Friday, January 31, 2014

Tea Thinking.

Tea Thinking

I’d like to illustrate a very simple point, one that I think too many of us overlook or outright ignore. To be blunt; every single human being on planet earth thinks differently from their counterparts. Each person has some method of doing an action, even something trivial during the course of their day that sets them apart from the next. Does that mean that the way in which they go about a task is better or worse than someone else? Is the way they think about a topic any more profound than the next stranger they meet?


In fact, there is a reason the word individual is used so often to describe someone. Because, let’s face the facts here; we are all individuals. Period. Let me demonstrate what I mean by way of a very basic example. The following is how I make tea:

Tea Making Procedure -
First, I take out a small pan and turn on some hot water in the faucet. I rinse it out with hot water by swishing it about before pouring it out and refilling the pan. With my pan now about ¾ of the way full of hot water I place it on an eye and set the heat on high to let it start to boil.

While that is heating up I get me three tea bags out and remove them carefully from their wrappers. Placing them into a neat stack I collect their strings and lift the bundle by their tags. Holding those tags I begin to flick the bags themselves into a spin, allowing the strings to entwine until they form one tight strand almost like a braid. I then proceed to take the twisted length of string and tie a quick knot somewhere near its middle before sitting it atop the tea bag wrappers.

Once the pan has come to a good strong boil I hang the tea bags over it by grasping their tags and dip them in. Dragging them in a few circuits I circle them about allowing them to sink in and then wrap the trailing string around the pan’s handle. At this point I generally reduce my heat as well down to around medium or just bellow.

I allow the tea to continue to boil for the next 3 minutes, and take the time to place two cups of sugar into the bottom of a gallon pitcher along with a long handled spoon. Once those 3 minutes are up I remove the pan from the heat (making sure to turn it off mind you, safety first) and allow it to steep for about 5 minutes.

After those 5 minutes are up I then unwrap my tea bag’s tie off and lift them just over the top of the liquid. By this point my twisted bundle typically begins to start to spin while the swollen sacks drip dark fluid. Patiently I wait for the steady drip to slow until it becomes almost non-existent before I remove the tea bags and relocate them into the trash can.

The still quasi-hot liquid is then poured ever so carefully into the pitcher where it is stirred to mix with the sugar. Cold water is added to the pan and dumped into the pitcher before I place the pitcher directly beneath the faucet or continue to ferry water with the pan. In fairly short order the pitcher is filled and the stirring slows to a stop, leaving the only remaining necessities being a lid and storage in the fridge.

Now, I can honestly admit that my tea making technique is not the one on the side of the box. Nor is it the precise method my mother taught me regarding how to make it. I could explain away every reason behind some of my various steps (like the twisting and spinning of the strings to prevent hunting around for individual strands or how it helps me spin out the bags afterwards) but then I could be at this all day I am afraid.

There are countless other ways to make tea; possibly you’d find new ones being developed every day. And, for the record, my way doesn’t make my tea any better than another’s. You could even argue that my tea making technique has virtually zero impact on the end result. But for me it makes sense, it works and it is how I always do it. If I watch someone else I puzzle over their own process. I won’t deny I may occasionally offer advice or mention how I do it differently.

But despite how you do it, or the way you think about such things the truth is tea is still made. We all have our ways, our methods and each one of us looks at things differently. You may plan out your story one way or start a project in a manner alternative to another. But we all end up with some result. My way might work well for me but not for you, doesn’t make it better or worse – just different.

Kind of like how we all are.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Colossatron: Massive World Threat – An Android App Review.

Colossatron: Massive World Threat – An Android App Review.

First off; full disclosure time folks. For the record and in case you aren’t familiar with my situation I am a disabled husband and father of four. So, what that means without putting to fine a point on it is that I don’t have a lot of flexibility with my finances. In short, when it comes to things like apps in general I never ever have the luxury of purchasing them. Instead I make do on the vast array of free apps, Amazon’s infamous Free App of the Day, and on occasion a promotional credit. The later is what I have to thank for the subject of this review.

Now, with that bit out of the way, allow me to continue. Like I said; I recently found myself with a promotional credit on the Amazon App Store and since I never purchase apps I was in a bit of a peculiar position. What do you do with an available credit towards apps when you yourself never can consider buying them? So I began actively looking through the various offerings and tried to weigh my options. Even if it was just a promotional credit and not my own cash I wasn’t about to simply throw it around wastefully.

It took me quite some time (I primarily scouted around sporadically here and there) before I stumbled into a game that both showed some promise and continually kept popping up. Still hesitant, I cross referenced its reviews and preview info on multiple app stores to better get a feel for it. Sadly I am just not one of those people who can comfortably snag something like an app without some careful thought. Maybe it’s the knowledge that dollar signs are attached but in any event I had to rule out some potential pitfalls first.

What I found when I finally took the plunge and clicked purchase was an absolute delight to be blunt. Colossatron proves a positively enjoyable experience that can be described as simple complexity or if you prefer, complex simplicity. What I mean by that is the basic core mechanic of the game is one that is arguably so simple, yet in its simplicity there is a satisfyingly complex blending.

You are the title character of the game, Colossatron, a robotic dragon like creature that crash lands from space to declare itself a literal “Massive World Threat.” As it rampages through cities and towns colored body segments appear that you can drag to join with Colossatron. Each color has a different type of function or capability. For example red segments sport missile launching turrets while blue blasts electricity. But the interesting angle doesn’t lie in the basic primary colored ‘powercores,’ but instead in mixing and matching them.

Just as we all learned in elementary art class; if you mix two primary colors you can get a secondary one. Want to put a red piece next to a blue? Surprise! You then get a purple piece that replaces the previous two (and I might add provides a potent rail gun to blast foes). Put three sections of the same color in a row and they will morph into a superior version of themselves with all three joining into a single piece.

By combining these different sections in a variety of ways you can drastically affect how Colossatron causes catastrophe. If you focus on fewer more refined powercores you can enjoy some satisfying superior firepower, but at the cost of your survivability. Instead, if you are determined to stick with a longer string of smaller segments you can handle much more punishment but struggle with dishing out that devastation.

And if all this wasn’t enough for you, you gain access to unlocking an array or upgrades via an in-game armory purchasable by ‘prisms’ you obtain during each city. Or, after defeating a zone’s capital you open up new gadgets that provide you with flexible new powers or abilities to enhance your play style. Your gadgets are even changeable, albeit at the cost of prisms.

Between each city in a zone you also gain access to a handful of other options available to you for purchase via the in game cash you constantly accumulate by destroying everything in your path. You can purchase additional powercores (which you can click on to rotate through the different colors before connecting), repair all your powercores at once, or buy special power ups like shields, mega bomb and rapid-fire. And, unless you have already unlocked a gadget to do so at will, you can pay to reconfigure your various sections into an alternative order.

All in all, these seemingly simple elements manage to masterfully mix into a complex creation of fun. Each zone is a similar series of scenarios that once you get the hang of is familiar but still challenging. And, should your Colossatron be defeated you have the option of reforming him back to the state he started the level with at the cost of some prisms. If you can’t afford to do so, or simply find it more prudent not to, you can allow the set back to start back at the first city. You do keep any cash or prisms however, and I find that at times it can be wiser to do so.

The prevalent themes in the plot are pun-filled cheese that never takes itself seriously and even pays homage to 80’s/90’s animation. There is an antagonistic military figure known as “General Mustache,” for example. A desk bound news caster chronicles your exploits while his intrepid field compatriot is ever on the scene to relay breaking updates. The entire story is simple and satisfyingly enjoyable.

My only caveats I can highlight are the fact that at times the chaos of your never-ending campaign of carnage can be a little overwhelming on the screen and cause you to lose track of things slightly. Coupled with the fact that your prisms are used to unlock various mechanics or revive yourself – a feature that you can purchase more in game with real money is potentially a problem for less patient players. I’ve never had any trouble with beating zones and moving forward on my own, all that has been required is some patience and playing my way back through the zones cities.

I haven’t beaten the game yet but I do get the impression that it isn’t exactly going to be much longer so if you have issues with short games that might bother you. But for me the game is so much fun as it is that I can easily see myself simply starting it over as soon as it ends. The game does allow for players to replay previous areas in a ‘survival mode,’ to try and best their friend’s high scores online. I haven’t tried this aspect yet and in truth see no real appeal in doing so. However if that is something for you it is an option.

Colossatron: Massive World Threat is a game that is easily worth its $0.99 price tag in my opinion. I’d give it 4 ½ out of 5 stars no question. My only reservation that might keep it from a five star rating would be the fact that others might see the in app purchasing element a requirement for being successful in the game and I would be thrilled to see it perhaps a tad longer in length ( with more areas or slightly different tactical challenges for some). Everything aside; Colossatron is a blast that excels at playing for short sessions to kill time or relax. I may not ever have experienced it otherwise but I am glad I was able to – it’s a load of world wrecking fun.

 Colossatron is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and many more. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Quiver of Questions.

Spring-boarding right off my last post I thought I might continue my initial train of thought and share with you a little 'quiver of questions,' if you will. The idea here is to provide with you a list of about 42 questions you can ask yourself as you begin any story. And, perhaps as you try to answer them you might even find new questions to expand on them as you go.

I've tried to keep them as neutral and unassuming as possible to help make them flexible enough to fit a variety of stories. Feel free to experiment with them as you shape your next story, add to them or disregard any you choose.

Your quiver of questions:

Who is the main character?

Why are they involved?

Who helps them?

Are there others who might help them or have some connection?

What motivates the hero?

Do they have any faults or strengths?

Where is the conflict?

Where does the story take place?

What kind of story is this?

What kind of tone is it told in?

Are there any major themes or minor plots involved?

Will there be any connection to other or ongoing stories?

Who is the villain?

Why are they the villain?

What resources do the have?

Do they have manpower they can call on?

What makes them so dangerous?

Do they have any redeeming qualities?

Is anyone stuck in the middle?

What is the scope of the story?

Will it take place in multiple locations or over large stretches of time?

Will there be any casualties, wounded victims or anyone hurt in some way?

How serious and/or mature will the story be?

Is the setting going to be significant in any way?

How much of the story’s setting will be seen and how much will remain from view?

Are there any important figures that are prominent in the story?

Do any organizations exist as a feature or plot element to the story?

Is there any legal or illegal enforcement present in the story (cops, gangs etc.)?

How advanced is the story setting, or if not how primitive is it?

Are there any pets involved?

Does the hero or villain have any family, children or loyal companions?

Will there be any complications that may arise during the story?

How easy or difficult will the hero or villain have it?

Does either have any handicaps or limitations?

How much violence will the story have?

Do guns or other weapons become a feature in the story?

Is there any supernatural, paranormal or advanced pseudo-science elements involved in the story?

What ruling powers or authorities are there in the story?

Are there in officials or representatives of said governments etc. that are involved in the story?

Why will they be involved in the story?

What is the overall generalized plot going to be?

Will there be any love interests or romance?

Hope it helps. Now, take aim, get ready and question at will!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ask The Questions You Don’t Know The Answers To.

Ask The Questions You Don’t Know The Answers To.

As cliche as it must sound, I have to confess I always start out any potential story by working it out by writing my thoughts down. And, as unhealthy as it may also appear, a big part of that involves placing myself into two separate parts of a conversation on the matter. Yes, that’s right; the literary equivalent to talking to myself.

Allow me to elaborate (you’re free to think of me whatever you like later). Questions are a valuable tool when you’re trying to plot out your stories… plot. I try to question myself at every possible point that I can before I ever even begin writing. Hence the internal interrogation so to speak I mentioned before. But the most important questions you can ask yourself are the ones you don’t already know the answer to.

Let’s say for example you already know that you are going to write a super fun adventure romp about a courageous young knight hoping to earn fame and riches. So asking yourself what motivates him might be futile, since you already know he seeks glory and gold. But what if you asked yourself something like just how far the young hero is prepared to go in order to reach his goal? How much would he sacrifice for that renown? How much would he pay for a pile of treasure? And, in the end would it even really be worth it to them?

One of the best things I have found in my experience to do is to always ask yourself every question you can. Ask why the hero is even involved, ask what makes the bad guy so bad, and even ask where everything is going to go from where you are at. The important thing is that you are asking every question you can. Especially if it is one you don’t know the answer to.

Everybody at some time or another that writes a story finds they are missing some detail in their work. Maybe they overlooked the fact that they never fleshed out where the hero came from, or what the name of some other character was. No matter what it was we all stumble into these kinds of things. But perhaps by questioning things as we go we can help eliminate some of these potential thorns.

Now my method of talking it out with myself might not be the most productive application for everyone. I’ll freely admit that, for you it might work better to use this technique in a different way. But however you make use of it; it cannot hurt you to ask yourself questions while you write. Try to put yourself on the other side of the desk, look at it from both angles. If you’re going to have a hammer swinging savior ask yourself why they wield the weapon. Try to reason out an answer to any element of the plot you can.

Finally I’ll leave you with an excerpt from some of my own pre-story notes to further highlight my point by example:

From a potential future story tentatively titled ‘Time Enough for Trouble.”

Time Enough for Trouble

Samuel Stormcrow is a man with a certain predisposition for always finding trouble wherever he goes. And as a wandering nomad with no place to call home that often doesn’t help him when it comes to making friends. But when he finds himself being escorted into a orbital star port under the false claim of charges he is unable to resist waiting around to see just what trouble is about to come calling. One should always make time for a little trouble – otherwise you miss out on all the fun.

Who is the main character?
Samuel Stormcrow – wandering wildcard and often regarded as an ill-omen everywhere he turns up. A lean built, witty wanderer who has an unnatural talent for being very good at surviving. Samuel is quite capable of thinking on his feet, and infamous for being followed by trouble. However, Samuel never runs from a problem and in fact looks on trouble as something fun. To him each bizarre encounter is another entertaining tale to tell later on down the road. He has been bouncing around from port to port since he was little – the only thing that feels like home is the familiar feel of hustling travelers and the like.

To describe Samuel; let’s say he is a lean waifish young man with ruffled coal black hair and eyes that shimmer like pools of frosted pond water. He is somewhat of a carefree witty happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Samuel enjoys a good bit of fun and abhors boredom above all. While he isn’t one typically known to be the aggressor in a fight he doesn’t back down from one either. In fact he often provokes such confrontations both unintentionally and sometimes on purpose. Samuel isn’t known for carrying a weapon per se, but he is infamous for his knack of making use of his surroundings to improvise implements of use. He is a vast repertoire of random knowledge, useless facts, and meaningless stories including irritating anecdotes. In short – he is a wandering man with a talented tongue, razor sharp wit, and extensive experiences with which to draw on. His only real fault, if you can call it such, is an unlikely coincidence for showing up prior to unfortunate events.

With regards to his name; Samuel is very protective of his name – being Samuel. He considers it quite rude and almost an insult to be referred to as Sam, Sammy etc instead of his given name. His name is the only thing he was given as a child that wasn’t taken from him. He grew up orphaned and shuffling around, his name being etched on the inside of his jacket. Samuel has no knowledge of his family, birthplace or past beyond his earliest memories. The moniker of Stormcrow was bestowed upon him in his youth as a nickname because everyone constantly claimed he preceded their own ill fortune. It was, unfortunately a name that simply stuck with him so he eventually opted to adopt it. Why fight fate when you could embrace it and enjoy the ride? He looks on the name with a sense of ironic pride, since it provides him a feeling of identity. Samuel has kept the etched name patch from his childhood jacket and transferred it to every jacket he has ever worn since.

Does he carry even a single keepsake or scrap of belongings? Perhaps aside from his comfortable yet somewhat resilient clothing he carries with him an old rather rough for wear chronometer. An aged mechanical model that provides him a rudimentary means to keep time, calculate his position etc. To others it is probably considered scrap, but to him it is a cherished treasure that he prizes. He carries little or no money, preferring to get by through fortune, circumstance and skill. He relies on whatever is around him to make use of and survives mainly through ingenuity or resolve.

What does Samuel do for money? Well, for starters; he hasn’t managed to endure his life on the road this long without picking up a wealth of tricks and wayward wisdom. When he has a need typically he engages in whatever means he has to. Whether that is him peddling tales or poetry for a hot mug, tricking traveling tradesmen out of a few coins, all the way down to patching a modest merchants malfunctioning motor.

What motivates Samuel to wander like he does? Consider the fact that he has never known a home other than the road. Then add in the element of his ever-following misfortune – which inevitably casts a lingering shadow of doubt on one Samuel Stormcrow. Together you have a recipe for a never-ending supply of cold welcomes and rude rushes to emphasize Samuel hurriedly move along.

But what brings him to his current stop; being the setting of the story? Perhaps during his last visit somewhere a report was made that named him as a wanted individual in a crime/investigation. Even though the matter was settled, due to the nature of events that transpired the report was never updated. That being the case, he is picked up by a bounty hunter and escorted back to the nearest outpost with a stationed official to claim his reward.

Each question I asked myself allowed me to shape some answer to further form a foundation for the story. Your mileage may vary but for me I find talking it out with myself by writing my thoughts down to be quite valuable. Hope it helps you, and if you want to share your own thoughts on the matter – or any of your own tricks feel free to comment. Everyone has something to share or teach that can help others improve. What helps you?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Some Stories Are Hard To Tell For A Reason.

I've been making up little stories, spinning fabricated fantasies in one form or another since I was quite a young man. At first I did it without realizing it; telling myself little elaborate daydreams I could imagine while playing. Over time though, I was introduced through school to the notion of writing them down. Which eventually led me to refining them - at first for my yearly portfolio for class and later for myself.

And in all that time I cannot stress to you one very unmistakable truth that even now haunts me; some stories are just hard to tell. It may be a wonderfully glorious idea in your head. Maybe it was a gripping action scene that set you off to develop further. But at the end of the day, despite all your best efforts, you find yourself struggling to make it work.

It happens. Not every story is a gleaming gem that just rolls right out of your mental manufacturing center. Sometimes you just can't quite get the protagonist's tone just right, or maybe the character just doesn't even work like you want it to. I've even found myself working on a story under the grip of a passionate fervor only to open my eyes a short while later and realize that there was just nothing there. The scene may have been amazing, the intro a wonderful hook, or perhaps the character just dripping with detail and depth. But the plot just wasn't going anywhere, or the world around the little segment was simply absent.

Does that mean the story is not worth telling? I'm not going to lie and say that I don't have countless scraps of paper, notes or even text files that just trail off with such story shards. You might say it goes with the territory of being a writer, even if you just do it as a hobby. But that doesn't mean that those tattered would-be tales aren't worth telling.

Just because you started a story only to run into a roadblock of sorts doesn't ever mean that you should abandon it. In fact, I would wager that it is those very stories that we struggle with that slumber with the promise of elevating us towards increasing our skills. A craftsman may lack the tools or technique to complete a project the first time he attempts it, but by facing it he can identify his shortcomings and thereby begin to address them.

Actually, I had an idea for a story some many months back but due to my own lack of confidence coupled with my recent Carpal Tunnel issues I keep shelving it. I've worked up some detailed notes, tinkered with analyzing a potential plot - I've even attempted writing it's opening several times. And every time I find myself at a loss. But, you know what? I'm not going to give up. I had the idea for this tale, and I really believe that if I knuckle down and keep coming back to it that I can get a handle on it and tell a story that might just be better than I thought myself capable.

In order to do just that I'll have to get back to the core of things. First of all, you have to really know just what your story is going to be about. Where will it lead and who will it involve? To combat my own unease with starting the story it is imperative that I establish exactly who my protagonist is, their tone, traits, flaws and in general everything about them. I shouldn't be struggling with speaking for them, much less grasping at their motivations.

If you have started to write a story and find yourself having to ask things like; "What lead them to this point," or "Why are they the hero," then you need to start over. Even with a general idea of what you want the plot to be, who your hero or heroine is etc. you have got to lay your groundwork. Without some structure to build on you are only going to be fast and loose with the details. And if you, the person shaping the story, don't know where it is going you run the dangerous risk of derailing it before it begins.

So, take my advice - for whatever it's worth; plan ahead, plan some more, and then take every note you can. I know that is exactly the advice I plan on making use of. I'm going to review every aspect of my notes thus far and then start asking myself every question I can think of to refine my story. You can never have too many notes, and if you have details you don't need, characters you may not use as much or even aspects of the setting that never become necessary it doesn't hurt you by having them.