Friday, 27 May 2016

Short Stories, and how to write them

I’ve written a reasonable number of short stories (most recently a paranormal tale for The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel). Last year I wrote 14 stories of 1,000-1,500 words for Kraxon magazine, and I thought some tips for those writing their first couple of stories might be helpful.

Beginning, middle and end. Bit of a cliché, but I found this very useful when first writing short stories of around 5,000 words.

If we’re talking flash fiction (say, 1,000 words or less) then that’s not enough for three parts. You need one central hook because you’re writing more of a scene than a full-blown story.

But for something around 5,000-10,000 words, the beginning/middle/end approach works pretty nicely. It’s enough of a word count to sink your teeth into, without being so much you have time for flimflam and padding.

In the beginning, you need to quickly sketch the protagonist and outline the situation. Keep it simple. Major characters should be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Premise set up, the middle should see it develop. Trials and tribulations, woe encountered, setbacks for the hero (or anti-hero, a protagonist doesn’t have to be nice). The course of true adventuring never did run smooth, after all. All this leads towards the conclusion of the plot.

An end doesn’t have to be a twist or a sudden revelation (NB avoid the word ‘suddenly’. It tells the reader you’re about to tell them something that might have been surprising or interesting, if you hadn’t immediately foreshadowed it).

If the ending’s a twist, it’s best if it’s something that’s cunningly foreshadowed ahead of time (easier said than done, though. Twists are hard to get right, because if they’re too left-field they come across as deus ex machina, and if they’re too obvious they’re not twists, just an obvious plot development).

Always a good idea, if possible, to send it off to a beta reader or two. Fresh eyes can more easily spot errors, and let you know if it flows nicely.

Don’t stress too much about the word count as you write it. Just get it written. You can lop bits off or write extra once it’s finished.

Most importantly, if you’re writing specifically for a publisher or competition, read the guidelines, and follow them. Any contest/publisher will get more submissions than they have prizes/slots. If you don’t follow the guidelines then your work will almost certainly be immediately filed in the bin.

Three free short stories by me are up here on my website.


Friday, 20 May 2016

Fallout 4’s Survival Mode

A couple of weeks ago the enhanced (or ‘proper’...) survival mode left PC beta and was made available on all platforms (mine being PS4).

So, is it any good?

Here’s what the new difficulty includes:
Wellness – regular food, drink and sleep required. Failure to get enough leads to increasingly significant penalties (reduced, sometimes drastically reduced, stats).

Saving – can only be done in a bed/sleeping bag.

Damage – far more both taken and received. Explosives almost always lead to instant player death.

Compass – enemies do not appear (excepting when you use a recon scope) and places only appear when you’re very, very close.

No fast travel.

Vastly reduced carry weight – my low strength (3) character could only lug about something like 120 (applies to companions as well). This is not helped by ammunition having weight (big guns are not practical 99% of the time because they and their ammunition just weigh so much).

Healing takes longer – not only that, fallen companions must be healed with stimpaks or they’ll just wander off and refuse to follow you for a while [not had this happen yet].

The substantial increase to damage dealt and received means that certain play styles would seem to be difficult or even impossible (good luck going for a bareknuckle brawler), while others (the sniper style) gain an advantage. It also means some perks are more or less advantageous than in the usual mode.

If you want to get crafting then supply lines are a lot more useful, because your spare capacity after food, drink, armour, ammunition may be around 20-40 and you just can’t stuff your pockets with everything you find. Similarly, the increased damage dealt and weight limit means using pistols can be pretty effective.

There’s a lot more stress and tension because death can come very quickly. Step on a mine, and it’s over. Get hit by a Molotov Cocktail, and you’re dead (my first death was when Dogmeat wandered in front of me just as I was throwing one. One was not amused). A swarm of bloatflies can be deadly.

The explosives point is double-edged, though. I was struggling with a Glowing One, but cunning use of grenades caused it massive damage and obliterated its legs, enabling me to introduce its face to the business end of a shotgun.

Naturally, this is exacerbated by the lengthy distances between save points. However, the increased difficulty does make the game more exciting (on Normal difficulty I never felt particularly challenged).

There are downsides, though. I had the game crash, just the once. Luckily for me, this was right after I’d saved, but it could easily have been 40 minutes of hard slogging lost. I also think the days are too short. I’ve never run out of food or water, but it feels like the need to eat/drink/sleep is a bit too frequent.

Exceeding the weight limit leads to periodic health damage, which is fine. Except if you’re in conversation with a bone idle slacker who claims to be restoring the Minutemen and who gives you a flare gun which just nudges you over the limit. On a similar note, I quite like settlement building, even though it’s significantly harder in this mode, but it’s irritating having thirst/hunger crop up as problems when building.

Perhaps the most substantial problem is that the uncertainty of saving means you need a fairly hefty chunk of time to play. If you’re time-poor, this mode will likely not be for you. Not only can it be lengthy periods between saves, but if you make one wrong move that can be the end and you lose all progress.

I think it’s a bit of a Marmite mode. At the moment, the positives of increased difficulty, and corresponding feeling of accomplishment, means I’m enjoying playing through with a mixture of pistols and rifles. If you do like it, the Survival Mode can inject new life into the game, with an added air of desperation and difficulty.


Friday, 13 May 2016

Review: The Last of Us Remastered (PS4)

As usual, this review will be minimal when it comes to any spoilers.

The Last of Us is one of the best games ever made. I did play the original for the PS3, but not the DLC (which is included with the Remastered edition). As well as the Left Behind DLC, there is now a photo mode, which has a nice range of filters, frames, focus and camera options. I took a fair number, mostly in the Noir filter, and it’s a nice little extra [some I took, including spoilers, are here].

The story is fantastic, probably the best I’ve seen in a videogame. From the start (perhaps the most harrowing prologue there’s ever been) to the very end, there’s dramatic tension, visceral violence, anxiety, all leavened by periods of peace and rare, but engaging, moments of humour. Ellie and Joel are very well-written and performed protagonists, and the secondary characters are also memorable and engaging.

Gameplay’s good, with a basic but well-balanced approach to crafting (if you find some cloth and alcohol, you can either make a health kit or a Molotov cocktail) which always leaves you wanting more components. Combat is brutally visceral, perfectly dovetailing with the bleak world in which the story unfolds. The approach needed to take down humans is very different to fighting a gang of infected (particularly the creepy clickers).

Graphically, the game has been upgraded and it does stand up to other PS4 games. It isn’t as nice as something like The Witcher 3, but it still looks good. The grey in Joel’s hair is more noticeable, and there are odd rough spots (but you get that with every game).

Sound is at it was, which is to say excellent. The music, sound effects (especially the clickers) and, most of all, the voice acting are all superb. If you play with a normal audio setting (as opposed to headphones, which is what I tend to use) the controller-speaker is used when flicking your torch on or off (and maybe for playing dictaphone messages).

I think the DLC is really well done. It’s maybe 2-3 hours, and alternates between unseen events in the main game and stuff that happened to Ellie before she met Joel. Unlike some other DLC, it feels like an addition to a complete game rather than a necessary part that was cut out and then flogged to people as DLC. There’s also a good balance between story and tense gameplay, so if you never had it before, it’s well worth playing.

Downsides? Practically none. There are one or two bits that feel a bit videogame-by-numbers (in stark contrast to the grim realism the game typically achieves). It’s also an adult game, in a dark, violent sort of way. So if emotional trauma and violence (or humans with fungus dissolving their skulls) aren’t your cup of tea, best sit this one out.

It’s not the longest game, perhaps 15-20 hours, but that time will be filled with good stuff. There’s no padding. Like a small venison burger, it’s delicious and has almost no fat whatsoever.

I’d give it 9.5/10. Unless you’re put off by the starkness of the world, I’d strongly advocate getting it (and it’s less than £20).


Gallery: The Last of Us Remastered

The remastered version comes with a photo mode, which I really rather like, so I thought I’d put some up here. I should stress there are spoilers contained within, so if you haven’t finished the game, you may prefer to avoid looking. As you’ll soon gather, the Noir filter was my weapon of choice.


Saturday, 7 May 2016

Review: Outlaws of the Marsh

Outlaws of the Marsh is one of four great Chinese classical mega-novels (the others being Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Story of the Stone/Dream of the Red Chamber).

I use the term ‘mega-novel’ deliberately; this isn’t for someone wanting a weekend book (unless you can read 400-500,000 words a day). Editions vary significantly from a 70 chapter to a 120 chapter version. The one I read was the Foreign Languages Press box set in four volumes (100 chapters), translated by Sidney Shapiro.

Another easily accessible (in English) version is the Chinese University Press series (volumes bought separately, but it’s the full 120 chapter version). The translation of the latter may be slightly superior, from memory, but the cost is about six times more [I’ve read one volume, The Tiger Killers].

I’ve read Outlaws of the Marsh twice before, and it’s easily my favourite Chinese classic. It’s worth noting the first chapter is rather different to the rest of the book (effectively setting up the premise). The story cracks along at a fast rate of knots, and there are numerous memorable characters (my own favourite is Sagacious Lu, a Buddhist monk who enjoys getting drunk and acts of violence).

There’s no one main character. The closest would be Song Jiang, but lots of characters get much page time, including Wu Yong, Dai Zong, Li Kui, Wu Song, Sagacious Lu and many more. The narrative style is brilliant, it weaves numerous major characters’ arcs together, dropping off a character here and picking them up there. With dozens of main characters and over two thousand pages to play with, this works very well indeed.

There’s a minimum of flimflam description. This is a book crammed with dialogue and action, and is much lighter on describing landscapes and so forth.

It’s also not the most politically correct of books. One of the principal ‘good guys’ is a step away from being a mad axeman. Although some of the chieftains are women (most notably Ten Feet of Steel), the general treatment of women is of its time.

A concise summary would be Robin Hood and his Merry Men (emphasis on the latter) set in ancient China, with lashings of blood. I really enjoyed it, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste because of the style.

If you’re interested in this, you may also want to read my review of Three Kingdoms.