Art of the Day: Black Widow

Black Widow. Digital painting in Photoshop with Wacom tablet.

Black Widow. Digital painting in Photoshop with Wacom tablet.

Did this one while re-watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I was thisclose to drawing Steve Rogers instead but then I realized that Natasha Romanoff is far more appealing to stare at for the 3-4 hours it took to draw the picture.

Art of the Day: My kitty, RIP

Snickers, 1996-2015. Digital painting in Photoshop with Wacom tablet.

Snickers, 1996-2015. Digital painting in Photoshop with Wacom tablet.

Nineteen-ish years ago, when my family was moving houses, my parents decided that we needed a new cat. My mother and I were both allergic, but we adored cats, so we decided it was worth it. At the farm supply store in town, they were selling the kittens of a feral cat. We bought a quiet, pretty one and named her Snickers.

Of course, she was feral, and we hadn’t realized what that would mean until we got her home. She didn’t like people. She didn’t like being touched. She didn’t purr. She didn’t realize that we were actual living creatures. The bare ankles she attacked in the hallways at night weren’t connected to the same person as the hands that tried to pet her or give her food. Once, I was holding her while feeding her a meatball, and when someone went to pet her, she bit me because she thought we wanted to steal her food. We all ended up having to get tetanus shots after various attacks.

A year or so later, we adopted another kitten, this one a pudgy, friendly cat who loved people and would start purring loudly the moment you entered the room she was in. That cat we named Skittles. The two cats hated each other from the start, and would fight regularly. The only times they would ever tolerate each other’s proximity was when the doorbell would ring and they’d both run to the top of the stairs to stare at the door in wide-eyed unease. They constantly vied for dominance, but Snickers always ended up as the alpha cat.

Still, over the years Snickers learned a lot from Skittles. She learned how to look us in the eye to get our attention and lead us to the door or her empty water dish when she wanted something. She learned how to meow at the window when she wanted to come inside, although it was the tiniest little meow you’d ever heard. She learned how to purr, although it was very hard to tell when she was purring because it was so quiet that you’d need to put your ear up to her head to hear it, and no one ever wanted to get that close to her.

She had a tear duct problem and would cry blood like a Bond villain. One year, we gave her off-brand flea medication and it gave her scar tissue in her other eye that pinned one side of her pupil open, giving her the weird triangular eye that you can see in the picture above.

In her later years, she mellowed. When she was outdoors and we drove in the driveway, she’d come running over to greet us and rub against our legs. She loved my dad because he gave her snacks, so she followed him everywhere in the house and would sleep at the foot of his bed. She only ever purred when my dad was around.

Once, she climbed onto my mother’s lap while my mom was sitting in the sun and settled down for a nap. My mother was frozen in anxiety, too afraid to move in case Snickers decided to attack. Eventually we lured Snickers away with some turkey. It was the only time she ever did it.

Eventually she even decided she liked getting her head scratched. If you held out your hand to her, she’d sniff it carefully, then duck her head under your hand to give you the hint.

In the last year or two, she started to show her age. She had arthritis in her tail and could no longer sit. The process of going from standing to laying down was a slow, painful maneuver that took over five minutes. She could no longer groom herself, and hated being brushed, so her fur got matted and tangled. She developed kitty dementia and forgot where her water dish or food bowls were, and sometimes got lost outside and needed to be guided home. She forgot how to use a litter box. She had terrible balance and weak hind legs and would fall over at the slightest breeze.

Wednesday, she started having trouble eating. We could have had the vet examine her and see what was wrong, but it would stress her out too much and the odds were good that there was nothing we could do to improve her quality of life. We brought her to the vet last night and got a chance to say goodbye to her before she was put to sleep.

She was a difficult cat to love, but I wouldn’t trade her for the world. Though it was hard to tell at times, I think she had a happy life. It was certainly a long one. She was around for more than half my life, and I honestly can’t imagine this house without her. I’ll miss her.

Good night, kitty. I love you.

Nanowrimo Now What?: The Synopsis

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

In the second part of my “Nanowrimo Now What?” posts, I’m going to talk about writing a synopsis. This might seem like jumping the gun; after all, you’re not going to be querying agents for this monstrosity you’ve written just yet. But a synopsis can be used for more than just getting an agent interested in your story. It’s a key editing tool for figuring out what the heck your story is even trying to say.

When the rough draft of your novel has been spewed out onto the page, it might not look like what you first planned, if you planned at all. For people who write organically, you probably didn’t know where the story was going to end up until you got there, and that’s fine! For people who outline, you probably discovered along the way that the story needed to take a different direction at a certain point, or some key plot elements that seemed obvious in the pre-writing stages turned out to be unfeasible when you actually got to them in the story. When that happens, you need a synopsis.

If you really want to learn about writing a synopsis, go to Miss Snark’s blog and check out her critiques of various synopses. Actually, read everything she has to say about everything, because she’s got a lot of good advice.

A few things I learned from her:

The synopsis does not need to talk about every plot point in the story. It’s not really possible to fit your whole novel plot into the two to three pages (or less!) that a lot of agents ask for. So instead, look for the main character arc, and summarize that. Where did the main character start? What did she work to accomplish? How was she changed along the way? How does that fit with the theme of the story? What is the point to the whole thing? Forget all the side characters and details. This isn’t your story bible. This is just a broad summary of the main theme of the book.

On the other hand, you don’t want a character study. We need to see the specific events that changed your character, not just how they changed. You don’t need to follow the chronology of the book. Write the events as they logically lead into each other.

Make sure you put the stakes front and center. What does the main character stand to lose? What is her motivation? What does she want, specifically, at the beginning of the novel, and how does she get it?

Forcing yourself to whittle down your novel into a svelte synopsis makes you focus purely on the bones of the novel. If you can’t answer the questions I asked above, then there are some big things missing from your novel. This is why you want to do the synopsis now, when you’re beginning editing, and not wait until after you’ve polished the fifth draft to a high shine and are ready to send it out. If you have any major plot holes, you’ll find that out now. If your main character doesn’t really have any strong desires and just lets herself be wafted about on the winds of fate, that’ll show up too.

Once you finish your synopsis and find all the incoherent plot points and unmotivated characters, put that synopsis aside and write a new one. This time, make sure it makes sense. Keep it broad. You don’t need to go into the details now. What you want is to make sure your story has strong bones before you start putting the meat on it. And yes, I know you’ve already written this thing, but the first draft is really just a method of piling up a heap of words so you can pick through it later to find the good stuff. You’re going to need to do another draft or two (or three or four) before this story is really done. So take this time to fix the mistakes you found in your first draft.

There. You’ve finished the synopsis. Now you have your blueprint for how the second draft is going to go. Time to get to work.

Game Review: 7 Days to Die

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 8.12.13 PMMy gaming buddy Mel bought me 7 Days to Die a few days ago to replace Minecraft, since she can’t join the server at the moment. I’d watched a Let’s Play of the game a while ago and it looked interesting but was still in early alpha, so I hadn’t checked it out. Right now it’s on alpha build 10.4 and is a thoroughly enjoyable game. If they iron out the remaining bugs, it would be well worth the money.

Come at me bro

Come at me bro

7 Days to Die is a sandbox survival horror zombie game set in a post-apocalyptic world. You have the choice between a pre-built world or a randomly generated one, both of which have a range of biomes from snowy woods to barren desert to fire-scorched wasteland. During the day, zombies roam around, stumbling at half your speed, hunting you if they sense you nearby. At night, they sprint at twice your speed and will break through anything including solid stone if they know you’re on the other side.

Spider zombies run like dogs at night which is kind of terrifying.

Spider zombies run like dogs at night which is kind of terrifying.

In terms of user interface, it’s very similar to Minecraft. You collect resources like wood and stones and plant fibers, and can use them to craft tools or building blocks to build your base. You can mine for iron, or you can melt down metal things you find in a forge. Your hunger and thirst levels are very important, and making sure you cook your food or boil lake water before drinking it can mean the difference between life and death. You can hunt animals or grow your own crops. You can also make guns or crossbows or land minds to assault other players on the same server.

Motor oil. That should come in handy.

Motor oil. That should come in handy.

Where 7 Days excels is in going a step beyond typical survival horror games in its realism. The things you build can only hold so much weight, and sometimes you might climb out onto a second floor balcony to escape a zombie and find the whole thing collapses under your combined weight. If you drink untreated water, you can get dysentery, which doesn’t go away until you take antibiotics, which are surprisingly hard to find. Uncooked or spoiled food can give you temporary food poisoning, which will definitely slow you down. A broken limb needs to be splinted until it heals. Neglecting your hunger and thirst levels reduces your overall wellness, giving you fewer hit points to work with. If you hunt a deer and collect its meat, the smell of the meat can lure in zombies for as long as you carry it. The more time you spend in an area and the more noises and scents you make, the more zombies will be attracted to it, and the more you risk calling down the horde.

Less realistic: the zoms that stroll along riverbeds.

Less realistic: the zoms that stroll along riverbeds.

The horde is the truly scary part of the came. It’s not quite like the raging horde in Left 4 Dead, but only because zombies are far more likely to kill you in 7 Days. A pack of twenty zombies sprinting toward your base in the darkness and clawing through the walls can destroy days of work, and the more noise you make fighting them, the more zombies will come your way. Mel and I holed up in a farmhouse and naively lit it with torches in our first play-through, and on day seven, the horde tore through that place like butter, collapsing our barn and ripping the house to pieces. They even destroyed our couch. Using a gun only called in more. It’s the kind of game where stealth is a better option than trying to mow down the enemy with more firepower. It certainly makes the game more stressful when you choose to crouch in a dark house, listening to the footsteps of a half dozen zombies crunch through the gravel on the other side of the wall, praying they won’t sense you.

Hosting your own server is ridiculously easy with 7 Days. You don’t even have to port forward. After months weeping over my Minecraft server, the ease of this game is refreshing. Servers are also customizable, so you can change the difficulty level, percentage of day versus night, the length of a 24 hour cycle, whether you drop all your inventory on death or just some of it, and so on.

There’s an option to play a server in creative mode, so you can access all the objects in the game and build your own base easily. Some objects are only accessible in creative mode.

You're probably wondering why I called you all here.

You’re probably wondering why I called you all here.

The game has its flaws. The main issue I have with it is the extreme lag. Half the time things run smooth. The other half of the time, especially when a horde is spawning in, the game slows down to a crawl, and everything moves in extreme slow motion. It feels like fighting off a horde of zombies while swimming through honey. But sometimes it’s laggy even with no discernible reason. Walking through wasteland is especially hard.

Sensible apocalypse clothing.

Sensible apocalypse clothing.

You start the game in your underwear, and lose any clothes you found whenever you die. My character spends nearly all her time in a bra and panties (and seriously, a strapless bra? Really? Was she on her way to a formal party when the apocalypse started, and she somehow lost her dress?), and occasionally in a hat or shoes if she finds them. Armor covers you up, but only to a certain extent.

Much better.

Much better.

And honestly, it’s so easy to die that some of the debuffs like being infected or having a broken limb aren’t much of a drawback, since you know you’re going to die from one hit soon anyway. I’ve never used a splint or antibiotics in the game because there’s no point. Sure, dying often means I’ll lose wellness points and have fewer hit points overall, but it’s really impossible to stay alive more that five or ten minutes at a time even with all the food and antibiotics you can eat.

You drop a backpack full of your inventory whenever you die.

You drop a backpack full of your inventory whenever you die.

Overall, I’d give it three out of five stars. The score will go up if the bugs are fixed by the official release. Is it worth the money? I’d wait for a Steam sale, honestly, but I do think it’s worth it.

A fresh start

Our traditional New Year's Eve sushi extravaganza.

Our traditional New Year’s Eve sushi.

I survived the end of December, although just barely. I got ridiculously sick on Christmas Eve and decided to spread the cheer by giving the cold to all of my friends and family.

My New Year’s resolutions are, like every year, about writing. This time I’m being a little more concrete with my goals. The three things I’d like to do in the new year are:

  • Write more
  • Walk more
  • Art more

To make this more tangible, I’ve made it my goal to do at least one of these things each day before I sink back into video games. I can either put a small amount of effort towards all three (a couple sketches, some brainstorming, and an exercise class), put a moderate amount towards two of them (make my 10,000 step daily goal and also write about 2,000 words), or put a great deal of effort towards one (run a 5k, do a binge writing session of 5,000+ words, or do a whole illustration). I think this is a more sustainable way of doing it, at least for myself. Having a variety of choices will take away that feeling of being stuck in a rut.

A while back my friend Méabh mentioned a writing and dieting plan that said you could eat as many calories as the number of words you’d written that day. Works well for people who want to write 1,500-2,500 words a day, but isn’t that healthy if it strays too far out of that range. I thought that another way of doing it would be to pick a number (say 12,000) and give myself the goal of reaching that number through number of steps walked, number of words written, or a combination of the two. The more I walk, the less I have to write, and vice versa. So far this year I’ve done very well with keeping my combo count at or over 12,000 but it’s only January 7th, so we’ll see.

Anyone else have any concrete plans for doing better in the new year? How long do you expect to last at it?