A look back at creating Social card games

It's less than a week now until the release of Social card games on the 16th. So I thought I'd take a look back at how I got this far.

2019 I was sick – all year. It started with a nasty chest infection that struck very suddenly and left me struggling to breathe. I won't bore you with the many unpleasant complications that came during the waiting lists, but they eventually decided it must have been a virus because they hadn't found anything else. For reasons that baffled and infuriated me they told me the exhaustion I was left with was post viral fatigue, but that they “don't like” to diagnose it.

Anyway, it was somewhere in the midst of all that pain, exhaustion and confusion that I started working on the book. Late Spring would be my guess, but I didn't actually start journalling my progress until the Summer of 2020.

Date: Sun Jun 21 09:49:41 2020 +0100

Time to ring some changes

I don't know why I haven't been tracking revisions so far. But I'm about to embark on some serious restructuring of the book, so it seemed a good idea to initialise a repository.

That message refers to my decision to use a piece of software called git. It's normally used by software developers – especially free software developers – to collaborate on a project. It is both the means of sharing their work with each other and of tracking changes and additions over time. For my book I was interested in it for the latter – it would be my journal and a series of historical versions of the book as I edited it. I thought it would help me discipline myself to take notes of what I was doing during the editing process and it would make it possible to undo changes that I regretted.

The “serious restructuring” I referred to was my solution to a roadblock I'd hit. The most obvious way to structure a book like this is to split the games up into categories and have a chapter for each. So in June 2020 I had chapters on trick taking games, shedding games, capture games, melding games, fishing games and – inevitably – miscellaneous games. Within each of these chapters I had sorted the games from the simplest to the most complex. But I found the resulting order of the games unsatisfying.

There are common rules and concepts that pop up in different games and they aren't necessarily limited to one of these categories. Some of the trick taking games had rules in common with shedding games and fishing games. But then the fishing games had rules in common with the melding games. So whatever order I put the chapters in I had lots of page references to simpler games in later chapters. The categories that had seemed to make so much sense before, now seemed arbitrary and unhelpful.

I dug up another set of free software – graphviz – and started building up a “digraph” of these common rules and concepts and the games that contained them. A digraph (short for directed graph) is just a bunch of things (jargon: vertices) with arrows pointing from one to another (jargon: arcs). I was like one of those movie detectives who gets busted off the case and covers the wall of his apartment in index cards connected by lengths of coloured yarn. I knew there was a pattern and I was determined to find it.

I naïvely thought I'd have the book finished by Christmas. It was getting close to the current form by November and I worked quite intensely that month, going over each game to make sure the explanations were clear and the jargon was consistent throughout the book. I found more commonalities between the games as I went and continued to tweak the order, even inventing another simple game – then called boneface, now thirty-one bones – because I thought that cribbage was introducing too many rules in one go. I quite like thirty-one bones as a kids game, or a quick and easy game while waiting for all the players to settle for the main event.

By the end of January I had gone through all the games in this way, and February saw me arranging things in a page size that Ingram Spark would work with and sketching up ideas for the cover and the shuffling illustrations.

Date: Sat Feb 13 18:15:25 2021 +0000

Assorted edits

Intro and capture games mainly. I'm a bit staggered by the amount of faff that creating an ebook will be. Probably should have looked into it much sooner. Mawkeb will make it easier to produce LaTeX and XML from the same source, but I don't want to put this book on hold for too long. So now I need to replace all the kooky Lua stuff that's hard to convert and create XML versions of all the sections. If I make it my day job for the coming week I should be able to get it done.

A week? Maybe it was good to keep thinking the end was just over the next ridge. After that week I decided it would be easier to semi-manually convert everything to xhtml for the ebook and write a program to convert that to a format that could be typeset for print.

Mawkeb is a pipe dream – some software I intend to write to make my life a little easier in the long run. I think I'll make a start on it after Christmas.

Date: Mon Mar 1 15:03:50 2021 +0000

Script and makefile for pdf via context +various

Lots of little things I found as I was setting up the conversion. Still need to pick through with a fine tooth comb and make sure I meet the distributors requirements, but it's looking OK. For the first time in a month I feel like I'm further ahead than I was.

Date: Wed Mar 3 15:34:02 2021 +0000

Improved epub package

Epub now works in fbreader and 'book reader'. Sigil recognises at least the main metadata.

There we go. March this year I had a working, if slightly buggy, ebook. I built it up from scratch pretty much, poring over the specifications for the different files that get zipped together to make an epub. I typed some of them, and wrote little gawk programs to generate others from the main book file – the navigation (contents) is done this way. Sadly this was a version 3.2 epub, and I would later discover I had to downgrade it to version 3.0 for the distributor. The developers have made some real improvements for version 3.2, not least to the documentation.

Another big pass of editing took me into April, which is also when I started work on this website. Around the end of April is when I got the first advance copies printed. Which led to another pass of editing – there are just things that pop out on a printed page that I wasn't seeing on my screen. I took the old school approach of going through the text with a red pencil.

It was around then I started getting anxiety attacks. Between my fear of exposing the book to the public, my fear of failure, my fear of getting back out after lockdown and my frustration with online dating, it all got a bit much for me for a while. I had planned to release the book in the Summer but I postponed it to November, cut back on the online dating – no new contacts for a while at least – and concentrated on reconnecting with friends and generally getting myself back into the world. It felt terrible at the time to delay the release but it was the right decision.

Now I've had problems with social anxiety before, so I at least had the confidence that if I'd beat it once, I could beat it again. I'm nervous about the book's release, but not terrified. Even if it doesn't earn me a fortune I can never say it has been a total failure. I have created a book that I'm proud of and learned a whole lot along the way. I may be a long way from matching my wildest dreams about pre-sales and media buzz, but people who see the book often want to buy it, so it could still be a sleeper hit. Who knows? I won't be giving up on it any time soon.

I shall be visiting Bridport literary festival over the next couple of days. Then I'll push on and finish the large print version. Sorry if anyone's waiting for it, it won't be out at the same time as the paperback, as I had hoped. I still need to get some feedback on a few things that aren't covered by the guides I've read. Then when the inside is finished I'll need to create the cover file. It might take a week, but if you've read this far you know how over-optimistic I can be about how quickly I'll finish a book.