Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wrath of the Lich King

For those of you who don't keep up with the gaming scene, a phenomenon called 'Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games' has gained in popularity over the last few years. There are dozens of MMORPGs out there, but none quite so popular as Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft (WoW). Set in the high-fantasy world of Azeroth, WoW is a jaw-dropping display of creativity and game design genius.

More than 11 million people around the world pay a fee (of around AU$20/month) to play World of Warcraft (more info. on Wikipedia here). And on November 13, 2008 the team over at Blizzard released the second expansion for the game - Wrath of the Lich King. Like most roleplaying-games, players level up and are able to 'gear' their characters with bigger, brighter and better armour and weapons. The entire game is quest and reward based, meaning that you walk around in this amazing world talking with npcs (non-player characters) and receiving quests to achieve certain objectives. When you return having completed the quest you are rewarded with gold, items, reputation points etc.

The original WoW, released November 2004, allowed players to go from level 1 to 60 at which point there was 'end game' content that only level 60 players were powerful enough to do well in. The first expansion The Burning Crusade was released in January 2007 and enabled players to reach for new heights with level 70. Along with a totally new continent to explore and the ability to fly around, it also introduced greater reputation-based rewards. One of the top rep rewards was getting a Netherdrake mount, a player's very own dragon to fly around the world on (called a 'flying mount'), pictured below.

Wrath of the Lich King allows players to level to 80 and it has again raised the bar on what MMORPGs can do. The world is bigger and more complicated than previously. Factions, races and species war both within and without their own groups. In WotLK the old saying 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' isn't always true. One major improvement in this expansion is the dynamic terrain. Without knowing much about the mechanics behind this or whatever design processes were involved, I can simply say that in-game the terrain is mind-blowing.

There are passes along the edges of cliffs, mountains that rear into the heavens, yet a persistent wanderer can find a way to cross. There are staggering heights from which to fall (if you have a fear of heights beware Howling Fjord!).

There are a lot of people I talk to who say they would love to play World of Warcraft, but they know that it will hook them and addict them so much that they won't want to keep doing everday things they have to do like go to work! Blizzard itself seems aware of this phenomenon when on load-screens it says things like:

"Bring your friends to World of Warcraft, but don't forget to adventure outside Azeroth with them too!"


"Take all things in moderation, even World of Warcraft"!

But that's a topic for another blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Publisher's Style Guides

I once worked in a medium-sized publishing and speaking organisation where I was handed the task of overseeing the style guide when its former overseer left. This organisation was one that took its duty to provide correct and consistent copy very seriously, even though it wasn't a university nor a member of the media. While I was there I learned about some of the history for this organisation's style guide, the reasoning behind many of the rules, and the point at which the rules could be bent or broken.

To those who have never written or edited much, the subtle nuances between one way of formatting something and another go largely un-noticed. And, to the educationally-challenged, grammar and punctuation are among the words you were supposed to learn in English, but didn't really pay much attention to. But to those of us who have worked with style guides and those who profess to love the craft of writing (and/or editing), a style guide is a refuge.

A style guide is a place to turn when you're not familiar with an organisation's way of doing a particular kind of thing with text. One that is well put together will actually save time, not create work, for its users. To do this well and 'properly' takes time, and the best style guides are ones that are continually analysed and updated to keep pace with the changing nature of communication, formatting and language.

The history of a style guide will usually be based on one or another of the existing style manuals that are out there. For example:

And different organisations will have different needs when it comes to typesetting, writing and editing. In the case of the place I worked, the style guide had been nutted out over a period of many years and factored in the needs and preferences of readers in Australia and the USA. The cooperation and compromise required for this was impressive, but it left the organisation with a somewhat clunky and irrelevant style guide. In addition, people were very busy and were unwilling to keep visiting the style guide to update it. Decisions that had been made decades ago were easier to simply maintain, than question. New people with knowledge only of modern trends in writing and editing were quickly put in their place.

There were some rules that were followed to pad out articles and books (eg. double-spaces after periods) and others to save space (eg. using single quote marks instead of double). Certain trends refused to budge even after a major transition to web-based content (which for those of you who don't know makes the use of double-spaces after periods painful at best). As time went by, management realised the need for different rules depending on the medium. So in print, the Style Guide still had full effect (double-spaces after periods, single (CURLY) quote marks) but web content was allowed to have single-spaces after periods and subtitles on DVDs were allowed to have double, straight quote marks for clarity. There were different rules for different countries (eg. use of .org for UK, Europe, Canada and the USA, but .com for Australia, NZ and others. Dr. with a dot for the UK, Europe, Canada and the USA, but no dot for Australia, NZ and others).

The flexibility was nice for those people who wanted their way, but I remember thinking if we're going to allow this (i.e. if we don't mind too badly one way or the other) why not change it for everybody to make the style guide more practical and useful for writers, editors and graphic designers? Perhaps not with every rule-bending option, but some of them.

The larger a style guide gets, the less likely people are to follow it. It becomes too complicated and too difficult to 'wade through'. Most people in an organisation tend not to care. It falls to those with the editing responsibility to 'fix' everyone else's oversights. Even graphic designers are forced to become experts at the style guide to avoid last minute changes from the final sign-off editor. And few graphic designers are good at editing the work they've just spent four hours laying out.

But that's a topic for another blog.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Unbudgeble English Words

Is it okay to use made up words in novels that we may use in common speech, but don't really exist?

This was a question asked on the Vision Writers email group (, a Queensland (Australia)-based spec-fic writing group. The writer really wanted to use the word 'unbudgeble' in her story (from the point-of-view of an eight-year-old). I found this ironic considering that it would only be the 'unbudgeble' editors who would have a problem with this kind of made-up colloquialism.

The responses on the Vision list were equally entertaining. As always, the wit and creativity of my fellow writers often leaves me in awe. Extraordinary people are writers. Me? I'm just an ordinary person trying to be a writer. :)

Russell Proctor, one of the Vision Writers responded: "Shakespeare did it. Made up words, that is. If it was good enough for him, what are you waiting for? English is a dynamic, progressive, ever-changing language. Let's go for it."

Another writer, Robert Dobson, wrote, "I don't know why you couldn't use unbudgebale, it's a perfectly cromulent word" which is funny because the word "cromulent" is slang for "fine/acceptable" (yes, I had to look that up on

Some words Vision Writers had made up for their writing:
  • "utterness" - the state of being extreme
  • "cosm" - to refer to any kind or size of thing that's like a cosmos
  • "smithereenified" - (I'll let you work that one out on your own)

Now this brings me to another question, which is how far do you go with slang when writing a story with a modern setting? As McCrindle Research has written:

"In the past the spoken word was a more relaxed version of the
structured written word - but the same basic rules of grammar applied.
This has now changed. For this post-modern generation these spoken
terms are not intended to be written. Indeed we had trouble getting
many of the Generation Y respondents to write them down- as they
never had. They may regularly ask “Whassup?” but it’s not intended to
be written. And the answer: “S’righ’” looks clumsy when written."

( )

I don't write stories with a modern Earth setting (I write speculative fiction), but if I did, I'm sure I'd want my characters to seem as believeable as possible. I would have my Gen Y protagonist saying things like, "bitchin", "bent" and "bling", "fully", "it's all good" and "taxed", but that's because I myself am Gen Y and I have said those things, or at least heard them commonly said. But more than half of the slang terms on McCrindle's Wordup Lexicon (link above) are foreign to me. This brings home a point that I must realise as a writer - that just because I am part of Gen Y doesn't mean that my cultural knowledge of Gen Y is complete enough to write from the point of view of my characters (unless they are all like me)!

Language research, then, is important to any writer, including (or especially) those writing stories set in a different time/culture to their own.

But that's a topic for another blog.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


In 'The Self-publishing Manual', author Dan Poynter advises non-fiction book writers not to use jargon (words that are unique to a particular audience) because it runs the risk of turning the reader away.

Funnily enough, I had never really thought about the meaning of the word until now. I somehow had it lumped in with slang and lingo - words I generally think of as the common tongue, not something "unique to a particular audience".

Explore with me, if you're so inclined, the actual meanings of these words, so we can separate them in our minds, forever liberating them from vernacular verbosity.

  1. the language, esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group: medical jargon.
  2. unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish.
  3. any talk or writing that one does not understand.
  4. pidgin.
  5. language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning.
  1. very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language, as Hit the road.
  2. (in English and some other languages) speech and writing characterized by the use of vulgar and socially taboo vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.
  3. the jargon of a particular class, profession, etc.
  4. the special vocabulary of thieves, vagabonds, etc.; argot.

  1. the language and speech, esp. the jargon, slang, or argot, of a particular field, group, or individual: gamblers' lingo.
  2. language or speech, esp. if strange or foreign.

Though they have many things in common, there are differences between JARGON, SLANG and LINGO. With a common thread linking them all together, you might picture this relationship like this:

There is a zone where the three words clearly cross over, but each has its own particular slant. Dan Poynter's advice would seem to apply to all three because a non-fiction book writer wouldn't usually want to come across unintelligible or meaningless, strange or foreign, vulgar, socially taboo or very informal.

When it comes to "language that can only be understood by a particular group", the obvious reason for avoiding that is in case someone not deeply familiar with that group tries to read the book. If only some of the wording had been chosen differently, that person would have been a potential buyer.

In other places, such as email newsletters for businesses, clubs and social groups, magazines (especially for the younger generation) and even advertising, the use of jargon can be an important feature. It just depends on the target audience.

But that's a topic for another blog.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

The Speed of Dark

Every now and then you find an author that you absolutely love and you have to go out and buy every one of their books. It isn't enough to simply borrow them from a library or a friend because you know you're going to want to read them more than once.

For me, Elizabeth Moon is one of those authors. And in the latest book of hers that I have read, she really breaks the boundaries of what I've come to expect of her. In my opinion, Moon writes incredibly well. Her characters (primarily female) are engaging and endearing. They are generally brave and loyal, while at the same time having a few hang-ups that make them human.

Moon writes both fantasy and science fiction. Her Serrano Legacy is a space opera reminiscent of a future earth society. Humankind has mastered FTL travel, migrated into space and colonised multiple planets. Interestingly, there are no aliens. The Serrano Legacy and Moon's Vatta's War novels are primarily about human conflicts - crime and warfare, terrorism, trade and social problems, like the effects of a longer-living, ageing population.

One characteristic I enjoy about Moon's books is their propensity for action and for moving the story along quickly. There's not a lot of lost time making observations about the setting and you will find dialogue on just about every page.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started reading The Speed of Dark, which moves very slowly - in painstaking detail. Released in 2002, it was a science fiction book about an autistic man named Lou. From very early on I struggled with this book - it took me from some time in 2004 until now (2008) to get around to finishing it.

The Speed of Dark was a great book, and it deserved a faster read than I gave it, but I just wouldn't feel like reading it sometimes. I sometimes wondered about this. Was it because it had virtually no action? Was it because there were no amazing creatures or imaginative places to escape to? In some ways reading The Speed of Dark was a chore - something I knew I had to do. And afterwards I felt good for having read it.

The level of detail in boring, day-to-day events was excruciating, but perfectly in line with the main character. It was written in the present tense for Lou's first person segments and in past tense for the omniscient narration (in the third person). This device was disconcerting in some ways, but very effective in communicating how Lou's perception of the world differentiated with those of other people.

The Speed of Dark was a challenging read, and it confronted me with ideas I had not thought about before, especially in relation to autism. I found myself nodding with Lou's perception of the world, and understanding how strange human behaviour sometimes is. I even wondered if there was a little bit of autism in me, just as Lou wonders in the novel if there is a little bit of autism in some of the 'normal' people in his world.

The book was a character study of Lou who was a savant with incredible intelligence and pattern analysis abilities. His one desire was to go to outer space, but because of his 'handicap' he was denied that opportunity.

In the future society he lived in, Lou was part of an older generation of autistic people (younger ones had undergone treatment that wasn't available when Lou was that age). He and a number of other autistic people have full time jobs at a company with special facilities to help them deal with the world in their own unique ways. Despite doing a valued job using their special skills, Lou and his friends felt pressured to undergo a new and risky brain treatment to 'cure' them.

The end of the novel left me wondering what point it was trying to make. Did Elizabeth Moon want us to feel sorry for Lou or happy for him? Did he make the right decision about the treatment or not? Where did his identity come from and what price had to be paid for him to realise his life long dreams? Who or what was to blame for Lou's situation at the end of the novel? Perhaps Moon intended for these questions to remain unanswered, like the rhetorical questions asked by teachers - the answer was blindingly obvious if you would only think about it.

And make you think it does. Understandably, The Speed of Dark won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2003, and was also an Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist.

While this little spec-fic reader maintains a strong preference for action-packed fantasy and sci-fi with a serious world or universal consequences, I have to admire the breadth of Elizabeth Moon's talent. And I appreciate all the more powerfully the potential for speculative fiction to touch upon real issues in a profound and interesting way.

But that's a topic for another blog.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

HTML Blues

When I was about 14, my parents hooked me up on the World Wide Web. It was 1996 and the Internet had not yet become mainstream in households around Australia.

It wasn't long before I stumbled across a fantastic little website community called GeoCities. Those of you who were out on the web back then will undoubtedly remember it, especially if it impacted your experience of the web as much as it did mine. GeoCities was a free system for building and hosting a basic website. Addresses were creatively labeled things like 'Heartlands' or 'Silicon_Valley' and topics ranged from the latest TV heroes to the local church calendar. In January 1999, near the peak of the dot com bubble, GeoCities was purchased by Yahoo! for $3.57 billion.

I first learned HTML by using a tutorial on GeoCities, and many happy years of dabbling have followed. Though I'm no expert, I'm fluent enough with code to build basic pages from scratch (eg. in Notepad) and to be comfortable with WYSWYG (What You See is What You Get) editors like Dreamweaver and Frontpage. Recently I've been working with CSS and enjoying the power of DIV tags (though I still rely heavily on Dreamweaver. I also learned how to build PHP websites the cheat's way (using a content management system like Joomla!).

Arg, technobabble, you may be thinking. Before you click away, all you need to know is that a content management system is like using Blogspot or any of the other Web 2.0 'DIY' systems, except its more powerful and complicated. It enables you to build a dynamic (text is stored in a database) website even if you're not a programmer.

At least, that's what I thought until now. I currently have one website online using Joomla! (see Until recently, the website for my career as a writer also used Joomla!, albeit a newer version. A few months ago, the front page started bugging - instead of my nice little welcome spiel there was an error message. My ever-helpful web host Brinkster happened to have a backup to restore to, which fixed the error. But alas, it happened again.

A few months later, I went to my site ( only to find a nasty little animated gif with fire coming off it and the tagline of some kind of hacker program (MAFIATAOURIRT). Sadly, there are people out on the Internet who have nothing better to do than send malicious software to ruin other people's hard work.
Hence I have decided to stop using Joomla! as my website content management system.

My new website allows certain freedoms you don't have if you're a non-programming-genius using Joomla! For something simple, plain old HTML does the trick. But if you want any kind of interactivity with visitors (forms, logins, shopping carts etc.), dynamic pages are the way to go. Joomla! is a great little CMS, as far as I can tell. I have not used any other CMS' mind you.

My experience as an amateur web designer has been mostly positive over the years. The effort it takes to get a top search ranking today (SEO - Search Engine Optimisation) is a little bit too daunting for me at this stage. The great thing about the web is it changes rapidly and it changes directly in line with demand. The rise of Web 2.0 social networking sites like this one, plus MySpace, Facebook etc. are the tip of the iceberg.

But that's a topic for another blog.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

Web 2.0 - a great little video on YouTube: