Lifeline: Whiteout

This is merely an update to my last post (and a transparent bid to get my third post for the week in under the wire).

I finally finished Lifeline: Whiteout, and it’s quite excellent. I died three more times since my last post, bringing the total up to EIGHT, and I don’t in fact think I got the “happiest” ending possible, but I made it to an ending without the character dying.

There are a few limitations to the format, now that the novelty has worn off – mainly due to the gameplay mechanics of two choices at every decision point, which sometimes makes the player’s choice irrelevant (both choices lead to the same result) or arbitrary (the ‘go left’ or ‘go right’ decisions), but overall, 3-Minute Games have learnt over time, and the result is a game that was in many ways more enjoyable than the original Lifeline, and certainly more tense at crucial moments. I also liked that the horror element has been toned down in favour of a more ‘creepy sf’ vibe.

Now I’m on to Lifeline: Silent Night, which continues the adventures of Taylor from the original game. Let’s see if it ends up interesting enough to report on.

Game: Lifeline

I played Lifeline back when it was first released (in 2015, I believe) and intended to write about it back then, but forgot.

The game came back to me when I recommended it to a friend, and she asked me, “Which one?” – turns out 3-Minute Games have released six more games based on the same concept since I played the first one, and a seventh is on the way.

The first Lifeline was written by Dave Justus (I believe he’s written or supervised every game since) and has you playing yourself, communicating with an astronaut called Taylor who’s stranded on an alien moon. You are the only person Taylor has been able to connect with, and you are Taylor’s lifeline.

You receive Taylor’s communiques in text, and you’re given two options every time Taylor needs to make a choice.

I rather enjoyed the game, especially the “real-time” aspect of it (for example, when Taylor goes to sleep, the game pauses for whatever duration before Taylor wakes up again), and I’d most certainly recommend it.

I recently downloaded Lifeline: Whiteout when it was Apple’s ‘Free App for the Week’ and have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself back into this horror-tinged sf world, with the new character Adams. On the other hand, I have sucked donkey balls at playing it.

When I played the first Lifeline, I practically sailed through it, arriving at (what I later found out was) not just a happy ending, but the happiest ending available in the game (like any decent character-based game, Lifeline has multiple available endings). On the other hand, I’ve been playing Whiteout for just two days and have killed Adams five times. FIVE.

However, Whiteout’s also managed to genuinely freak me out once or twice – I think it’s a bit more in my wheelhouse.

In any case, I’m still playing Whiteout, and will then proceed to the handy Lifeline library app (in which you get Lifeline: Silent Night – the third Taylor game, I think – for free as a promo).

This is good stuff, especially at a dollar a piece. Recommended.

Progress Report: Project Trio

For the last couple of weeks, Trio has been my focus. As I said in my year-end update, I had around 30 pages of scribbles, 25% of an outline, and nothing solidly written on this.

By today, this has blown up to 50 pages of scribbles, 25% of an outline, and still nothing solidly written. Except it’s 25% of an entirely different outline, so there’s that.

When working on complicated writing projects, an outline can be your best friend. It lets you test ideas and throw them out as required, and I’ve been doing a whole lot of that. There are threads that either don’t work at all or need to go in an entirely different direction, and an outline lets you play them out without getting too attached because of the sheer work you’ve put into the writing.

Stylistically, Trio is supposed to be freewheeling, digressive, and quite chatty, but in practice, it has to be quite densely plotted, containing, as it does, around five different storylines that intersect and diverge at various points.

The first thing I did when I determined that I was going to be focussing on this book was to move as many of my scribbles as possible to Scapple, which is a rather wonderful app that lies somewhere between a mind-mapping tool and one of those conspiracy-tracing boards you keep seeing in tv shows with all the threads connecting different organisations and/or suspects (aka a real-life mind map, I suppose).

Scapple’s advantage is that it supports anything from a two-word scribble to a page-length character synopsis and allows you to treat these with as much or as little weight as you like. The best thing about it, though, is that it actually lets you make different kinds of connections between ideas, and you can play these out in your head to whatever point you feel like before rolling them back if they don’t work. (Once again, quite like an outline.)

Don’t get me wrong – large tracts of Trio will in fact be written entirely by the seat of my pants; the way the book is structured (about which probably more when I’m actually writing it) demands it. But considering how complex I’ve made this book for myself (and that’s something I almost always do), I need a good reference document in which I can see at a glance where I am and where I need to go.

5 Things I Learnt from 100 Days of Not Smoking

Today marks 100 days since I quit smoking, and while the basic tenet of not smoking is “Don’t fucking smoke!”, I think there were some surprises and/or revelations that I’d like to note down in case I get complacent down the line.

1. You don’t have control

In ten years of being a smoker, I must have told myself hundreds of times that I could cut down to just one or two cigarettes a day, that I could quit ‘whenever I want’ or even that once I quit, I could then maybe steal a few puffs from other people’s cigarettes and not really smoke again.

Nope, none of that worked. I’d always fall back into the habit. However much I love smoking (and that’s a lot), the Golden Rule is the Golden Rule for a reason:

Not another puff. No matter what.

I have a screenshot of this on my phone that I used to look at for the first month or so whenever my brain tried to convince me that maybe I could have one puff without worrying about it.

I don’t need to look at it anymore, but I still repeat it to myself whenever I see a cigarette and think, “That looks nice.”

2. Once an addict, always an addict

This is a corollary to the first one. My addict’s mantra is that since I don’t know where to stop, the only solution is not to begin.

While the cravings have now mostly gone away, and my brain chemistry does not factor nicotine into everything it does, I have to be aware of the fact that I’m always five minutes away from my next cigarette. Each and every cigarette I’m confronted with is tempting to a greater or lesser degree.

There were times in the past when I fooled myself into thinking that I was no longer an addict, but that is and will probably always be bullshit.

3. Quitting is not a golden ticket to health

This one’s fairly obvious to people who don’t smoke, but when I was smoking, I convinced myself that if only I could quit smoking, I’d start doing all the healthy things and, I dunno, run or something like that. That did not happen.

Also, there was this constriction I used to feel in my chest when I woke up in the morning that I’d always assumed was because of my smoking. Turns out I’d just been sleeping wrong for fucking years.

4. Not being a smoker is nice

While I have not miraculously turned into a model of health since I quit smoking, it is, generally, nice to not be a smoker. I can taste better, there isn’t the physical drag of diminished lung capacity, and my mind isn’t constantly wandering to when I’ll next get a chance to smoke.

The worst thing about being a smoker, for me, was being under the invisible hold of something that literally turned my brain against me – a passenger that would make me want to do something to myself that was so bad for me. It’s nice not to feel like that every single day.

5. The feelings, all the feelings

Theoretically, I knew that smoking numbs your reactions to things that happen to you. Since I quit, I’ve just felt more. (And not purely as a consequence of withdrawal – this is afterwards.) This is not, to be sure, a good or bad thing. It’s mostly like the return of taste – there are a lot more flavours to emotions that I can now experience.

It was difficult for a while, but you get used to it, your brain gets more able to manage it, and then it starts feeling normal. You should know – I’m sure most people reading this aren’t gibbering wrecks just because they don’t smoke. It’s fine.

5b. Coffee

This isn’t a full point by itself, but I’ve become a lot more sensitive to the physical effects of coffee since I stopped smoking, and that sucks, because now I can only drink it a couple of times a week.

And I like coffee, dammit.

Fancy Redesign

I’m planning to redesign my portfolio in the next couple of months. I get the itch to work with CSS once in a while, but I will try not make this one about that (that’s reserved for whenever I have the time to put all my old comics online).

The current portfolio was cobbled together at speed to replace the PDF I’d been sending around to prospective clients. The site needed to handle a basic presentation of the important bit – the samples – plus a little bit of personality – the header, in this case.

I remember telling Nitin I wanted a little avatar with which I could declare something about lettering, and the cartoon at the top was in my inbox the next day. We idly chatted about adding a cat at my feet, and maybe doing multiple headers I could rotate through, but it’s been almost a year, and neither has materialised (although I’ve seen glimpses of the cat in Nitin’s sketchbook).

One impulse is to go the minimalist route, like this blog. Everything inessential is gone and there’s minimal need for hierarchy. Everything fancy disappears or goes under-the-hood (in this blog’s case, that’s categories and a couple of subtle javascript animations).

The other impulse is to go the whole hog with animations and sliders and screens that appear as if from the heavens, and to generally try and impress the fuck out of the viewer with the amount of work you’ve put into what’s getting on the screen.

Right now, the portfolio’s stuck uncomfortably in the middle, and I’d like to pluck it out of its current miserable state.

I’d like to keep the header, or something like it that helps the site not look too po-faced (I work in comics, after all). And I want to do something about the gallery mechanism (currently just functional) that makes the browsing a bit more fun, and maybe enable the viewer to zoom in and out of the pages with some grace.

I want to add a couple of other things – such as samples of the fonts I’m working on, and maybe a ticker that shows just the latest releases I’ve worked on – that would not fit into current site at all.

If anyone has any ideas (assuming people are reading this and not clicking on the referral links out of pity), please let me know. Any guidance would be appreciated.*

* I use WordPress, and will continue to do so if it kills me. Okay, that’s a bit extreme. Till it discombobulates me mildly, let’s say. Please take that into account.

2016 Year-End Update

All attempts to update this blog regularly have been dismal failures, but I can’t really complain, because this was on account of me writing other stuff I have no desire to make public just yet. More on that below.

Still, a blog is a weird little beast to maintain. It takes a writer’s ego to imagine I can make stuff up and people will be interested, but it takes a bit more than that to say I will not make stuff up and people will still be interested in what I have to say. About actual things. It’s something I did convince myself of for long years through my early twenties, but which I find difficult to take as a given now. More on that, once again, below.

(That last paragraph is why I have no inclination to comment on 2016 in general. You don’t need me to tell you how you feel about it.)

Work Report

This was my first complete year (i.e. Jan-Dec) working as a freelance comic-book letterer, and it went well. You can see a near-comprehensive list of my past, current and upcoming projects (apart from a few rather exciting books coming up soon) on my portfolio page here.

Some things that are not on there:

  1. My Bartkira collaboration with artist Anand Radhakrishnan.
  2. Gangs of Malaya for Live Mint by writer C. G. Salamander and artist Sunando C.
  3. More Chakra the Invincible short stories for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which you can read here along with the ones we did last year.

A list won’t convey how happy I was to get to work with some of my favourite writers, artists, colourists, designers and editors of recent years, and to see a new Indian comics scene emerging with Black Mumba and its associated projects, many of which I’m lucky enough to be a part of.

I’ve also been working on my craft, and have now moved almost entirely to drawing sound effects by hand rather than manipulating fonts.

I’ve also begun creating my own balloon fonts for use in future comics, as you will be aware if you follow me on Instagram.

Sitting Duck was my attempt at making a clean, mainstream font of the sort used in superhero comics. It was mostly a way to teach myself how to make fonts, and it worked for that. It stands complete at v1.2.

Mighty Mouse is my attempt to make a bouncy, eccentric font to use in more Indie-style comics. It’s nearly done, with some cleanup left on the italics of both weights.

Gillain is my tribute to Eurocomics lettering, and is inspired by the hand-lettering of Jijé (for whom the font is named), Moebius, Dave Taylor and the like. I had intended to finish Gillain v1.0 by the end of 2016, but my decision to add another weight (bold italics) and to take a 15-day vacation in early December (more on which below) put paid to that goal. Currently, I’m hoping to finish a workable version by the end of January. It’s not, frankly, a font that will be complete for a long time given my intention to load it with autoligatures (85 and counting), but it should be usable in actual comics within another month.

No Smoking

I quit smoking on 30th September this year, coincidentally exactly a year after I quit my job (I guess it was just time for me to do something new). So at the end of 2016, I hadn’t had a single puff for 92 days and 8.5 hours.

This was my third attempt to quit smoking, and the first one to feel like it might work long-term. Each time before this, there would come a point when I’d convince myself I had control over the habit, and that a puff or two wouldn’t hurt. This time, the trick was to convince myself that I didn’t have control and that the only way to throw off the addiction was to admit that and quit nonetheless. So far, so good, although I’ll have to accept the constant hunger of something being missing, and being five minutes from my next cigarette forever.

Bike Trip

One of the highlights of 2016 was a 4500-km motorbike trip I took with a friend in early December. Our main destinations were Agra/Fatehpur Sikri and Amritsar/Wagah, apart from which our goal was to ride as much as we could (twelve full days of long-distance riding rather than the nine on our last bike trip).

A very enjoyable trip overall, about which I might write more on the blog soon.

2017: Writing

In a fit of reckless optimism, I have decided to make it my goal in 2017 to return to writing fiction properly. I had already spent the last few months compiling ideas for two possible novels and a comic, but I have hereby decided that shit must get real. Since all three of these have terrible working titles, I’m going the Warren Ellis route and assigning them codenames.

  1. PROJECT ANNIVERSARY: This book is intended as my love letter to tobacco, and I’d like to finish a first draft exactly a year since I quit smoking, hence the codename. Current status: 20 pages of story notes, 60 pages of research, 1.5 chapters (out of an estimated 30) written.
  2. PROJECT TRIO: This is an attempt to amalgamate three sff books that I came up with at various points over the last few years, which I recently realised should actually be one book. That is, however, not why the codename is ‘Trio’. Current status: 30 pages of scribbles, 25% of an outline, nothing written.
  3. PROJECT TWOFER: This is a 6-issue comic book I outlined in my early twenties and left cooking precisely so that I could come back and script it when I felt better capable of handling the tone. I have no idea what I’ll do with it once it’s scripted, but I’m leaving that thought for later. Current status: Nearly ten years of thinking about it, nothing written.

The intention is to finish a workable first draft of each of these by the end of 2017, and then decide whether to do anything with them or to dump them in a metaphorical drawer and forget about them.

I’ll be writing each of these for a week or two before switching to one of the others when I get bored, so I hope to be posting weekly updates with a few more details on the shapes of these books. No wordcounts, though, because a. I don’t know how long these novels will be and b. wordcounts mean nothing in comics. Plus, this is supposed to be fun.

2017: Colouring

I’ve been taking a couple of online courses on colouring comics over the last month, and I want to get decent at it this year.

I have no plans to move into colouring comics – the intention is to use the knowledge to improve my use of colour in my lettering beyond simply picking from the palette of the book.

The general theory here is that the more I understand about the other aspects of making comics, the better-equipped I will be to do my job. I’m already familiar with writing, editing and production; this felt like the logical next step.

Also, I did promise myself at the age of 25 that I’d like to write, draw, colour and letter an entire comic by the time I’m 35, so with four years to go, I need to learn how to draw and colour well enough to do that. Thought I’d start the wrong way round.

2017: Travel

I would quite like to finally travel outside India this year. I’d wanted to do this in 2016, but work made me a lot busier than I’d expected, and I had to choose between general travel and the bike trip, and you know which one I chose.

Separately or combined with this, I also want to attend a big comics convention outside India. I’m currently scoping out which would make the most sense. I’ll (hopefully) keep the blog updated about that.

2017: Blogging

Finally, I’m making the rash promise to myself that I’ll post to this blog at least three times a week. And that’s not on average, that’s supposed to be per week.

This is the only legitimate New Year’s resolution in this post, because everything else is stuff I’ve already started.

I love the idea of blogging regularly, but tend to be too precious about things I want to write about. I’ve started and abandoned too many epic blogposts when maybe I should’ve concentrated on finishing smaller ones.

Topics will likely vary between progress reports on the three books, lettering and font design, adventures in learning how to colour stuff, and anything else that comes to mind. Probably, given the beginning of this post, not current affairs.

Have a great year, folks!

Slicing a Story

(Reposted from the previous version of this blog. Thought this was useful enough to keep around.)

Take a scene change in a novel. The transition between, usually, one chapter and the next. There is a gap in between, wherein the writer shifts time (usually going forward) and place, and possibly characters. Usually, this gap contains the irrelevant bits, the bits that are excised to make a story readable. Sometimes, this gap may contain relevant information, but mostly the writer brings you up to speed as soon as possible.

This is slicing the story. There are pieces created and kept next to each other, and the writer tries to make you not notice when you skip across these gaps.

These gaps are essential. Not all information is necessary or relevant, and it would be tedious if you followed characters through, say, a long, silent car ride for no reason.

This is an expansion of the most basic level of gap, the one created by, for example:

She got up from the sofa, reached the door, and let the dog in.

We’re skipping the fact that she walked from the sofa to the door, and that she opened the door. The reader fills in these gaps without needing to be told, because they’ve been trained through the act of reading.

This happens all the time in comics. The space between each panel and the next is a gap which is filled in by the reader. Scott McCloud calls this closure. It ranges from the basic (a. the doorbell rings while I’m on the sofa, b. I have opened the door) to the quite complex in the hands of an ambitious writer (see something like Watchmen or much of what Grant Morrison does).

In a comic, additionally, scene changes tend to look exactly the same as panel changes – they are both a gap between two panels – and the reader has to make the deduction that the action has moved, an example of how comics (as we might talk about at some point) can entice the reader into making the effort to close very large gaps by making them look like small ones.

Coming back to prose, in the basic storytelling model (where style is supposed to be invisible), the writer tries to require a minimal amount of closure from the reader. All relevant information is contained on the page.

If the writing maxim ‘come in late, leave early’ is being followed, the gap is larger, and the writer has to work hard to make the reader commit a greater act of closure without noticing that’s what they’re doing.

Or, a writer could lean into it. Slice the story in a way that the reader notices it’s being sliced. This creates the basis for non-linear storytelling.

A simple version of this can be seen in many of Stephen King’s books (for example, The Stand). The writer skips between different characters without skipping around in time too much, and when they come back to a particular strand, time has passed, stuff has happened, which is explained as the story moves along.

A slightly more evolved version of this can be seen in George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series, where each character’s story progresses in a linear manner in itself, but skipping between strands involves jumping into the past and future. To make this clear: Chapter 7 involving Character A might be taking place months after Chapter 8 involving Character B. The amount of information being exchanged between two strands, however, is minimal, as guaranteed by the lack of communications technology on Westeros.

But lean even further into it, and you reach what is generally called non-linear storytelling. Stay with the character, but skip back and forth in time. (See Slaughterhouse-Five and its descendants.) So information conveyed in Chapter 7 will give the reader an extra weapon to interpret the information conveyed in Chapter 8 which chronologically takes place before Chapter 7.

Used by a smart writer, this can be built on to provide two progressions, one chronological and the other thematic – one the story-internal order in which events occur, and the other the order in which events have been presented.

So now, if I’m reading Chapter 8, not only am I using information conveyed about the past and the future of these events, I also close the gap between Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 by interpreting why these two chapters having been placed next to each other.

And if this is used in conjunction with multiple characters and multiple strands, I’m also creating a thematic (or maybe even purely story-based) dialogue between the scenes based on the chosen juxtaposition (as seen in, say, movies like The Prestige).

So far, so obvious, but I thought writing it down might be useful.