinctive design, I chose someone woefully neglected on American money: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt singlehandedly started the design revolution in American coinage that gave us the St. Gaudens gold coins, the Lincoln Cent, and eventually the Buffalo Nickel. Since the Mint recently released a Theodore Roosevelt coin in the Presidential Dollars series, there is an engraving handy that can be adapted easily to become the obverse of the new Two Cent coin.

For the reverse, I chose an animal linked forever with Teddy Roosevelt: the Bull Moose with whom he compared himself when launching his 1912 campaign for the Presidency. It will also be reminiscent of the much beloved Buffalo Nickel, and a chance to pay homage once again to conservation and American wildlife on our coins.

The graphic below shows the relative sizes of the three new coins, alongside the current Dime and Quarter Dollar, so you can see the system I propose at work.

New US coin comparison

With these changes, the American coinage will not only be cheaper to produce, but will once again be logical. The smallest denomination will be the smallest coin. The Five Cent piece will be smaller than the Ten Cent piece again. And the new Two Cent piece will fill a need better than an ever increasing number of One Cent pieces ever could. And all without the inflationary affects of doing away with our smallest coin.

Why Build a World Only to Blow it Up? (The Problem With YA Trilogies)

10/01

In the past several years, I’ve gone through what, to me, had to be three of the most disappointing Young Adult trilogies ever.

Those three are the Divergent series, the Maze Runner series and the Hunger Games series.

Wait…what?

Surprised? Yeah, they’re three of the most popular dystopian YA series of recent years. They sell more books in a week than I’ll sell in two lifetimes. They’ve launched or are launching movie franchises that will gross into the bazillion dollar range.

And they’re all very well written and enjoyable.

I did not say they weren’t good – hell, I think The Hunger Games is a 21st Century Red Badge of Courage and Catching Fire a 21st Century All Quiet on the Western Front and deserve to be studied alongside them – I said I found them disappointing.

And here’s why.

SPOILERS ABOUND!

Why Do You Build Me Up….

Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and James Dashner are expert world builders. Panem is a well-envisioned society whose development is deliberately stunted by the tyrannical Capitol. The world of the Factions is believable and fascinating. The Glade is a peek at what The Lord of the Flies might have been like if the asshole to cool guy ratio had been a little better. They’re all functional, but imperfect societies and leave the reader wanting to discover more.

Let’s start with The Hunger Games. I don’t think there is a single character we meet in District 12 who couldn’t have a good story told about them. You want to know more about Gale’s brothers. Each of the characters in the Hob has a backstory that’s hinted at. Hell, I’d sit down and read a book about Greasy Sae’s childhood. These are good characters and have so much to discover.

Then as we move on beyond the fence, we have eleven other Districts out there. Each of them have their own culture, their own values, and their own stories to tell. We get some little hints about these cultures during Katniss and Peeta’s tour, and from other tributes, but there are huge gaps that could be filled, and stories that could be told.

Moving on to Roth’s dystopian Chicago, each of the factions has a very defined role in society and they all depend on each other for survival. We are told early on how this arrangement came to be, and it’s one of those rare creatures in Sci-Fi: a dystopian origin that is vague without being annoyingly so; we don’t know how the world blew up, but we how society pulled itself back up afterward, which is the important thing.

I’d even go so far as to dispute the “dystopian” label for the world of the Factions. I’d argue it’s almost a Utopia as it’s actually set up. Everything works, and everyone has their place. And it’s not oppressively caste-oriented either. You choose your own future. You decide what faction you want to belong to and if you pass the test you are in.

There’s a lot to be explored here. Why would anyone want to choose Abnegation? What really sets Dauntless apart? Does being in Candor really give you the right to be as much of a douchebag as you want? Again, there’s room for lots of stories to be told.

Next let’s check out the Gladers. These amnesiac boys have built their own little society in the center of a labyrinth. We are told about nearly a dozen different jobs that the boys are divided up into and we get hints of how boys end up in those jobs. Society thrives. If it weren’t for the Runners who go out into the maze trying to find a way out there would be no contact with the Grievers at all and everyone could live reasonably happy ever after.

Three well imagined, well planned, well structured worlds with lots of stuff to explore.

And they’re all completely and irrevocably destroyed by the end of the second book (or in the case of Divergent and The Maze Runner, two thirds of the way through the first).

…Just to Let Me Down?

Mockingjay is a complete departure from the formula of the other Hunger Games books. It’s the story of the new rebellion and the fall of the Capitol. The Districts cease to exist as they are, and we hardly even visit District 12 at all until the very end. Plus, the characters that everyone loves are all killed or mentally raped before the end. Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.

The world of the Factions is falling apart before the end of Divergent. Abnegation is almost completely destroyed. A proper civil war is brewing. Four and Tris have to try and put things back together. By the time we get to Allegiant, the Factions and their story are proven to be essentially a lie, and a Midichlorian-sized macguffin is given for how they got that way.Things have changed so much that we now have two POV characters and two different stories to follow: Four’s and Tris’. (This is not a bad thing, by the way.) Everything you wondered about, and wanted to know more about, no longer exists. Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.

Dashner proves pretty early on that he is not fooling around. He quite openly and happily destroys life in the Glade starting at the halfway point of the first book. By the end, it’s completely fallen apart and even the Maze itself is out of the picture. A whole new challenge awaits. Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.

Which leads me to ask: why spend so much time world building if you’re only going to blow it all up?

Why tempt us with histories of the people of District 12? Why give us such tantalizing glimpses of Candor, Erudite, Amity, and the other Factions if you’re just going to not only destroy them but the reason for them existing? Why discuss the roles each boy plays in the Glade if those roles become irrelevant before the third Act of the story begins?

And Then Worst of All….

It really doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s look at another hot fantasy YA series, the Caster Chronicles. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl also built an expansive and fascinating universe with well-rounded characters and intricately designed supernatural species. The first book ends with the Nothing Will Ever Be the Same moment, when it looks like everything we knew was wrong, but the rest of the series is all about restoring the order of things. When the story reached its logical end in Beautiful Redemption, not only had all the characters grown and matured, but everything had been put back the way it was before it was broken. None of the characters will be the same again, but the world will!

Garcia and Stohl have decided to do a spin-off series following two fan-favorite supporting characters (Link and Ridley) as they set off on new misadventures. But if they hadn’t, there was still a Caster World intact enough that readers would know that there could be hundreds of more stories out there if someone wanted, and all they had to do was dream it all up. (Provided a Linkubus didn’t snatch it away from you while you slept.)

Don’t Break My Heart

The dystopian trend in YA is not a bad thing at all. It has brought millions of young readers into the world of Science Fiction, touching upon the “hard sci-fi” aspects of mid 20th Century writers.

But for those of us who have been around the Sci-Fi block a few times and remember the elaborate worlds created by some of the “old school” writers like Niven, Pournelle, Asimov, Heinlein, and Dick, it’s a letdown. There are hundreds of stories set in Niven’s Known Space universe. So many stories grew out of Asimov’s robot stories. Yet each of these new universes exist solely to tell one story, and that story ends up destroying everything.

Panem was created solely so Katniss Everdeen could destroy it. The Factions were created solely so Beatrrice Prior and Tobias Eaton can shut it all down. The Glade exists solely as a place for Thomas to spend some time in before it disappears. Powerful stories, yes, but they needlessly destroy their worlds just to develop one character fully.

There are stories out there that could be told. I want to know those stories. I want to explore those worlds. And they are destroyed. That is why I am disappointed.

Writers remember: you may create the characters, but if they’re well crafted they have lives beyond what you put on paper or the screen. You may build the worlds, but they grow and evolve. Please don’t treat them like window dressing. They deserve better. At least leave room for their stories to grow in people’s minds, even if not on the page.

Something for the Fans

31/12

I’ve gotten a couple of tweets sent my way from parents whose kids enjoyed Sidekick. It still boggles my mind that there are people out there who are not only reading the words I wrote, but are apparently hooked on it.

Right before Sidekick came out, I posted a Prologue here on the blog to set the scene for readers, offering some action that took place in the days leading up to the start of the book.

As we wait for Brothers in Arms to come out some time in the new year (sorry, it took me longer to finish than I would have liked), there are going to be some readers who will get antsy waiting. There are probably a few who are already antsy because the first chapter of Brothers in Arms was included in Sidekick.

I had considered writing a new prologue for Brothers in Arms and posting it here, but there are some problems with that idea. First off, the prologue for Sidekick already existed; it was a scene that was drastically cut down from the first draft that I did a quick polish on to post here. I don’t have anything like that for Brothers in Arms, so I’d have to write something from scratch.

And if I’m going to write something from scratch, I want to make sure it gets into the hands of those who appreciate it, and are willing to work for it. In short, I want to make sure it gets into the hands of the book’s fans.

So here’s what I’m proposing. If you want a sneak peek into what’s happened to Harbor City in the 18 months Bobby’s been away, write me a letter. No, not an E-mail, not a Facebook message, an actual letter. Send it to me care of my publisher:

Pab Sungenis
c/o Month9Books
4208 Six Forks Road Suite 1000 10th Floor
Raleigh, NC 27609

Everyone who writes will, I promise, get a personal letter back from me with something special: a drabble I plan to write in the next couple of days featuring a scene from the point of view of the kid who will become the Squire. That’s right. Bobby’s getting a sidekick of his own, and you can be one of the first people outside of my publisher and critique partners to get to know this character, and do so in a unique way.

And while I love and appreciate my adult readers (since I’m also an adult reader of YA fiction), I especially want to hear from actual kids who have read the book. So if you’re under 21 and you write me a letter, I’ll include a signed autograph sticker you can put in your copy of Sidekick, and maybe something else cool, too.

Some fine print for those who are as paranoid about their privacy as I am (or more): I may share some of what you say along the line, but I will never, ever, ever reveal your full name or address to anyone. Ever. I swear. All I will ever use your address for is to send you swag. It will not be sold, given, or even whispered to anyone else.

So I hope to hear from you readers out there. Happy New Year.

On Grammar and the Birth of Words

16/12

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6.

I read two great essays recently at Huffington Post, both by Jonathon Owen. The first is 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes and the other is a rather defensive response to criticism he got as a result of the first, Yes, ‘Irregardless’ Is a Word.

Both are great reading, and as an admitted unreconstructed Grammar Nazi I recommend you go read them now (if you haven’t already) if you are serious about being a writer. And this is despite the fact that Owen is essentially hauling my Grammar Nazi ass to Grammar Nuremberg in both articles. I suggest you go read them because he is right and I am wrong.

Grammar has been very much on my mind as I’ve been slogging through the first draft of Crush Story. With two teenage boys as protagonists, swapping narration and POV back and forth between them, it’s vital that I maintain separate voices for the two of them. The best ways to do that on the printed page are through word choice and grammar. So I decided that one of them, Jason, would have a fairly well developed vocabulary and would use somewhat proper grammar. The other, Sam, would have what I call “lazy” grammar and use fewer words. It got so bad that I had to turn off grammar check in Microsoft Word because when I would write a chapter by Sam, half the page would get green underlines about sentences ending with prepositions or “me and him did that” phrases.

But if the book ever gets published, I will lay better than even odds that Sam’s chapters “sound” more real to the teens who read it, because the way I have him talking is closer to how English is actually spoken today by kids born in this Century.

Grammar is an evolving beast. Most of the rules of grammar as learned by students in the Twentieth Century were not the rules of English as it had actually grown, they were imposed upon it by academics who decided that nothing had changed since the days when Latin ruled the known world. Those academics trying to impose the rules of Latin spelling and grammar on English (which has more in common with Germanic tongues than with Romance languages anyhow) are the reason we spell “vittles” as “victuals” although no one who has ever spoken the word has ever pronounced the c or u. And please don’t start me on the insanity of trying to impose the rules of a language that declines its nouns upon a language that determines sense by word order.

But as right as Owen is in the two essays, I do have to take exception with him on one matter. In both of them he defends “irregardless” by offering a supposed counterexample:

Flirgle, on the other hand, is not a word — it’s just a bunch of sounds that I strung together in word-like fashion.

This is where Owen is wrong. “Flirgle” is a word. Why? Because he used it as a word.

Words are invented every day. I’ve created a couple. “Metroburb” wasn’t a word before someone first used it, and now it refers to a metropolitan area that is subservient to a larger metropolitan area, like Jersey City is to New York. “Smog” wasn’t a word until someone felt the need to use one word to describe the combination of smoke and fog created by auto exhausts. Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll created hundreds of words between them. We’ve lost count of how many words Shakespeare coined. (Or at least I have; smarter people could probably tell you an exact number.) None of those words existed until they were used. And now they do.

And now, despite Owen’s protests to the contrary, “flirgle” does.

What does it mean? It must mean something, even if it is assumed it means nothing. Even gibberish has some meaning behind it when you get down to it, even if the meaning is nothing more than a desire to amuse. So it must have a meaning. If it must have a definition, I proposed that a “flirgle” be defined as a nonsensical counterexample to a logical thing. After all, that’s how Owen used it.

So never say that a word isn’t a word. “Flirgle” is now as much of a word as “irregardless” ever was, because Jonathon Owen willed it into existence. It may die out from lack of use (and probably will, as most new words do), but for one fleeting moment, it achieved worddom, and a word it is.

Put that in your pipe and euphemism it.

“Sidekick” Audio Commentary: Chapter 7, “Retrenchment”

17/11

In which Bobby has a fight with a supervillain, then with his guidance counselor. He also finds a new weapon and a new/old nemesis.

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“Sidekick” Audio Commentary – Chapter 6, “A Never Ending Battle”

17/11

Bobby has a heart to heart with Mister Mystery about his responsibilities (especially to himself) and has an interesting interlude with Sarah in the gym.

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Dating Advice

15/11

I’ve been reading a lot the past couple of days about a school in Texas that invited some asshole to speak about how girls need to “learn how to shut up” to be “datable” and similar crap. Since I’m currently working on a book about two boys who try to make themselves over to make themselves more “datable,” this guy’s crappy advice struck home with me.

In response, I thought I’d offer some dating advice of my own. Feel free to take or leave it as you see fit.

My focus in this article is on straight boys and girls; I would offer my dating advice to gay boys and lesbians as well, but society is switching too quickly under my feet and advice I give you today may no longer apply in a year or so. Some of what I say to your straight brethren and sistren applies to you, but overall the best advice I can give to my LGBTQOMGWTFBBQ readers is to seek advice from people older than you but younger than me. When I was a teenager, the best dating advice boys like I could get was “run and hide.” It’s not like that any more.

The situation with boys and girls, however, is timeless. The interactions are the same, the conditions are the same, and the mistakes people make are the same. So here goes.

Boys:

Portrait of a young guy smilingRemember that dating is not about sexual gratification. Dating is about pairing off and hopefully finding a partner for the long haul. Girls are not conquests, and if you are just dating a girl to get your rocks off then in the end you are wasting your time and hers. If you want hormonal release, that’s why God gave you an overactive imagination and tube socks.

Since you want to find a girl that you can be with on a regular basis and for the long haul, look beyond the surface. You want a girl that can hold down a conversation with you and shares at least some of your interests. If you are lucky, the two of you are going to spend a lot more time over the course of your life talking than playing bongo-bongo-bongo. You’re going to enjoy it more, too.

Look beyond the surface. Deep down, every woman is beautiful. Their surface appearance is just one aspect. Look at all the aspects of a girl. Clothes and hairstyles change at the drop of a hat, outward attractiveness may fade with old age, but the inner person and inner beauty are forever.

Remember one basic thing: don’t do anything that either of you is uncomfortable with. If she is not ready for something physical, stop. If she is pushing you toward something physical you are not ready for, tell her to stop. Any girl who won’t take no for an answer is someone you don’t want to be around, and a boy who won’t take no for an answer is someone no girl should ever be around. You are in this for the long haul. There is plenty of time for that when and if you two are ready.

Most importantly: be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Don’t put up a front. Again, you are in it for the long haul. If you lie about yourself to a girl (and that’s what pretending to be someone else is, lying) she’s going to find out about it sooner or later and she will feel she can’t trust you. And she’s right. Never think you aren’t good enough; there is always a girl out there for whom you are perfect.

Be patient. Finding someone takes time. Building something that is going to last takes time. Don’t despair, and don’t settle. Keep looking. When you find the right girl, you will know.

Finally, if it doesn’t work out it’s not the end of the world. A relationship that falls apart that easily is not one destined for the long haul. Don’t mope, don’t sulk, just pick yourself up and get on with it. Something worth having will stand the test of time.

Girls

One important thing for you to remember is this: you don’t need to be with a boy to be complete. Every person in the world is complete in and of themselves. Couples are just joinings of two complete individuals to make one complete combo.

As I told the boys, dating is not about instant gratification, either sexual or social. Dating is about finding someone you want to be with for the long haul. Look for someone you share common interests with and enjoy talking to. Look for someone you feel comfortable with, and who you could imagine sharing part of your life with.

Be yourself. Whatever you do, do not change who you are or pretend to be something you’re not. Do not dress “sluttily” or play dumb to make a boy like you. A boy worth dating will see past those shallow things and grow to love you for who you really are. You are someone special and unique, and you shouldn’t feel the need to change that person to appeal to someone. They are not worth it, and you are.

Remember: you are not too smart for a boy, he is too dumb for you. If he is uncomfortable because you are too intelligent for him, then guess what? You’re too intelligent to settle for someone like that. You do not need the hassle of trying to hold down both sides of a conversation for the rest of your time together.

Don’t feel pressured into anything! You don’t need to “put out” to get a boy to like you. A boy who only wants sex really is only interested in one thing. Don’t waste your time pursuing a boy who keeps trying to get you to sleep with him when you don’t want to. If he threatens to break up with you if you don’t put out, for God’s sake let him break up with you. You will be better off for it. If a boy keeps pushing forward when you say no, walk away. Run away if you have to. And if that doesn’t work, there’s a reason God made women’s shoes pointy and men’s dangly bits so dangly.

In fact, I’m going to amend the above paragraph. If a boy threatens to break up with you for any reason, let him! Remember, you don’t need a boy to be complete. Any boy who tries to manipulate you in any way is not worth it! Do not change your friends, your hobbies, or even your hair just to please a boy. He is not worth it! Remember, you want to be in it for the long haul, and that means you need to be comfortable with who you are. If he doesn’t want to be around you the way you are, then he doesn’t want to be around you.

Be patient. Finding a boy you want to be with for the long haul can take time. Don’t settle. When you find the right boy, you will know.

Finally, if it falls apart, it’s not meant to be. Anything that fragile is not meant to last the long haul. Don’t sulk, don’t mope, just move on. There are plenty of boys out there worth dating.

Conclusion

Dating is tricky. It’s a minefield full of dangers, both physical and emotional. Mostly emotional. No one comes out of it unscathed. But follow these tips and you might just survive it.

If I Could Design a Motel

06/11

I do a bit of traveling. I attend conventions on a somewhat regular basis, and now am doing events to promote Sidekick and to pave the way for Brothers in Arms.

In all that time I’ve stayed in many different hotels and motels, ranging from beautiful to so bad they should be razed to the ground to protect the children. Yet none have quite managed to be just what I need when it comes to a hotel room.

You see, when I’m on the road, a hotel room is basically a place to sleep and prepare for the next day. If I’m doing a con, I’m working the floor. If I’m at a signing, I’m signing. If I’m on vacation, I’m out doing stuff. The hotel room for me is essentially just a bed and a bath. Screw the free HBO. Screw the TV entirely. It’s a place to sleep.

06-13-09_0829The greatest experience I’ve actually had at a hotel, believe it or not, was the Telemark Motel in Ellicottville, New York, mainly because it was the simplest. I picked my room on their website and paid for it with my debit card. When I arrived there was no check-in process at all, just a post-it note on the door to my room with an unlocked door. When I went in, the key was sitting there on my bed waiting for me.

I slept in my room and went about my business. When I came back, the room was cleaned and the bed was made and I was all set to sleep. The same thing happened the next day. When my stay was done, I just left the key in my room and closed the door behind me. No lengthy checkout process, just leave and that’s it.

That is how motels should be.

If I were asked to design a motel for a traveler like me, a lot of the dross that the hotel business feels the need to have nowadays would go right out the window.

First off, the room would be considerably smaller. Probably about 200 square feet, total, which would include a bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower. Other than that, just a bed and a place to put my stuff. That’s all I need. Like I said, no cable TV. Maybe a mini-fridge and microwave but they aren’t really needed. Like I said, I do little more than sleep in my hotel rooms. More smaller rooms in a motel means that rates can be cheaper, too.

Second, let’s get rid of the reservation and check-in system. Put card swipers and keypads on all the doors. (This works, since you’re already using key cards at most motels already.) Small red or green lights would indicate whether a room was ready for rent or not. When you arrive at a green lit door, swipe your debit card and enter your pin. Enter your desired check out date (or open ended) and authorize the transaction. The room is yours. When you need to get in, just swipe the card you checked in with.

Every day a maid will come in and make your bed. Every other day you get fresh towels and clean sheets. No freaking mint on the pillow, just clean and move on, thank you.

If you selected a check out date, then your card stops opening the door at 1 PM on that day. You’ll also have the option of checking out early by swiping your card and checking out from the menu.

I’d love to just be able to pull up at a motel, swipe my card at a door, and have a place to sleep, then be gone in the morning. If I could do it for about $30.00 or less, even better. This is the kind of motel I’m waiting for, and the kind I want to use in the future.