Three Low-Budget Tips For Passing The Time During The Lockdown

Well, although I often try to avoid topical stuff on this blog, I thought that I’d write an extra article about passing the time during the current Coronavirus lockdown here in the UK. After all, as someone who wasn’t exactly the most extroverted person in the world before all of this happened, I’ve gained at least a little bit of knowledge about how to spend meaningful time alone on a reasonably low budget.

So, let’s get started:

1) The Internet: If you’re reading this, then you probably have an internet connection. This is good. There are an absolute ton of interesting free things on the internet that are well worth taking a look at if you want a substantial and meaningful way to pass the next few days, weeks or months. Here’s a small selection:

Let’s start with webcomics. In particular, the one webcomic I’d recommend taking a look at these days is probably Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. In addition to featuring lots of cool-looking ultra-detailed artwork, a subtle punk sensibility and a level of emotional and intellectual depth that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-brow novel, pretty much every comic update is also a small graphic novel in it’s own right (the perfect length for the current time). This is the kind of enriching and utterly fascinating webcomic that you can lose yourself in for hours and not feel like you’ve wasted a single second.

As for reading matter – although I prefer physical books, I’d recommend taking a look at the free selection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” short stories and novellas on Project Gutenburg. It isn’t a complete selection (since one short story collection is still copyrighted in the US), but almost everything there can be read in any order that you want to – but be sure to read “The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes” before you read “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes” though.

Yes, the Sherlock Holmes stories are fairly old – but the writing style is surprisingly readable when you get used to it, even the novellas are often short enough not to get boring, most of the stories have aged surprisingly well (although one or two short stories unfortunately haven’t) and they usually have really gripping mystery plots too.

Another pair of out-of-copyright books that are well worth reading are John Kendrick Bangs’ “A House-Boat On The Styx” and its sequel “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat“. Yes, the writing style is a bit old and some moments may seem mildly dated – but, these things aside, these two comedy novellas about famous historical figures hanging out in the afterlife and having silly adventures still hold up reasonably well when read today.

Oh, and, of course – I can’t not mention Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque Of The Red Death“. If ever there was a 19th century horror story more suited to the current situation….

If reading isn’t your thing, then there is an absolute mountain of interesting Youtube channels that can provide many hours of interesting binge-watching too.

If you want something relaxing, I’d recommend this general interest/film-making channel by Austin McConnell, the landscape painting videos on the official Bob Ross Youtube channel or possibly a channel of long-form relaxation footage filmed by people walking around pre-pandemic cities on channels like Nomadic Ambience.

If you want to learn about how videogames are designed, then I’d recommend taking a look at channels like Extra Credits or Game Maker’s Toolkit. If you’re in the mood for the macabre and aren’t squeamish, then I’d recommend taking a look at Ryan Hollinger’s extended reviews/critiques of various horror movies. If you want an art channel with a slightly quirky and gothic sense of humour, then I’d recommend Mary Doodles. If you want high-brow mini-documentaries about art, film-making etc.. then take a look at Nerdwriter1. I could go on for a while, but there are a lot of very interesting binge-watchable Youtube channels out there.

If you want free games that will run on almost any computer and don’t try to sting you for micro-transactions or anything like that, then take a look at my old reviews of the following freeware games: “Freedoom“, “Beneath A Steel Sky“, “Treasure Adventure Game“, “SkyRoads“, “Tyrian 2000” and “Hacx 1.2“. Plus, I should probably give a shout-out to OpenArena and SuperTux too.

2) Your imagination: Hour upon hour of solitude is the perfect blank canvas for daydreams. Yes, you probably already know how to daydream – but, if you haven’t had any practice with doing it for sustained periods of time, then doing so might sound “weird” or “difficult”.

One of the best ways to train your imagination for extended daydreaming is to read a few novels – these will provide you with a focused and sustained “daydream” that will get you used to the idea of it. Just choose a novel that you think you will enjoy and, if reading a whole novel sounds difficult, then start with short stories.

Whilst going out to a physical bookshop or library is out of the question at the moment, there are – as I mentioned earlier – lots of older out-of-copyright novels that can legally be downloaded for free on sites like Project Gutenberg, there are still websites that sell second-hand physical books cheaply and, of course, you may possibly have a “to read” pile that you’ve been meaning to take a look at for a while. This is the perfect time!

If books aren’t your thing, then films and television can sort of provide a substitute. Sort of. At the very least, these things give you images and ideas that you can use as source material for any daydreams you might want to have after you have finished watching them.

And, no, daydreaming isn’t a “waste of time”. A long and interesting daydream can turn a “boring” moment into something much more interesting, it can lift your mood (provided it isn’t a worry-based daydream. And, yes, worrying is basically just daydreaming – but in the horror genre. So, you might already be more well-practiced at daydreaming than you think) and it can also provide you with all sorts of creative ideas and moments of inspiration. Which brings me on to….

3) Create stuff: Yes, it’s a massive cliche – but this really is the time to start practicing a creative skill.

Yes, you probably won’t be very good at it at first – but, if you do it for the sake of fun or to pass the time, then this won’t matter. It’s a way of having fun and also having something to show for it at the end. Not to mention that setting a regular practice schedule can provide you with a highlight for each day and will also mean that you will gradually get better at whatever you are doing. And, best of all, you don’t need a massive budget for any of this sort of thing too.

Quite a lot of creative skills can be practiced with equipment that you probably have lying around right now. Drawings can be made with ordinary pencils or ballpoint pens. Digital art can be made with completely free open-source programs like the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).

All you need to start writing fiction is either a pen and paper or a basic word processing program (either the one that came with your computer and/or a free open-source one). Smartphone cameras or that old digital camera you might have lying around can be used for photography/film. I could go on for a while, but you almost certainly have something near you right now that you can use in a creative way.

And, yes, thinking about what to do with it can be a challenge. All creative people feel uninspired from time to time – it is perfectly normal. But, try to make something – even if it isn’t very good or very imaginative, you’d be surprised at how satisfying making things can feel. Even if you never show it to anyone else, then it is worth at least doing it for the fun of doing so. At the very least, you’ll have a funny story to tell people when all of this is over.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Themes And Focus To Innovate In Genre Fiction – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one way to make your genre fiction (eg: horror, sci-fi, thriller, detective, fantasy etc.. fiction) story stand out from the crowd. I am, of course, talking about using different themes and/or having a different focus than many other stories in your chosen genre.

This was something that I ended up thinking about whilst reading a really interesting sci-fi novel from 2014 called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers that I’ll probably review fully in a couple of days time. Needless to say, this article will contain some mild SPOILERS for this novel.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that, although it contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from a traditional sci-fi story (eg: futuristic technology, spaceships, alien civilisations, galactic alliances/politics etc…), the focus and themes of the novel are surprisingly different to what you’d typically expect to see in traditional sci-fi.

Whilst the main focus of many sci-fi stories is on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and maths) stuff, this novel tends to focus more on “the humanities” (eg: languages, empathy, culture, introspection, imagination, art etc..) and this makes a surprisingly large difference to the story.

It changes the atmosphere, mood, style etc… of the story in a really interesting way. To give one small example, when the main characters’ spaceship is boarded by space pirates, this situation isn’t resolved with a dramatic laser battle or through technological trickery.

Instead, it is resolved by the fact that the ship’s clerk can speak a second language and has just enough historical/cultural knowledge to come up with a way of persuading the heavily-armed pirates to steal much less than they’d originally planned to. It’s a really tense and dramatic scene that catches the reader off-guard whilst also coming across as more “realistic” than many things in the sci-fi genre do.

And all because the author made a decision to write a sci-fi story that focuses more on humanities than on STEM. It’s a brilliantly subversive take on the genre – especially given that we live in an age where STEM stuff often tends to be valued more and seen as more “useful” than humanities stuff.

Even the fact that this is a novel (eg: a “low tech” storytelling medium that requires the audience to think, empathise and imagine) is a part of this change in focus – since the structure, style, pacing, tone, atmosphere etc.. of the story is designed specifically for the strengths of the written word. In other words, it does loads of subtle and large-scale stuff that can’t really be done in more “high tech” storytelling mediums like film, television, videogames etc…

So, one way to tell an innovative genre story that will surprise your readers and linger in their memories is to look at the themes and focus of your chosen genre and try to do something a bit different with them. But, not only does this require a good knowledge of the genre you’re writing in (so, get reading) but it also has to be done for a good reason too.

In order for your reader to not only get used to the change, but to actually consciously notice it, your reason for changing the genre’s themes/focus has to matter to you enough for it to shape the entire story in a profound way. It has to be something that is important enough to your story that your story wouldn’t really “work” without the change.

But, how do you think of an interesting change? Well, the easiest way of doing this is to look at what is wrong with the genre you are planning to write in. When you spot a large enough deficiency, oversight or problem that annoys you enough to actually make you notice it, then you have the beginnings of your story’s change.

But, although changing the themes and focus of your story can be a great way to innovate, you still have to handle this well. In other words, you still need to write your story in a way that people will still want to read even if they are a bit surprised or confused by the changes you have made. Things like characterisation, atmosphere, worldbuilding, good writing etc… matter even more than usual when you’re doing something innovative.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Creative Works That Are Never Made Seem So Good

The day before I wrote this article, I happened to find a really cool video on Youtube where, by editing together various audience recordings, someone was able to reconstruct what a live concert video for Iron Maiden’s 1986/7 world tour would have possibly looked like. This was a tour that was apparently never officially filmed and, were it not for the fans, would have been lost to the mists of time.

Although the tour was from before my time, I was astonished by how awesome this fan reconstruction was. Everything from the “Blade Runner”-themed introduction, to the costumes to the performance of songs that the band rarely plays live were really amazing. The blurry camcorder footage also made me wonder how much more awesome a proper official live video would have looked like if it had ever been made.

And this, of course, made me think about the topic of creative works that were never made. In particular, why they can sometimes seem better than things that were actually made.

1) Imagination: This is the most obvious one. If something is never made, then people will have to use whatever clues they can find in order to imagine what it looks like.

First of all, everyone’s imagination is at least slightly different. So, your idea of what a cool-sounding unreleased computer game/film/album/novel etc… would look like will probably be at least slightly different to that of the people who would have made it.

In addition to this, our imaginations also have very little in the way of limitations. In other words, we don’t have to worry about things like budgets, practical concerns or anything like that when we imagine what an unreleased film, game etc… might look like. So, it is probably going to look better in our imaginations than it ever would in real life.

2) Fandom: Following on from this, if you’re imagining something that was never made, then you are probably a fan of whoever would have made it. In other words, you’re probably judging it by the high standards of everything else that they have made. At the very least, you will probably expect it to be similar to these things.

The thing to remember here is that things that aren’t made sometimes aren’t made for a good reason. Maybe the underlying idea had a flaw of some kind? Maybe it was something that sounded cooler in principle than it actually did in practice? Maybe it would have required the person creating it to change something in a way that would alienate fans? etc…

A good videogame-based example of this is probably “Duke Nukem Forever”. For many years, this was a legendary unreleased game from the makers of the 1996 FPS classic “Duke Nukem 3D”. Everyone expected it to be like an enhanced version of “Duke Nukem 3D”. Of course, when it was eventually released in 2011, it was widely criticised for including all of the worst elements of modern FPS games (eg: linear levels, two-weapon limits etc..).

So, yes, “lost” creative works can seem better for the simple reason that you expect them to be like things that have already been released.

3) Context: Another reason why “lost” creative works can seem so amazing is because of the historical context surrounding them. In short, they evoke nostalgia. When we think about them, we think about the time period that they could have been made in.

We think about the earlier days of our favourite musicians, writers, game companies etc… and find ourselves wishing that we lived in that time period. And, whilst released creative works can evoke this nostalgia, unreleased ones tend to evoke it a lot more powerfully for the simple reason that we aren’t familiar with them (since they were never actually made).

As such, even a few vague clues about these things can seem like something “new” from the glory days of our favourite creative people.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Reasons Why Modern Creative Works Use Nostalgic Elements

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this topic before, but I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why modern creative works use nostalgic elements.

1) Inspirations: This is the most obvious one. In short, people usually become writers, artists, musicians, film-makers, game designers etc… because they see, hear, play or read something so impressive that it makes them think “I want to make something like that!

Of course, thanks to copyright law, we can’t just directly copy the things we love. So, we have to learn what makes these things so nostalgic and find ways to incorporate these general elements in new and original works. This is why, for example, some modern creative works will be stylistically similar to things from previous decades, even if they differ in detail.

Inspiration is an essential part of the creative process and finding ways to make original stuff that is evocative of the things that inspired you can be a really brilliant source of creative motivation. Hence why it happens in films, music, books, games etc…

2) An instant quality bump: One of the things that prompted this article was that, the day before I prepared this article , I happened to find a modern punk song (explicit lyrics) that not only sounds like something from the early-mid 2000s, but also protests about current US politics in the same way that punk bands used to do about G.W.Bush during the early-mid 2000s.

One of the interesting things about this song is that if I had actually heard it during the early-mid 2000s, my reaction would have probably been “It’s ok“. Yet, listening to it today, my reaction was more like “Cool! It’s an early 2000s-style punk song from last year. This is so awesome!“.

In other words, the nostalgic musical elements actually made the song seem better than it would have done in the time period it took inspiration from. But, why? There are several reasons.

First of all, there aren’t that many bands still using this style of punk music, so the rarity of the song instantly makes it more impressive. Secondly, it evokes memories of the time when this type of music was a bit more mainstream. Thirdly, there’s a really interesting contrast between the “old” musical style and the modern subject matter.

So, using nostalgic elements can be a way to make your current creative works seem better in comparison to more “modern” stuff.

3) Audience connection: Including nostalgic elements can be a good way to connect with members of your audience who either remember the time period that you’re taking inspiration from and/or are fans of things made during that period of history. When done right, this evokes warmly nostalgic memories in older audience members and makes younger members of your audience think “Cool! People are still making stuff like this these days!

This is especially effective if you’re taking inspiration from a part of history that isn’t covered by popular nostalgia. For example, the reason why the modern early-mid 2000s style punk song surprised and delighted me so much is because this period of history currently falls slightly outside of the usual 20-30 year nostalgia gap.

It’s a period of history that I remember really well, yet it hasn’t quite passed into popular nostalgia yet. So, it stands out more and has more of an emotional impact than it probably will in 5-10 years time when there are lots of early-mid 2000s style movies in the cinema, lots of TV shows about this part of history, lots of computer games set in this time period etc…

So, if you want to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience, then nostalgic elements can be really useful.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Basic Tips For When A Genre Won’t Work In Your Chosen Medium

Although this is an article about writing fiction, making art and making comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about videogames for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up doing some random online research about survival horror videogames on handheld games consoles during the 1990s. Interestingly, this awesome genre turned out to be very difficult to transfer to older handheld consoles – with one of the best examples actually being a game that wasn’t officially released. Namely the unfinished late 1990s/early 2000s Game Boy Color version of “Resident Evil”.

Needless to say, all of this made me think about the annoying situation where your favourite genre only really works in another medium. Whether you’re a writer who loves heavy metal music, a comic-maker who loves FPS videogames etc.. it can be more than a little bit annoying.

So, I thought that I’d offer two basic tips about what to do if you find yourself in this incredibly annoying situation.

1) Look at what makes the genre “work”: If you can’t directly use an awesome genre in your chosen medium, then one way to get around this is simply to look at what underlying qualities, features and techniques make the genre in question “work”. Once you’ve made a list of these things, then it’s considerably easier to apply them to other mediums.

For example, the key features of classic heavy metal music include things like: fast pacing, melodramatic horror/fantasy imagery, an emphasis on courage, a lot of theatrical flair, gloomy high-contrast lighting (in concerts, music videos etc..), a slightly rebellious attitude, hedonism, cool-looking machinery (eg: motorbikes, scary robots etc..) etc…

As you can see, these are all qualities that could easily translate well into either prose fiction or art/comics without too much difficulty. So, even if you can’t include any actual heavy metal music in these things, you can still use all of the underlying features and techniques of the genre.

So, looking for underlying qualities/techniques is one of the best ways to use an awesome genre in another medium when you can’t do so directly.

2) Visual media: Simply put, it’s really easy to translate one visual medium to another. This is mostly because all visual media are, well, visual. So, learning how to study and analyse images (and having a bit of knowlege of artistic theory) means that there’s a lot easier to, say, make art that is inspired by things like films and videogames.

For example, many classic survival horror games and old 2D “point and click” adventure games will often use fixed ‘camera angles’ that are designed to look suspenseful. This will often be done by either placing dramatic-looking things in the close foreground and/or using camera angles that look like they are “lurking” somewhere or perching ominously above the player. As such, it’s easy to include elements of survival horror etc.. in artwork:

“Cyberpunk Ruins” By C. A. Brown

So, if you’re working in a visual medium, then learning how to study images (eg: how to look for things like perspective, colour schemes, lighting etc..) is an incredibly valuable thing if you want to translate some of your favourite genres into your medium of choice.

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Anway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Working Out What To Show The Audience – A Ramble

Well, the day before I wrote this article, I happened to see something fascinating that made me think about something which anyone who is telling a story, making a piece of art etc… has to grapple with. Namely the decision of what to show the audience.

Anyway, the thing that made me think about this topic were a few videos from a fascinating Youtube series called “Boundary Break” where, using various tools, someone manipulates the “camera” in videogames to show you what you normally wouldn’t see whilst playing the game. And it is fascinating.

This is mostly because, in order to save memory and processing power, videogames will often only display the absolute minimum needed to make everything look convincing. For example, if a game displays a fenced-off road or passageway, the only things behind it will be what the player can actually see through gaps in the fence. After all, the emphasis is on making sure that the game looks convincing, whilst also finding sneaky ways to show the minimum amount of detail possible.

And, well, the same thing is true in almost every other creative medium too.

For example, many studio-based film and television sets will only actually contain what appears on camera (eg: the classic example being a set in a sitcom where one wall is missing in order to allow the cameras to film what is happening). Films can also take this a step further by giving the illusion of a large set through background details whilst only actually showing a few smaller locations.

The classic example of this is the 1982 film “Blade Runner“. This is a sci-fi film set within a giant futuristic mega-city. Yet, if you look closely at the film itself, the only actual locations in it that are shown in any real level of detail are several interior locations and a few streets. But, thanks to things like distant background details (created via things like paintings, scale models etc..) etc.. the audience feels like they’re seeing a much larger setting than they actually are.

Likewise, many pieces of visual art (especially in things like comics) will often focus more heavily on adding detail to more prominent parts of the picture, with the background detail often being left slightly vague or impressionistic. There are several practical reasons for this, such as time reasons and the fact that (unless you’re making a very large piece of art) it can be difficult to cram lots of detail into small background areas.

The same is true for prose fiction too. After all, if you have to describe literally every detail of a story’s setting, character backstories etc… you will end up with a very long, very slow-paced and very boring story. As such, you have to be very selective about only describing the most important, evocative and/or interesting details in each scene of your story.

For example, if you’re writing a “film noir”-style scene set inside a detective’s office, you might describe a few key details like the light filtering through the blinds, a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray and a rusty old filing cabinet. This gives the audience a quick impression of the scene, whilst avoiding the slow-paced boredom that would come from describing literally every detail of the room.

So, yes, working out what not to show is actually quite an important part of making any creative work. And the best way to learn how to do this is simply to see the thing you’re creating from your audience’s perspective. In other words, you need to think about how your audience will see the things you create, what they will find interesting and, most importantly of all, what their attention will be drawn to.

Once you know what grabs your audience’s attention, then focus most of your time, effort, words etc… on that.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Writing: Creativity Via Limitations – A Ramble

Although I’d planned to write a different article for today, I saw something shortly before writing this article [Edit: Which was several months before I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer] which made me think about creativity and the limitations of the written word.

It was a trailer for an upcoming computer game (called “Cyberpunk 2077”), of all things. For a few seconds, I really wanted to play the game until I suddenly realised “The system requirements will be sky-high. It would melt my vintage computer if I even tried.” This then morphed into the forlorn thought “If this was a novel instead of a game, I could actually enjoy it“.

After all, in English at least, writers only have 26 letters that they can use. Pretty much everyone is trained to read from a young age. Books don’t really have system requirements. And, whilst this means that we can do things like read books from literally over a century ago, it also has a lot of limitations too. After all, there are only 26 letters to work with.

Yet, these limitations are one of the main things that makes prose fiction such a creative thing. After all, writers can’t rely on fancy new computer graphics or anything like that in order to impress their readers. They have 26 letters and a pre-made system of grammar to work with. As such, writers have to get creative in order to make something astonishing within these old limitations.

And this produces some truly spectacular results. For example, when I was watching the modern game trailer I mentioned earlier, one of my first thoughts was “Oooh! A cyberpunk city during the daytime. This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash“. Now, for comparison, “Snow Crash” was published in 1992. On the other hand, the best computer game graphics from 1992 looked a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992).

So, yes, novels have been using spectacular “graphics” for much longer than computer games have. Using just 26 letters.

This limitation has spurred writers to do things like find their own unique “style”, to think of interesting locations, to come up with brilliant characters, to tell new types of stories, to use things like grammar and chapter length to achieve particular effects (eg: short sentences and short chapters in a fast-paced thriller novel) etc….

In other words, it has forced writers to be creative. After all, every other writer will be using the same letters, words etc… so, what matters is how a writer uses them.

Interestingly, there is a little bit of a parallel with computer games here. After all, there’s a lot of nostalgia for games from the 1990s – and with good reason! Back then, computer technology was a lot more limited. So, like writers, game designers had to be creative within these limitations. Since they couldn’t rely on flashy photo-realistic graphics, they had to set their games apart from the crowd through the use of things like imagination, clever design, innovative ideas etc…

But, I digress. The point of all of this is that if you want to see a perfect example of how limitations can actually make people more creative, then pick up a book.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂