Dissecting Rogue One – A Writing Exercise

Disclaimer: This post will contain *heavy* spoilers for Rogue One, summarizing the plot from start to finish. Do not read this if you haven’t seen the movie.

jyn

[Our heroine.]

I loved Rogue One, as did many people. However, different people had different experiences, and even those who liked the movie have called out flaws. One of the most common flaws I hear is that the main characters didn’t have a decent arc, and that the characters weren’t well-developed, particularly Jyn Erso.

I have the opposite opinion. I loved the characters (especially Jyn!) and I saw clear character arcs. Many feel differently, and I want to be clear I’m not looking for an argument. I was simply fascinated that people could experience a movie so differently, and wanted to explore why it worked so well for me. For purposes of brevity, I’m only going through Jyn’s arc, though I feel the others have arcs as well.

Before we get started, we need to talk about how Rogue One tells its story. Rogue One relies heavily on what I call the “iceberg” method of storytelling. Rather than having character motivations and backstories spelled out (here’s a flashback that shows everything, or characters monologuing their innermost feelings!) all we are shown is the tip of a (figurative) iceberg. The rest is left for us to infer from character action and dialogue.

troopersblog

[Taking cover is for chumps. Stormtroopers charge the laser fire.]

A writer using the iceberg method sees the entire iceberg, of course. They know their character well, but choose to feed us only small clues. They show us things about their characters, rather than telling us, and let us put the pieces together. They raise questions we want to answer.

The writer lets us connect the dots (like a detective) instead of connecting them for us, and personally, I find this really fun. What follows is my recollection of what happens in the movie and how it built Jyn’s character and gave her a great character arc – for me, at least.

We begin with Jyn as a child, with two parents who seem to love her very much. This doesn’t last, obviously, because Krennic arrives. Jyn has known something like this might happen for some time – we see this when she busts into the house and says “They’re coming!” Yet Jyn arrives before the shuttle, and is ready to grab her “bug out bag” and run. This shows us Jyn is already a level-headed person, even as a child.

deathtroopers

[Don’t run. We just want to borrow some milk.]

While Galen goes to try to trick Krennic into leaving, Jyn flees with her mother. Yet the scenes with Jyn’s parents aren’t really about Galen and Lyra, but clues as to what they were like as parents. We start developing Jyn’s character by seeing who raised her.

As Galen confronts Krennic, we learn Galen was once a scientist working on an Imperial project who later left because he opposed the project on moral grounds. Galen is so brilliant that the work can’t be continued without him. So, now I know Jyn was raised by a father who was a brilliant scientist, but who also has a strong moral compass.

This tells me a lot about her character, even in this first scene. I imagine Jyn has been exposed to logic, critical thinking, and pragmatism, as well as being taught a strong sense of right and wrong. So Jyn is already pragmatic, smart, and moral.

We then cut to Jyn with her mother, a scene that couldn’t be more different from Krennic and Galen. Lyra seems to be a very spiritual woman, as demonstrated by her talk to Jyn about trusting the Force and by gifting her the Force crystal. So now I know Jyn’s other parent was a very spiritual woman with a strong belief in justice, goodness, and the Force.

So five minutes into the movie, I already know Jyn was raised by a critically thinking, moral scientist and a spiritual and free-thinking mother. That’s a great contrast, meaning she’s been exposed to many perspectives. So Jyn probably has a strong pragmatic side but is also open to the more touchy-feely spiritual side as well. Neat!

youngjyn

[Unfortunately for Jyn’s mother, she’s in a Disney movie.]

Now, what happens next? Jyn sees her mother killed, then gets chased by Death Troopers. She manages to hide and waits. There’s a storytelling cue Jyn was hiding for a *long* time … her light is almost dead. For all that time (Hours? Days?) Jyn was stuck in the dark, alone, having just seen her mother murdered, waiting for a father who doesn’t come.

Now consider what we’ve just learned about Jyn. As a child, after she witnessed her mother’s murder, she locked herself in a dark hole for an eternity while guys literally called DEATH TROOPERS hunted for her. That’ll mess any kid up. Finally, Saw arrives, the man who we saw Galen call earlier. He opens the door and looks down at Jyn.

And then, the flashback ENDS.

If we weren’t using the iceberg method, we’d have a montage here. We’d see a succession of scenes where Jyn grows up. First, Jyn’s a child distracting Stormtroopers. Next she’s a young teen planting a thermal detonator. Next she’s an older teen, in a firefight besides Saw’s revolutionaries. It would be annoyingly obvious Saw raised her as a freedom fighter.

But we don’t see that montage, because that’s BORING. We don’t beat you over the head with “Hey, this is how Jyn becomes a rebel!” because that’s been done to death. Instead, Saw opens that door … and we quick cut to Jyn, now an adult, locked in an Imperial prison.

It’s at this moment I’m hooked. Instead of a montage, I got a mystery! There’s a story here, and I don’t know that story yet, but I want to know it. I am intrigued!

adultjyn

[That cute child is now this woman, and trust me, she’s seen some ****.]

Somehow, the events I just saw led to adult Jyn stuck in an Imperial prison. Her cellmate, the one person she might connect with given her situation, snorts obnoxiously, and Jyn wrinkles her nose – no sympathy or interest, just distaste. Jyn isn’t interested in making friends, but why? What made her this way? I’m trying to puzzle it out.

The next time we see Jyn, she’s in an Imperial prison transport. She doesn’t seem scared, just resigned. Maybe she’s been on the run so long that she has lost the will to fight. Or maybe she’s biding her time. I don’t know, but it is obvious she’s been knocked around and is world-weary. More character development.

The transport stops. Rebels bust in and blast the Stormtroopers. One rebel turns to Jyn and says “You want to be free?” Jyn nods eagerly, smiling.

“Oh!” I think. Her rebel alliance buddies came to save her! So Jyn must be a hardcore rebel (maybe recruited by Saw?) and this is her rescue by her buddies.

Actually no. The moment the rebel frees her, Jyn clocks her rebel “rescuer” in the face. I sit up and go “What?” Jyn decks the next guy too, taking both out with unarmed precision before K-2SO clotheslines her on the way out, WWF style.

k2so

[Reprogrammed Imperial droid / Pro-Wrestler.]

After that scene I’m thinking, damn, this woman can fight, but more importantly, she has zero love for the rebel alliance, even though they just rescued her from the Empire. But why would she hate the rebels? What turned the child I saw in the first scene into this embittered loner? I want to solve this mystery!

Cut to Yavin Four. Jyn is being escorted to meet with the rebel leaders. General Draven lists her crimes: stealing, resisting arrest, assaulting Imperials. He also says she is “currently” using a specific alias, implying Jyn has had more than one alias. Now I know why Jyn was in that Imperial prison. I can fill in what happened between the flashback and now, which is fun.

At some point, Jyn probably had to resort to stealing (for shelter or food) and eventually got caught by Imperials. She was probably in hiding for a long time, unable to use her real name, scraping by on nothing to stay hidden. So why? What’s she running from? Krennic?

Mon Mothma arrives and tries to appeal to Jyn’s sense of patriotism and morality. It’s obvious from Jyn’s expression that she’s having none of that, reinforcing her disillusionment with the rebels. She’s obviously just biding her time until she can escape. She only perks up when Cassian enters the conversation and mentions her father, Galen.

Suddenly, Jyn’s interested in the conversation, but not just that. She’s visibly thrown off balance. Is she scared? Worried? Whatever it is, it’s obvious that Jyn still has feelings for Galen Erso, good or bad, even after all this time. So how does she feel about the father who abandoned her? I want to know! And we continue to add new facets to her character.

We learn the rebels want Jyn to connect them to Saw Gerrera (the man who rescued her in the first scene). They need Jyn to get them an introduction so they can retrieve a defecting Imperial pilot with plans to something very big – and Jyn agrees to help! Why?

It’s obvious Jyn doesn’t care about the rebels, doesn’t care about the Empire, and certainly doesn’t care about the defector or these plans. But she *does* care about her father, and this may lead her to him. Jyn may be a loner who wants nothing to do with this war, but she’s still connected to her family. More character development!

jyn02blog

The next critical moment that defines Jyn for us happens on Jedha. As they’re exploring the market, Jyn has a moment where Chirrut calls to her, despite being blind. He mentions the hidden necklace she’s wearing (her mother’s, connected with the Force!) and Jyn, rather than dismissing him or continuing to snark, approaches him with what might be an almost reverent look.

She’s not dismissing this. She looks at Chirrut with wide eyes, almost as if she’s convinced there is something spiritual about this man. Is Jyn thinking about her mother?

We saw Lyra Erso tell Jyn to trust in the Force. In this scene, we see that Jyn hasn’t discounted the Force entirely – she has just buried it deep. More development. She’s not so closed off and hardened as we thought. She has a spiritual side as well, buried.

This is followed by another critical (to Jyn’s character) scene where Saw’s rebels attack the Imperial kyber crystal transport. We see more evidence that Jyn is a great fighter (reinforcing that *someone* trained her), but, more importantly, we see Jyn spot a screaming little girl, an innocent bystander caught up in the battle. And Jyn reacts.

Without hesitation, Jyn dives into the open, facing blaster fire and death, selflessly saving the little girl before someone can blow her up. Moments later Jyn hands the girl to her mother, and we’ve just learned something new. Jyn will still risk her life to help others.

This reinforces the fact that just because Jyn is guarded doesn’t mean she isn’t a moral person. Her father’s influence? Another puzzle piece. Perhaps she keeps to herself not because she doesn’t want to help people, but because she was hurt in the past.

Finally, we get the big reveal we’ve wanted since that first flashback. Jyn meets Saw. We knew Saw rescued Jyn after she lost her parents, but that’s it. We knew nothing else. And in a few lines of dialogue, we finally learn another huge piece of what made Jyn who she is.

saw

[I used to be CGI, but I got old.]

Jyn was Saw Gerrera’s best rebel fighter. She fought with him for almost a decade, likely treating him as a surrogate father. She probably idolized him, worshipped him, and then, at 16, Saw abandoned her.

We finally know why Jyn has so much distaste for the rebel alliance – the man who got her into the alliance, the man who taught her how to fight and survive, the man she trusted with her life — betrayed and abandoned her. Just like her father, or so Jyn must believe.

Jyn may have believed in the rebel cause, once. Saw did! But not anymore. Not after being abandoned twice. Now I know why Jyn keeps people at arm’s length. And the rebels? What must Jyn have thought about the people who used her and then abandoned her (as she saw it?) The rebel alliance betrayed her, and now all the pieces from before come together.

Yet finding Saw and learning why he left isn’t enough to draw Jyn back into the rebel alliance. She still resents them. Remember, when Saw asks her if she’s fine with the Imperial flag flying over the galaxy, Jyn tells him “It’s not a problem as long as you don’t look up”. This tells us Jyn’s still in it for herself … for now.

jynatsaws

[Seriously? That’s your excuse for abandoning me? Jerk.]

Yet shortly after, Saw shows Jyn the transmission from her father, and Jyn learns the truth. Galen Erso never came for her, because if he had, the Empire would have had abducted Jyn. Galen feared she was dead and hated himself for never finding her, but he stayed away to protect her, and thought about her every day. He loves her dearly.

Jyn must have questioned why Galen didn’t come back every day since he left her. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was dead. But now she learns far from being a coward, her father sacrificed everything to give the rebels a chance – just a chance! – of destroying the Empire’s super weapon. Galen knew the Empire would build the Death Star, with or without him, and gave up his whole life (and Jyn) to stop them and save others.

Now we must imagine everything Jyn learned from Galen flooding back. Galen demonstrating his altruism and love for her is the first crack in the “I’m out for myself” wall Jyn built to protect herself. Jyn is changing! This is character development!

Then Jedha blows up.

Obviously, Jyn doesn’t have a lot of time to process the death of her (other) father, Saw. Her real father is alive, and she knows where Galen is (on Edo). She also  knows he’s in danger. Finally, Jyn knows that her father has given up everything to give the rebels a way to defeat the Death Star. For better or worse, the events of Jedha have changed Jyn. She’s not in this for herself any longer. Now, she’s in it to save her father.

cassianandk2

[Yeah, trust us. We’re totally going to Edo to save your father.]

Onwards to Edo, where Jyn sees her father in the flesh, from a distance. She has to speak to Galen, and makes the decision to put herself at risk. The rebel attack happens before she can reach her father, and he dies in her arms – yet not before telling her how much he loves her, and how proud he is of her. And losing her father, at long last, breaks her.

Jyn, who has not cried the entire movie, suddenly sobs inconsolably. This strong woman who fought through a city being nuked has to be dragged away from her dead father, by Cassian. Jyn finally got her father back only to watch him die, and it has wounded her.

Finally, back on the shuttle, Jyn puts it all together and realizes the rebellion ordered Cassian to assassinate her father. She knows the rebel alliance dropped the bomb that killed him. Once again, the rebel alliance betrayed her.

Everything in the Jyn we met at the start of the movie tells us she should run again, yet Jyn doesn’t run. She doubles down, because she’s a different person now. Her arc has progressed. She doesn’t abandon the rebels. Instead, she swears she will convince the rebels of her father’s story and retrieve those Death Star plans.

Because it’s not just about Jyn Erso now. She has just seen Jedha obliterated by the Empire, and now knows her (murdered) father gave up everything to stop this massive superweapon that could literally murder billions. Jyn now sees it as her duty to stop the Empire, even if she despises the Rebellion.

This is character progression! Jyn has gone from looking out for herself, to looking out for her father, to fully embracing her role as the only person who could show the rebels how to defeat this evil (the Death Star). She has changed, and this is obvious from the speech she gives the hesitant rebel alliance leadership.

“Rebellions are built on hope!” Jyn says, parroting Cassian’s earlier line – not because she believes it, necessarily, but because she *does* believe she must convince these people to trust her father and retrieve the Death Star plans. The earlier Jyn would never have made such a speech. And despite her newfound belief in resistance, she fails utterly.

councilblog

[Rebellions. Built on hope. And really big belt buckles.]

The rebel alliance chooses not to attack Scarif, so Jyn makes the decision to go after the plans herself, a suicide mission. Yet she doesn’t have to go alone, because Cassian and a whole bunch of other rebels moved by Jyn’s speech do show up. Jyn’s words have made them willing to fight for her and, more importantly, to stop the Empire.

Once on the shuttle, Jyn changes a little more. She smiles at these men and says “May the Force be with us.” Is she sincere? Perhaps not. But she knows how to motivate them. She’s thinking like a leader, and now she’s changed again! She’s not just a rebel. She’s a rebel leader, truly committed, and a long way from the Jyn we met at the start of the story.

The third act is awesome and crazy and epic, and pretty much everyone dies. Jyn’s arc is almost finished, but not yet. Her last bit of character development is yet to come, a very small, very personal change. A quite denouement. After being betrayed so many times, after closing herself off from everyone, Jyn is finally going to learn to trust again.

jyn04blog

[BFFs]

At the end of everything, Jyn has transmitted the Death Star plans. She’s in the elevator with Cassian, a man who has been through hell with her, and he’s not just a soldier any longer. He’s someone Jyn trusts with her life, and for Jyn, trusting someone else with her life after being betrayed so many times a *huge* step. Her character arc concludes here.

On the beach, it is Jyn who throws her arms around Cassian. She isn’t the same person she was at the movie’s start. Jyn has changed from a loner, to a woman trying to save her father, to a committed rebel, to a committed rebel leader, to a committed rebel leader who can trust and love again … in the last moment before she’s incinerated.

Jyn dies making her parents proud. She helps save the galaxy, and dies knowing she completed both her father’s mission and her own. She dies a far different person than she was when the movie began, and that, I am happy to say, is a character arc I really enjoyed. The pieces are there for all to see.

jynfinal

[So long, Stardust.]

I knew everything I need to know about Jyn by the end of the movie. I was able to glean it from the events as shown to me and saw Jyn change for reasons that are clearly laid out in a way I enjoyed. So was this planned? (I think it was)  Or am I just adding my own story to what’s there? Either way, it’s okay. Good writing doesn’t always require that you explain everything. You just have to explain enough for the reader/viewer to fill in the blanks.

And Jyn’s arc and character development are one of many reasons I loved Rogue One.

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Dealing with a Bad Book Review

Background: This blog post was inspired when I learned that an indie author who received a “bad” review from a book reviewer actually attacked that reviewer, and encouraged their fans to do the same. Don’t ever do that. It’s petty, unprofessional, bad for your career, and honestly, bad for other indie authors’ careers as well. Do what’s suggested here instead.

Do you want to be an author? Are you an author already? If so, I have some shocking and terrible news for you. Someone, at some point, is going to dislike one of your books. And they’ll tell other people.

So how do you deal with this? Before we move further, we need to define some vocabulary words.

Subjective: existing in the mind (essentially, one’s personal opinion)

Objective: Unbiased and provable (based on facts, not opinion)

So, how do you make a bad review hurt less?

The biggest and most important way to lessen the sting is to remember that all reviews of your books are subjective (see definition above). Reviews of your books are people’s opinions, not indisputable facts. If someone says of your book “This book sucks!” that is an opinion, not a fact. It is not objective.

Everyone has opinions. Guess what? You also have opinions! And getting angry at someone for having an opinion is unprofessional, unfair to that person, and, frankly, a waste of your time.

Imagine if the author of a book you disliked came after you, and said you were a terrible person. How would you feel about that? Is it fair for the person who wrote the book you disliked to blame you for disliking it? Is it your fault for not recognizing their creative genius?

Now flip that around and tell me you can find any way to justify lashing out due to a poor review.

An opinion is one person communicating how they felt about something. You cannot control the opinions of others, and you should not stress over doing so. Learn what you can and move on.

This may be enough to let that bad review roll off your back. If it isn’t, try the steps below.

Step 1: Remember, you are not your book.

When someone dislikes your book, that’s all they are disliking … your book, not you. How can they dislike you? They don’t even know you, certainly not well enough to form an opinion about you. It’s highly doubtful that when they posted their review, they thought “This author is a terrible person and I hate them”. It’s far more likely they thought “Eh, I didn’t really enjoy this book.”

You remain an awesome person whether someone likes your book or not, and even the person who disliked your book would almost certainly agree! (And if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours).

Step 2: Remember that everyone likes different things.

Think back on every book you’ve ever read. Can you think of a book you disliked? You can? Guess what that proves? You are not the only person who ever wrote a book someone disliked!

Remember, not even the most successful author in the entire world has ever achieved a 100% “I love this” score, for their entire body of work, from everyone in the world. Don’t despair because you didn’t achieve the impossible. No one ever has, even the most successful authors in the history of everything.

Whether or not a person likes your book is always going to be subjective, and we’ve already talked about what subjective means above. A book you love, another may hate, and a book you hate, another may love. Whether or not someone loves your book is entirely out of your control.

Accept that you can control only the objective quality of your book, not how people react to it. If you plan to continue to write books, someone will eventually dislike one. Accept this, and accept that opinions about your work are opinions, not facts, and it hurts less.

Step 3: Remember that you’re going to write more than one book.

This can be especially difficult when you’re just starting out. If you’ve only had one book published, ever, and someone dislikes that book … that’s rough. As authors grow more established, they have an increasing number of books for people to like and dislike, and an increasing number of good reviews to balance out the bad ones. The more reviews you have, and the more books you have, the easier it gets.

Think of it like completing a college class. If your entire grade is based on a single test, it feels like your whole world rests on that one test. Fail, and you fail forever. But if you recognize that you’re eventually going to take two tests, and three, and eight, and your “grade” as an author will become the average of all of those tests … well then it’s not so scary, is it? You can do poorly on a few tests out of many. Your success is not tied to a single book, and a person who disliked one book may love another of your books.

Celebrate because you actually finished a book. You actually created an entire world, its characters, and tumultuous events in their lives, from scratch. You, with almost godlike power, created this thing in the confines of your mind and made it possible for others to experience it. Congratulations!

Not everyone gets that far.

Step 4: Understand the Responsibilities of Authors, Reviewers, and Readers

So let’s say you’ve tried all this, and you still hurt. Even knowing that all book reviews (including bad ones) are subjective hasn’t erased the hurt. You still really want to contact the person who questioned your amazing creation and punish them for not liking it. Well, here’s what you should do.

Don’t.

By making your book available for sale to others, or asking a book reviewer to review your book, you have made a promise to be a professional. Professionals don’t respond to bad reviews by unfairly attacking the reviewer. A professional reads the reviewer’s feedback, considers what the reviewer didn’t like, looks for clues as to how they might improve their next book, and moves on to that next book.

Professionals are professionals because they can handle subjective criticism. If you can’t handle that, you are not a professional, and you should not be publishing books. Full stop.

The information below is fact, not opinion, and as a professional creative person, you are required to acknowledge these facts. If you can’t do this, you have no business ever selling your work to anyone.

An Author Is Responsible For:

  • Writing the best book they can, every time. Each book should be readable, immersive, and entertaining. Recognize that opinions regarding success will always be subjective.
  • Working with an editor to ensure their book is as polished as possible in its intended language. This includes clear language, no typos (or close), and proper formatting (for both print and e-books). This is actually objective feedback, but that’s good, because you control it!
  • Recognizing that feedback they receive is about their book, not about them, as a person.
  • Behaving and interacting professionally with others at all times, both in-person and online.

An Author is Not Responsible For:

  • Writing a book everyone in the history of everything loves.
  • Correcting the “incorrect” opinions of those who just “don’t get” their work.
  • Being infallible.

A Book Reviewer is Responsible For:

  • Reading an author’s book, then telling their readers what they thought about it.

A Book Reviewer is Not Responsible For:

  • Making the author of the book feel like the most amazing author in the world.
  • Refusing to mention things about the book they disliked because others might like those things.
  • Selling the book for the author.
  • Sparing the author’s “feelings”.
  • “Proving” their subjective opinion of the book is “correct” with “indisputable facts”.

A Reader is Responsible For:

  • Paying an author for their book.

A Reader is Not Responsible For:

  • Liking it.

These are objective facts you must accept if you wish to become a creative professional. And if you can’t accept these facts, actually, that’s perfectly okay! Just recognize that in that case, you shouldn’t be selling your work.

Find something else that fulfills you and makes you happy, because if you can’t accept that someone, somewhere, may eventually dislike your book, you will never be happy writing books. Ever.

Revel in the characters and world you’ve created, bask in the glory of the good reviews, and most importantly, improve, improve, improve. Keep writing, keep getting better at writing, and keep creating new worlds and new books because you love doing so … not because you need everyone to like them.

Going “Hands On” With VR Controllers

This past weekend, at the local Baltimore VR meet up, I got the chance to try out two devices I’d been aching to get my hands on for quite some time: the HTC Vive, and the Leap Motion system. Although I’ve been using the Oculus Rift DK2 and Samsung Gear VR for some time now, this was my first chance to try a physical VR controller. While the HOTAS system I bought specifically for Elite: Dangerous is something I can touch, it only has a cursory equivalent in the virtual world. Placement doesn’t precisely match up.

I started the night by putting on an HTC Vive headset and playing a VR game called Budget Cuts. The game puts you in the role of a hapless first day employee, searching for your job application while trying not to get murdered by robots with guns. It’s about as silly and interesting as it sounds, but the first really cool discovery I made came after putting on the headset and asking for the motion controllers.

BudgetCuts

[A shot of Budget Cuts, in which a robot is about to have a very bad day.]

I expected to need the person running the station to hand me the controllers, being now blind to the physical world, but that’s not what happened. Instead, thanks to the tracking inherent in the Vive’s Lighthouse system, I looked down and saw the physical controllers sitting on the ground, inside the virtual world of Budget Cuts. An object I could touch was represented in real-time in virtual reality!

I knelt down and reached for the HTC Vive controllers, half-expecting my hands to clip through them. Yet Budget Cuts uses in-game models for the HTC Vive controllers that match quite well with the physical version. I had no problems picking up this virtual/physical object and using it to play the game.

The virtual model matched the physical model in my hands, and this was shockingly immersive. Everything felt real – the shape, the heft, the weight – and simply holding and moving these physical controllers, and seeing their movements reflected in VR, dramatically increased my sense of presence. Rather than simply viewing this virtual world, I was now an active participant within it.

HTCViveController

[ The consumer version of the HTC Vive’s Motion Controllers ]

Budget Cuts does a lot of things right – such as using a “portal gun” mechanic to allow you to travel distances much longer than the space you’ve set aside for VR, and making your other controller into a vacuum that sucks up knives (to kill robots, of course!) and pulls aside grates – but I think the best decision they made was to accurately represent the HTC Vive controllers in game, including the shape.

As strange as it sounds, using my vacuum controller to suck out a virtual grate (which then remained stuck to the business end of the vacuum until released ) felt really immersive, as did sucking up knives. Basically, by treating the physical HTC Vive controller as a “bridge” between the physical world and the virtual one, I bought that these virtual objects were, in fact, quite real.

Had I tried to pick up those knives with my hands, I’d have caught nothing but air. Yet by sucking the knifes onto the business end of a vacuum controller I could physically hold in my hand, I felt as if those knives were real, tangible objects. The vacuum controller was real, therefore, so were the knives.

There was a good line of people waiting to try the Vive, so I only got to play for a few minutes (eventually, I limp wristed a knife throw and got shot by a robot) but even those few minutes were probably the most immersive experience I’ve had in VR, simply thanks to the Vive’s controllers. Everything felt intuitive and, combined with the fact that the Vive allowed me to walk about freely in addition to ducking, crouching, and leaning, made the world of Budget Cuts feel very, very real.

The next station I went to had a Leap Motion camera hooked up to an Oculus Rift, and having seen the Leap Motion: Orion demo on Youtube, I was really excited to try it out. My initial thought was that actually being able to see my hands in VR and use them to manipulate objects would be even more immersive than the Vive. This is why I was so surprised when the opposite turned out to be true.

To start, the tracking on the Leap Motion was excellent. I simply raised my real hands before me, and wireframe hands (or what was really more like bones) appeared in front of me, rendered in real time. Not all motions were tracked (oddly, the Leap Motion would detect me flexing my pinky, but not my index finger) but I could easily wave, give a thumbs up, turn my hands palms up or palms down, and, in general, feel like the virtual environment was actually representing my real, floating hands.

The Orion demo lets you do a number of interesting things: you start by batting around blocks, then picking them up and stacking them. Eventually, you can create new blocks (as seen in this video), stack them, and even turn gravity off and on. All of it was very cool, but after playing the Vive, none of it really felt immersive. After playing with the system for a while, I figured out why. The objects I was interacting with had no physical presence. They were literally ghosts, offering no physical feedback.

LeapMotion

[This is how your actual hands look in a VR Headset with a Leap Motion Camera]

Quite often, I tried to put down a block and couldn’t, because I couldn’t feel it. It was like having an incredibly light paper box stuck to my fingers, yet I didn’t even have that sensation. Throughout the simulation, I never could settle on how tightly I should clench my fingers to pick something up, or how wide I should open them to release it. It was frustrating, rather than being immersive.

While actually seeing my hands represented was incredibly cool, as a method for interacting with virtual objects, it was inconsistent and difficult to master. Obviously, we’re only seeing the nascent stages of technology like the Leap Motion, but the lack of physical feedback is a real problem. It just didn’t work as well as the Vive’s hand controllers, and the sense of presence I’d expected simply wasn’t there.

In summary, it seems to me that the approaches taken by Vive and Oculus (hand controllers ship with the Vive, and will arrive for the Oculus Rift later this year) is by far the superior approach to interaction with virtual reality, when compared with your own bare hands. Having a single level of separation between your physical sensations and the virtual environment (the “bridge” of the physical controller) helps tremendously in maintaining presence. It keeps you from failing to touch intangible objects.

As VR experiences continue to evolve, I think it will behoove developers incorporating motion controllers to build the virtual models for their input devices to match the physical models. I simply hadn’t encountered anything as convincing as seeing those virtual Vive controllers on the virtual floor of that room in Budget Cuts, then reaching down and physically picking up what I saw in the virtual world. It sells the experience.

While it absolutely makes sense for developers to change details such as texture (you could make the controllers metallic, or rusted, or formed of glass) and to add virtual additions to them (such as a long gun barrel you don’t actually touch) I now believe matching the virtual model of the controller you see in game as closely as possible to the physical model you hold is ideal for maintaining presence.

I’ve always planned to only buy one VR solution. With both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now announced, I made the decision to go for the Vive, and I doubt I’ll regret it. Even my short experience at the Baltimore VR meetup was incredibly fun. I really think Vive has the perfect recipe for immersive experiences, because it allows you to walk around and ships with motion controllers at launch.

I also have no doubt the Oculus Touch controllers are amazing, and I suspect that if Oculus developers follow these same rules (representing those controllers accurately in virtual reality) they’ll provide the same massive boost to presence that the Vive controllers do. For now, however, I’m simply surprised to say that the most immersive VR experience involves a physical controller, and not using your own hands.

I think this just goes to show that, as game developers, we’re still learning how best to develop for VR, and I hope other games follow the lead of Budget Cuts and accurately represent the physical controllers that ship with the Vive or Rift. It seems like the best way to sell interactions with otherwise intangible objects.

Why a Standalone Character Creator Would Be Awesome

When I first started working to promote my books, I focused on the things that made me, personally, more interested in a story. One of those things, as with all entertainment, is artwork of the characters. I could describe my characters with words, sure, but there’s something special about having a picture of them. Having visual representations of characters has always, for me, made them feel more real.

SeraPainting

[Sera Valence, as rendered in Black Desert]

I was fortunate that the Internet makes it easy to find talented creative folks, many of whom don’t live in the same state or even the same country I do. First, I found the talented Greg Taylor to do my book covers (his cover for Demonkin is particularly epic) and, for my author website, I found another talented artist in Jin Kim, who also, coincidentally, does contract work for the videogame industry (my day job).

I contracted Jin to create black and white images of my characters and loved the results, but professional art, as with the other costs of indie publishing (hiring an editor, buying advertising space, booking convention flights and stays, and so on) is expensive, and unless you have a day job to support your author aspirations, paying for art can be hard to justify. So what other options do authors have?

KaraSketchBW

[Kara Honuron, as sketched by Jin Kim]

Interestingly, the ability to create unique, visually striking characters has been around for decades now – in videogames. Games going back all the way to the original Everquest and forward to the latest Mass Effect have provided detailed customization options to allow you to create your unique avatar, which is then rendered using the game’s graphic engine. These days, such images have become truly striking.

JyllithPainting

[Jyllith Malconen, as rendered in Black Desert]

This image and all the other color images in this post were made in the character creator for Black Desert, a popular MMORPG coming soon to the US. I did absolutely nothing to this image in Photoshop or anywhere else. It’s a straight screenshot from the game, and it looks stunning. Better yet, creating this required nothing more (from me) than selecting some options and tweaking some sliders.

Naturally, with a snow day on the horizon, the first thing I did with Black Desert’s character creation tool was to try to recreate, as closely as possible, the characters from my books in glorious CGI. Even in cases where I didn’t recreate Jin’s sketches precisely, I still feel like I was able to get the “feel” about right.

CrossReference

[Sketches of my characters, with similar shots of them in Black Desert]

Better yet, the CGI artwork makes so many of the more subtle details clear. Kara’s orange eyes. The fact that Tania is blind. Jyllith’s striking red hair. All of these graphical details come out far more vividly in color artwork, and this artwork is completely computer generated. Each unique avatar took maybe 20 minutes to create.

TrellPainting

[Trell, as rendered in Black Desert]

While Black Desert includes one of the most flexible and gorgeous character creators I’ve ever seen (you can currently download it here and create your own characters, absolutely free!) the concept of creating customized characters using a toolset created by programmers and artists is nothing new. With the increase in the popularity of indie publishing and the number of people publishing their own work, there’s now increased demand for quality artwork for book covers and promotion. It makes me wonder if a properly robust character creation system, generating copyright free images, could provide those.

KaraPainting

[Kara Tanner, as rendered in Black Desert]

Many computer-generated image (CGI) tools already exist, of course (3DS Max, Maya, and Poser are examples) but the barrier to entry is steep, with some (such as 3D Studio Max) costing thousands of dollars, and requiring a significant amount of artistic training before you can generate anything remotely professional looking. Worse yet, these tools require quality 3D models and textures to generate anything approaching professional looking artwork. Hopefully, this won’t offend any independent authors out there, but I can spot a “Poser cover” a mile away. These covers don’t look professional at all.

TaniaPainting

[Tania, as rendered in Black Desert]

So why haven’t character creators like this become more freely available independent of the games for which they’re designed? It seems like a no brainer – if you charged people a small fee to buy a toolset that allowed them to create character images this striking on their home computer, simply by tweaking sliders and selecting options, why aren’t there already a number of toolsets out here? It seems ideal for traditional and independent authors, roleplayers, tabletop gamers, and a huge market of nerds.

BynPainting

[Byn Meris, as rendered in Black Desert]

Better yet, since Black Desert’s character creator was released, even those who might not be dedicated gamers or roleplayers have found the fun, by recreating celebrities in the engine (as seen here) or creating truly monstrous, nightmare inducing abominations by tweaking the sliders WRONG (as seen here). People did the same with Fallout 4’s character creator and many other character tools. So why aren’t there already a dozen reasonably priced character creation tools out there for use by anyone?

ArynPainting

[Aryn Locke, as rendered in Black Desert]

The simplest answer is that, like all game design these days, creating the artwork available in these tools and the tool itself is expensive – and in fact, far more expensive than even something like 3D Studio Max, when you add up all the developer salaries. The reason these character creators are so easy to use (for us) is because dozens of artists toiled away for weeks or months to create a huge library of high quality art that’s also used in the game. Talented programmers and UI designers then created an interface that allows us to “mix and match” this art into gorgeous images, dynamically rescaling models in real time.

JairPainting

[Jair Deymartin, as rendered in Black Desert]

Sadly, as much as I would love to see a character creation suite as powerful as Black Desert’s released for general use, I just don’t think there’s enough demand for it. Traditional publishers already have the money to contract professional artists to create their book covers, and indie publishers (and others who might be interested in quality CGI artwork, like roleplayers and tabletop gamers) aren’t a big enough market to justify the development cost of such a tool, at least as a standalone software package.

As striking as these images are, using them to create book covers would almost certainly run afoul of a significant number of copyright laws, and so for the moment, as great as they might look, they’re stuck in the same realm as fan art of copyrighted stories – fine, so long as you don’t try and sell it.

Despite this, I hold out hope that one day some enterprising company or Kickstarter will take a route similar to Heroforge or other 3D printed miniature makers, creating a toolset to create truly high-quality CGI artwork to the masses. For the time being, however, we can at least continue to play in Black Desert.

And, at least unofficially, bring the characters from our heads to gorgeous CGI life.

Writing Journal – 1/16/2016

I wrote less actual words on Bloodmender’s outline, but I did make some big breakthroughs in putting together the actual arc for Sera. I know what her arc will be and how it will take her through the book, and I know how the book ends. I’m excited to write it!

This week, I had one story rejected and one story I’ve marked as never responded. I’m going to send out a few more stories next week.

This week’s progress:

  • 2,087 words written on Bloodmender’s outline.
    • Sera’s arc is finalized!
    • I know how the book is going to end, which is a big relief. I’m excited about writing it now.

Submission Updates:

  • After 250 days with no response (and ignored queries) I’ve marked the market I submitted “Twenty Floors Up” to as DNF. The story’s going in the drawer for now (over 15 rejections) though I may pull it out again some day.
  • Received a rejection (as expected) from the large pro market to which I submitted “The Simworld Design Contest”, pretty much exactly where Duotrope said I would. So hooray for statistics being accurate!

Writing Journal – 1/8/2016

With the new year started, I decided it’d be fun to keep a journal of my progress on various projects for a year or so and see how that went. So, this is entry one of what will be a weekly summary of my progress on all sorts of things.

I hope to look back at this to get some idea how much I typically get done in a year. Also, for anyone interested in progress on my books, this may also provide some entertainment. Who knows?

This week’s progress:

  • 3,350~ words written on Bloodmender’s outline.
    • I’ve got may be 2/3s of book material outlined, but I’m still moving it around to see where it fits in the overall narrative, and debating what’s strong enough to keep and what’s weak enough to cut. It’s always a tough call in the planning stages.
    • I’ve left myself a number of plot threads to resolve and character arcs to plot, so I’ll be another week or two on this before I’m comfortable enough to start the first draft. Sera is absolutely going to be a driving force in this one (hence the title!) but I’m not yet sure how complicated her plot arc will be.
  • Wrote a new 1500 word writing experiment for the January Fantasy-Faction Writing Contest: “Sponge Riot”. It’s so far beyond my normal work I have no idea if it’s any good, but our prompt was “Breaking the Fourth Wall” and, at least, this story does that!
  • Submitted “Firesworn”, my short fantasy story set in Glyphbinder’s universe, to a pro market.
  • Submitted “Extraction”, one of my cyberpunk short stories, to a token market with a huge Twitter following.
  • Submitted “The Book of Codes”, one of my science-fiction short stories, to a pro market.

Submission Updates:

  • My science-fiction short story, “Twenty Floors Up”, has been at a token market for 244 days with no response. I doubt they’re going to respond, but the story’s been rejected pretty much everywhere else, so I’ll probably toss it in the drawer for the time being.
  • My cyberpunk short story, “The Simworld Design Contest”, has been with a pro market for 131 days. Given they usually reject stories a few days from now, I’m expecting a rejection next week sometime.

 

 

2015 In Review

It’s now been January 1, 2016 on the east coast for a good while, which means it’s time to review how I did in 2015!

Below are a complete list of my published novels, published short stories, short story experiments, and blog posts from last year.

Looking back on it now, I actually had a fairly productive 2015!

Looking forward to 2016, I don’t have anything set in stone (Bloodmender is slated for the first part of 2017) but I already know I’ll be querying Supremacy’s Shadow, revising Whispers of Murder, writing, revised, and editing Bloodmender, and probably writing some new short stories.

Also in 2016, expect more themed writing experiments for Fantasy-Faction’s monthly writing contest (one new 1500 word story each month!) and a yet unannounced short story sale I’ll talk more about soon.

Happy New Year, everyone!