The Opinionated Reader: Do (My) Opinions Matter?

I think we’ve established that I read a lot. The more I read, the more Opinions I form on my reading matter. Yes, Opinions with a capital O. As someone who suffers from anxiety and had an education system’s worth of criticism for not being able to express opinions (or expressing the “wrong” opinion and being called out for it very publicly), choosing to write this makes for an usual situation. I am no expert. I am not a teacher of English, nor a well-versed professor with an extended edition of the Oxford Dictionary on a little table next to me while I read in my dusty library of fine classics. I’m hardly shattering a monocle and spewing tea in outrage whenever I see an abuse of the en dash (even if that’s what I worry I come across as being like). What right do I have to say what I think? Why would anyone care what a “graphic designer” has to say about typos, character flaws, or the merits of semi-colons vs commas?

Could it maybe in some tiny way be helpful? Or am I getting above myself?

Hold that self-depreciating thought.

I’ve written before about my e-reader habit, especially when it comes to indie authors. They don’t all have teams of editors and spell-checkers, proof readers or unbiased sources of feedback. Maybe, just maybe, when put in the form of critique rather than the dreaded criticism, Opinions could be of some use. That and a second pair of eyes; automated spellcheckers can’t tell if someone “shutters” whether they’re cold and lost without the letter d or are just closing some windows. If I’ve been feeling bold enough (or just darn well adored the book in question), I’ve asked the author if it would be useful to get feedback. And you know what? The responses I’ve gotten have more often than not been kind, understanding and willing to engage. It can be scary, but I just need to remember: writers are people too. You wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of flaming or false praise. Do a Bill and Ted and just be excellent to each other.

There’s also that little part of me that as a reader knows that reviews matter. Not just positive ones, but negative too. Something I hated about a book (e.g. themes like insta-love, slow-burn plots over several long books, unexpected “steam” in the bagging area) might actually be what someone else is looking for. There are reviewers I follow because we have similar taste, and to know that they disliked this book because X but loved that one because Y helps me make better decisions about what I read. Sure there are trolls out there alongside those auto “I loved it so rated 5 stars MOAR PLZ” responses, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. While dumping a star review with literally one or two words may help the Amazon algorithms, it won’t help real people. I write my opinion-based reviews to help authors and potential readers. Surely we all just want to enjoy books ourselves and direct others to discover wonderful new stories.

Then there’s my last thought on the matter: opinions are a part of you. Back in the days of paperback-or-nothing, my opinions only extended as far as “like” or “do not like”; maybe there would be a character that stuck in the mind or a plot I inexplicably thought back to, but I’d rarely go much beyond the binary basics. Nowadays, I’ll look at the writing itself. I’ll take into account character arcs and dialogue, foreshadowing and description, pacing and tone… It sounds like writing a school book report, but it’s not. There’s no pressure when you’re doing it for yourself. From it I’ve learned to appreciate the work that goes in to constructing an engaging story and know my own preferences better for it. Sometimes I think I understand more about writing from doing this than I got from English Lit/Language lessons because I’m interested, not being forced.

I suppose what it boils down to is this: Opinions can matter. Other people can learn from them. You can learn from them, even if it’s just a case of working out how to form your own. It’s probably worth sharing them as long as you’re not aggressively forcing them one others.

So do my specific opinions matter? On a macro level, probably not. But small-scale? I could quote from Disney’s Mulan about one small grain of rice tipping the balance, but hey, who knows?

It’s all a matter of opinion.

A Kindle ereader

A Year of Reading Dangerously

So it turns out I’m not much of a blogger. I design, I make, I craft, I read… But not so much the blogging in 2018.

I thought I’d attempt a dramatically titled comeback post because this year I have been well and truly glued to the Kindle. Scoff if you like; I’m still a big affectionado of the real-life strokable hardback or humble mass-market paperback. It’s just that when waiting around in hospital for 4-5 hours (that happened in an rapid access DVT clinic no less) you need something to do. Reading is good. Finished that first book already? If only there was something else on hand to read- Oh wait, there are a whole load more ebooks right here. So while a real, tangible book is nice, portability and practicality means my little old second hand Kindle has become my friend.

It’s also meant that this year I really discovered indie fiction. Self-published books can have a bad reputation, and to be honest, it’s not always wrong. You can’t be sure if that sweet romantic fantasy novel is going to suddenly include acts of brutal violence that an editor could have pointed out didn’t fit the tone, or if the sentences are going to be typo-riddled, or have grammar issues (fellow apostrophe fans will know what I mean).

And yet when you find that gem amoungst the seaglass (you know the ones – beautifully polished covers but the content… not so much) it’s something special. I have never been more amazed by the art of writing, especially by many of the indie authors I’ve come to know and love this year. Some have even been kind enough to talk to me. As an anxious person, it’s hard to remember that these are normal people. They just write things. Good things. Amazing things. And if you want them to know that, you should tell them. So I did. They deserve to know that their work has given positive meaning to someone’s life, and to be thanked for sharing it with the world. I’ve also been a bit of a busy-body about some things: typos and grammar. Indie authors are human like the rest of us and can’t always catch every misplaced letter or damn-you-autocorrect word swap. While it’s been frightening to speak up, the vast majority of authors have been receptive. Even more amazingly, I’ve been allowed to join ARC teams (you receive an Advanced Reader Copy of a book before it goes on sale and leave a review on Amazon and/or GoodReads). Some authors like feedback in general, others might just like if you pick out a typo, but they’ve all been very nice people to support.

I’ve learned a lot from reading. It can be as simple as not judging a book by its cover to discovering the meaning of the word “finagled”. I even know what people mean when they say they’re looking for a YA RH PNR with a HEA (that’s a Young Adult Reverse Harem Paranormal Romance with a Happily Ever After to the uninitiated).

This post is a bit of a thank you to all those indie authors and GoodReads lurkers who have been such wonderful people to me this year. I’ll have to do a post celebrating my favourites ASAP. Who knows, maybe blogging about books as well as design could help me practice my own writing… Even if it is only to blog more often.

Be seeing you.

Pretty but missing something

This is an opinion. It does not change your right to have an opinion of your own. Your opinion may also differ from the one expressed here. This particular opinion is about games, specifically of the PC variety.

I’ve been wondering recently what it is that makes some games really memorable. There are some on my shelf that I know I’ve played, but despite knowing they had a story I can’t remember a thing about it. With platformers that’s not so much an issue, you play them for the gameplay experience alone. But RPGs? Aren’t they supposed to be immersive as well as entertaining? And why is it that, to me, Neverwinter Nights 2 is far more memorable than, say, the original Sacred, Divine Divinity, or even my beloved Dungeon Siege 2?

Story? Check. They all had defined plots, which is quite important with these sorts of things. An interesting, believable (at least in the suspention of disbelief mode you assume for fantasy gaming) world? Check again. Of course Neverwinter Nights has an advantage there of being set in the D&AD Forgotten Realms, with all it’s geography, religions, races and magic planned out and established canon. But Ancaria, Rivellon and Aranna all had things going for them, being fantasy lands full of myths and legends of their own.

Don’t get me wrong, the others were enjoyable games in their own right. It’s just that to me what set Neverwinter Nights 2 out was that it had all these things and something extra: characters. That probably sounds silly, as every game comes with its fair share of NPCs for you to chat with. But Neverwinter Nights 2, somehow, made me care. It was empathy with the characters that made them stick in my mind. Some people complained about the whole “20 questions” approach to getting to know your companion characters in Obsidian/BioWare games. OK, it can be a little clunky at times, but it’s entirely optional. I probably would have liked it more if there had been another way of getting more in depth about the characters during the game rather than just during the little lulls in the story. But even so, they gave me enough to get an idea of each character. They weren’t just “elven wizard” and “dwarven fighter”, they had personalities as well as tactical advantages. When stuck for picking between two equally useful characters, I’d include one in my party because I liked them or kept one out because I didn’t.

Another thing about the empathy idea is that it doesn’t always have to reflect on “the good guys”. Borderlands 2 surprised me in that it too made good use of characters. I did find myself caring about “the good guys” (although that could have been from the many hours spent researching the game), they went one up and pretty much forced me to have an opinion on the villian. He’s the character you really get to know, and unless you’re skipping the dialogue to get your FPS kicks uninterupted, you will think somethings about him (ranging right from “LOL” to “eww” to “woah, that’s pretty evil”). Respect to Anthony Burch on making a bad guy who isn’t just the “I’m gonna take over/destroy the world!!1!” type who you fight against just because the story demands that you do.

I’ve been trying out some online games, and it really does push home to me just how much I value those interesting characters. The games I’ve tried have been really pretty, well thought out, addictive levelling, a potentially good story in there… But something feels missing. NPCs are there to buy from or to issue quests. Character, in online games, is supposed to come from the players. But how often does that actually happen? And besides, if it did, it’d need to work both ways. I’d have to role play whatever character I was playing, which in some cases could be downright awkward. I don’t mind the usual RP part of an RPG (eg someone gives you the choice of good action, evil action, or neutral action. Pick one. Advance). But really. Someone comes to ask me how many wyverns I aim to smite before sundown on the 5th of Mirtul, I’d get a bit stuck. And that wouldn’t feel very fair on the RPers who were really trying to make an effort to give the world some of the atmosphere you’d expect.

To make a point, picture this: A buzzing city, full of warriors and wizards, pirates and clerics. It’s alive and thriving and wonderful, right? Not like those single player games with all their scripted extras pottering about the place. Then you enter the marketplace, get a troll (I mean literally a troll) pestering you for a trade request repeatedly and refusing to take “decline” for an answer, try to ignore the over-powered wizard riding a pay-item dragon mount who’s looking to sell his “Boots of Escaping+5” to the higest bidder, and then get hit on (if you’re playing a female character) by someone who doesn’t have English as a first langauge. You can join a party where the only contact between you and the others is a “thanx” before they kick you out at the end of the quest (which is probably better than the parties of mad-skillz-I-has-them players who just insult you). Yeah, atmospheric.

Yes, I know it is possible to find good people in online games. These are just some of the more disappointing experiences I’ve had in various games. It’s also possible to play a game in which the characters, save your own, mean very little (Dungeon Siege 2 <3) and enjoy it. But I think it's that feeling of empathy makes it something special.

In an online game, the world can move on without you. But sometimes it's nice to think that, while that single player game isn't going anywhere, those characters aren't just idle. They're waiting for you to come back.