On Progress, 7/25/14

Subtitle: Notes from the Sweaty Malaise of Summer

I hate heat. I mean, I really hate heat. I would always rather be cold than hot, to the point where as a child I refused to wear snow gear in the snow because I was actually more comfortable being cold (and perhaps a bit wet) than I was in the stuffy snow clothes. I hate the feeling of having sweat on my body unless I have just exercised and can appropriately shower down afterwards; I hate the way my clothes stick and darken and stain; I hate the way my skin (always sensitive since the day I was born) is abraded by the salt unless I pay nearly surgical attention to it and the way those irritations stick with me long after the heat has passed. I hate being afraid to put on a pair of pants or a slightly-too-thick shirt. I want fog, and rain, and to sometimes zip up my hoodie against the breeze. I want every painting of Seattle; I want every movie about London. I want to stand on a tor with wind slapping and punching at me and not be able to see anything but gray mist and the condensation on my glasses.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t giving me that option. Instead I’m having to just pray to the gods of air conditioning and try to do whatever I can to make myself comfortable. It’s having kind of a major impact on my mood, which I say partially as a preamble to…

The writing update. This week’s writing has been, mmm, circuitous? I’ve been going back and doing what I’ve termed my ret-cons, changing a few things about a few characters and situations. Partially, it’s an effort to have better representation, as several of my  characters were white-by-default, had no particular reason to be white, and in a couple cases had every reason to be something other than white. I also realized I had been engaging in a couple cases of tacit erasure of marginalized groups (through failing to represent them even though they would absolutely be represented in this story), and I wanted to fix that. I had to carefully consider whether these retcons were me engaging in tokenism or fishing for ally cookies, but after some thought I decided that, no, they are not; and so I began.

Unfortunately, in beginning, I ran into what I will call a case of my writing being both Real But Boring and engaging in some nasty psychological time compression. Two of my main characters have an ongoing argument throughout the first part of the book, mostly involving the way the main character is approaching the strange situation that forms the crux of the story. This is a natural thing to include in a book that is basically a loving deconstruction of urban fantasy tropes (I love me some of that); of course there’s a Doubting Thomas of a friend who thinks the main character’s quest is either madness or frivolity. The Real But Boring problem is, the main characters spend too many pages having that argument – they keep starting to bring it up, getting distracted, and going back to it. Some of that is OK, but too much of that is not fun to read about – the revisited argument takes the place of plot advancement or character development, the same way it can when a TV show needs to pad out an episode. The time compression problem is that the main characters are far, far too open and invested in each other for who they are and how long they’ve known each other. A year or so of familiarity is assumed in four weeks; while some of this is the main character’s personality coming through, it’s happening with the people around him, too, so it’s an issue with the writing. This is a classic television problem, and also a problem with trying to use time in the way I was in this book; another case of a much younger me being Clever and digging himself into a hole. I tried to parcel out the story in weeks of the school year rather than natural chapter breaks, and it’s causing me some issues – especially once I calculated out how far into fall quarter Thanksgiving break would actually be.

I realized these things, and through realizing these things, I realized that, quite simply, what Eyes of Stone needed was for me to go back and outline these chapters and make sure everything feeds into the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters. I was still trying to be a seat-of-the-pants writer when I wrote this, and the repetition is likely a symptom of that. The big, revelatory part of the argument can happen later in the year; the characters can have multiple conflicts over it but it should be used to either drive a character to where they need to be or to show the changes their situation is causing for them. These are qualities that will improve the book; and honestly, including them will only require a bit of nip and tuck – in other words, my prose is not a doomed pile of terrible crap, it merely needs some refinement, which is exactly what the editing process is all about.

The problem is, in going back and doing this rearrangement and refinfement; I am not moving forward with the rest of the book; and the other problem is, I’ve changed how I am handling the rearrangement and refinement something like three times already. This is a thing I do sometimes, spiraling around what I view as a weak spot in the writing, and it usually hits when I’m going through a patch of impostor syndrome, or when I’ve been smacked with some criticism of my writing, or have otherwise been given cause to linger in the Land of Doubt. I’ll tend to try to get a small patch of writing “perfect” and wind up driving myself insane going over it and over it and over it. In this case, I do think it’s necessary to address a weakness in the opening of the book, but am I saying that because I want to let myself spin rather than move forward? Am I afraid of finishing this and showing it to someone else? Do I want to just hover in this liminal space for ever, uncomfortable as it might be?

All of this points to me being overstressed on the writing front; I’m the equivalent of the meth-head at midnight, face pressed to the grout as I savage it with a bleach-soaked toothbrush. I am under an amount of stress I do not always realize is there, and I am in a part of the year where my mood is often bad and my energy level low, which makes it very easy for me to get self-critical and try to feed the inner critic and correct one small thing rather than deal with moving forward and come back to it later. I need to take two steps backward and let my brain sort itself out.This isn’t to say that I will not do the edits I’m doing, or that the rearrangement does not lead to a stronger book; but it is to say that I recognize that editing angry is about a bad as driving angry in terms of the damage done to the object of the sentence.

The good news is, this need to unplug comes just in time for me to be taking one of my biannual trips to Mendocino County. This time tomorrow I will be in a car, your choice of Mastodon’s Crack the Skye or the audiobook of Soon I Will Be Invincible blasting on the speakers. I will sleep in every day up through Tuesday; I will eat food that reminds me of a simpler, lighter time when my biggest jobs were math homework and Silent Hill; and maybe, if I have the money, I’ll look into getting a massage while I’m up there. I will not make myself get on the Internet, and I will not demand any of my HabitRPG tasks of myself, including my daily word count. I can disconnect geographically and mentally and let my batteries recharge. There is no doubt I have tolls being taken of me that I do not always see, and that I drive myself harder than it’s possible I should; so it’s time to give myself a break.

But just in case, I’m bringing my laptop. Just because I’m giving myself a break doesn’t mean the muse won’t strike – and some solid prose-work can be a wonderful accent to a vacation.

I always end on a recommendation, and this week will be no different. This week, I recommend to you the comic book known as Rat Queens. The titular Queens are an adventuring party in a world unabashedly inspired by D&D, with a heavy dose of modernity in their dialogue. The characters and the art in this are the big sellers, with a rich, relaxed style to the panels that really meshes well with the kind of story being told. The Queens are capable, brutal fighters, all of them adept at their own shtick, and all of them unafraid of themselves – whether that self is kind, sarcastic, foul-mouthed, serious, or socially awkward. They have problems and backstories that real people might have in the insane world they find themselves in, and their personalities are very clear and compelling, jumping right off the page and making you wonder which one is your favorite – which, as Sonya says, is the primary hallmark of a good ensemble cast. The book is violent, with middling levels of gore (more than your average Marvel comic but less than Sin City), and the adult language flows like so much water; if those don’t bother you, the story is just too much fun to pass up.

Have a good wekeend, everybody. Leave a sacrifice with the thermometer gods for me.

On Progress, 7/18/14

The symbol for this week is a slug.

I’ve had another one of those “off-week” things that apparently occurs for us humans. I’ve made word count every day, but I’ve only once or twice felt good about the word count I made on any given day. I’m mired in self-doubt about this segment of the novel, about my prose in general, about life and the way I live it and whether I will look back on it in joy. In other words, I appear to be waging a war with a bout of depression. (My depression is particularly existential, it seems.)

These things happen – depression and anxiety are co-morbid, and as discussed ad nauseam in previous posts, I have plenty of things pressing on my anxiety of late, so it’s no surprise that depression has come to call. It does make my brain a tricky landscape to navigate right now, though – it’s hard to trust my instincts when I’m acutely aware that my instincts may, in fact, be malfunctioning.

On a more positive note, this whole situation has reinforced my need for a writing group to call my own. While I won’t pretend a writing group is entirely for my own benefit (file that idea under “unfair”), having that kind of support network there to give me external feedback on my writing is one method of combating the brain-chiggers when they dig in to my gray matter; whether or not I am depressed will not have much bearing on how someone else thinks. So, while that’s frustrating right now, I am looking toward a future where I can take steps to improve this very thing, and that’s before I consider my plan to seek therapy.

In the meantime, I’m keeping my writing workload light for next week – some retroactive continuity changes to Eyes of Stone that won’t require a lot of fresh prose, and some magazine submissions for my orphaned pieces. Some light exercise and thin broth while my poor sick brain heals.

Also in good news for this week – I can tell I’m climbing out of the depression, and I can tell why. It’s the same answer I’ve always come back to, no matter the shape of the shadow cast over my life: art. I’m feeling better because I’m being exposed to new and interesting shows, and books, and stories. I just finished Moby Dick, which truly deserves its place in the Western canon, whaling essays and all; I’m in the midst of the sixth volume of Astro City, which has absolutely earned a place in the Western comics canon, full stop with no qualifying statements; Sonya is watching The Bridge, another Americanization of a Nordic beautiful-dead-girl story (that surprisingly has not had a hidden BDSM dungeon show up yet) that actually has some great characterization in it, and is addressing issues with the Mexican-American immigration situation that I have not seen so starkly rendered on TV before; and we’re both watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a cop comedy from the folks who brought us Parks & Recreation, and one that is just as full of the quirkiness and empathy that makes that show so great. All of these are excellent for their own unique reasons, and all of these are helping me to remember what good writing looks and tastes and sounds like.

This all leads up to my obvious writing revelation of the week: complex prose is not necessarily good prose. A lot of the best character moments in these shows and books are rendered in plain, simple English, sometimes salted with dialect. Melville’s prose is poetic bordering on the Homeric, and Ahab in particular sounds like he subsists entirely on a diet of amphetamines and Bibles, but even that great, baroque style is simple where it needs to be, with plain-stated phrases serving to contrast Ahab’s bombast. Good writing isn’t just showing off your vocabulary; it’s saying things in a way that make people feel it instead of just read it. It’s about wit, and wit is often about brevity.

I realize that’s one of those lessons your writing teacher gives you in the first couple of classes; but on the list of things the brain-chiggers whisper to me in the long watches of my self-doubt is the idea that my prose isn’t poetic enough, that I need to use bigger words and more words or I’m failing my audience. To be fair, that’s not so much an issue in what I’ve had published – surprise, surprise, the things I have published have transcended my weaknesses as a writer! – but it is definitely something my inner critic seems to harp on, so however obvious it may seem from outside this poisonous little bubble, keeping this idea in mind will be invaluable as I swim back toward the surface of things.

Speaking of writing, it’s time I go do some for the day job. Engineering problems wait for no man, or some such thing. To cap off the week – my recommendation to you is, in fact, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It’s got the production values of a sitcom, but it’s got the signature, humanist Fremulon style that Parks & Recreation also carries, where the characters are pretty much equally weird, and even the most awful character comes packaged with a lot of empathy. It’s also proof Andy Samberg is more than jokes about genitalia and incest, which makes me feel better about the world as a whole. If you liked Parks & Rec, you won’t be disappointed.

And with that, I am off. Have a good weekend, everyone!

On Progress, 7/11/14

And here we go.

This week has been one of the better writing weeks in recent memory. Not necessarily in terms of literal, tangible progress – I had to backtrack in my Eyes of Stone edits to fill a plot hole* – but in terms of internal progress, it’s been great.

See, I got a rejection letter earlier this week. It was very encouraging, and I’ve tweeted about it already. A couple of comments from the slush readers really hit me hard, as they were things I had hoped were not true about my writing, but upon reflection, definitely are, or at least can be. This was actually just the apex of a realization I started to come to this week about my voice, and about the damage I’ve done to it and the healing that needs to go on.

See, in my early and mid-twenties, I was obsessed with having a Voice. In place of a Voice, I instead tried for a Shtick. I decide my thing would be to use my prose as a camera – to show you what was happening outside, but not inside, to show but never to tell. I decided this, and I began a lengthy period of narrative constipation.

What I get now that I didn’t then, was that a dose of telling is exactly what makes prose fiction so great – that and the wordplay. There are things about human reactions and body language that you cannot show without actually showing them – an art form that can be handled in visual media like comics, TV, and movies, but that comes up short when translated to the page. In prose, what you really want to do is capture the essence of what is going on – not in a literal description of what is happening, but in relation to other sensations, a synesthetic way of approaching a reaction that most, if not all , of your readers can identify with. I get that now; I really, really do.

The problem is, while I get it, I spent so much time forcing myself away from getting it that my fingers are having trouble catching up to my head. I keep instinctively just describing motions, writing stage directions as some writers call them. When I relax, the wordplay comes flowing out of me and I write stories that get good reviews (like the one that was rejected – it was clearly well-liked, just up against competition that was liked better). But when I don’t relax, I come out stilted, staggering, and just plain not fun to read.

I started to downward spiral on the issue a bit, worrying about how to get to the next level. I’m more advanced than your basic Intro to Creative Writing course, but I’m not all the way to the level of my potential, either. I need to get out of the space I’m in and into the next one. But how do I do that? What’s the right next step for me.

I knew the answer; I just wasn’t seeing it through the haze of anxiety. Fortunately, my friends are awesome, and they are on Twitter. They told me exactly what I needed to hear – what I actually needed to hear, not what would calm me down. I need a writer’s group where we can expose ourselves to other styles and get feedback from people with an actual stake in the art of prose; and I need to expose myself to different voices. One editor I know suggested slush reading, and that’s such a great idea it’s like it comes from an award-winning editing professional.

The reason I was resisting those ideas wasn’t so much fear of flying, as it was fear of adding to my life. My dance card is really pretty full right now, with Weddinggeddon swinging into full and awesome power and my weekends getting booked solid for basically all of August and September. I simply cannot take on any other regular commitment at the moment, to myself or to anyone else, and hope to fulfill it with any efficacy. That’s just not how life works.

In this thought came the revelation: the problem is not life in general, the problem is life right now. I am under more stress from the wedding planning process than I fully realize I am, and the added pressure of not getting any weekends to myself or alone with Sonya for at least a month after our wedding is not exactly sprinkling jimmies on my emotional sundae. I’m in a place of great pressure, and I need to recognize that, respect it, and ride it out. My three Rs. When it’s over, I’ll be happily married, and have participated in the happy marriages of several others, and celebrated a birthday with my new family; and I’ll be ready to stand with Sonya (my wife!) and take the right first steps in the new life we’re building together.

For me, as a writer, there are three steps to take once that’s done:

1. Get therapy. My anxiety may not be hurting my writing as much as the attention disorders or depression that wrack some writers, but it can’t be helping, either. Any system works better when it’s unclogged, and I should give myself the gift of whatever steps are required to flush me out.

2. Find a magazine that needs a slush reader. I may have trouble fitting in the level of work some of the bigger magazines expect, but I owe it to myself to find a good fit.

3. Join or start a writer’s group. I probably can’t physically meet very often, but in this day and age that’s no true hindrance. I have friends who are also looking, last I checked, so there’s building material out there for me.

I feel happier just knowing what direction to go in now. I still need to improve – will always need to improve – as a writer, but I now know what I need to do to make that happen. It will be hard work, but working hard at what I love doing is a burden I am overjoyed to shoulder.

In lighter, non-writing news, I have two recreational things to celebrate. One is that the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons comes out next week. I do not have the words to describe how excited I am. I started playing D&D way back in Second Edition, and every edition has been, in my opinion, both an improvement and an interesting lateral move. Fifth Edition looks like a return to our roots, but with plenty of good ideas reaped from the third and fourth iterations. I’ve pre-ordered the starter kit, which looks like it will be the main way people experience the game at the outset (with the Big 3 not all coming out until November of this year), and I plan to take a little time to drink some soda and eat some pizza and explore a vast subterranean tunnel complex with four or five of my favorite murder-hoboes. It should be joyous; Tuesday the 15th can’t happen fast enough.

The second is a bit more immediate: I’m trying out a new sport tonight. Sonya found us a deal on tickets to the final home game for the San Jose SaberCats, our local arena football team. I’ve never watched arena football, and I’ve only watched actual football all of twice, so this is going to be new territory for me. I’m going to do my best to comprehend it, but more than that, I’m going to do my best to enjoy it. Sonya got us the tickets as a brain dump in the midst of our wedding maelstrom, a place where we can just enjoy some purely visceral entertainment and let ourselves relax and not worry about who wins or why the play stopped or exactly how you’re allowed to kick the ball. Hockey will always be my #1 sportsball, but for tonight, I am apparently part of the Roar, and that sounds perfect.

Speaking of tonight, I need to get some things done before I gear up and go watch me some sportsball. So for now, I leave you with this recommendation: literally every single episode of Parks & Recreation. I’m late to the party, but it’s still an awesome party; this show is both funny and very human, with a genuine love for its deranged characters and a real sympathy for them as they self-destruct. Plus, the characters actually grow and develop and improve as the show goes on – where everyone is by Season 6 is not where they are in Season 1, to varying degrees depending on the individual character’s resistance to change. I promise it’s good, and you can binge-watch it on Netflix and Hulu the way we did.

But now, I must go work. Have a great weekend, everybody!

*Yes, that’s progress, but I was hoping to be farther along in the book by today.

On Progress, 6/27/14

Hi everyone!

So, the brain-chiggers are pretty active this morning. Last night was my four-year anniversary with Sonya, and as often happens (despite my best efforts), I put way too much pressure on the night to be “perfect.” Dinner was wonderful, as dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant usually is; the movie (How to Train Your Dragon 2) was fun and thoughtful and sweet; but after the movie, my mood just tanked with very little stimulus, and I wound up fuming and funking for the rest of the night. I managed not to take it out on Sonya, at least, but I now feel like I managed to retroactively ruin the experience, and I’m still working my way through those feelings.

That last part is patently ridiculous, or at least an exaggeration; but it’s still how I feel. This is the problem with navigating my feelings; as I have previous stated, my particular species of brain-chigger makes it almost impossible to tell feelings I need to worry about from feelings that are part of the jerkbrain. Do I need to confront my friend with their behavior on given point x, or is my reaction to that behavior a byproduct of the jerkbrain: an instance of me catastrophizing something very small, or trying to make a situation about me? It doesn’t help that I got gaslit about my feelings a lot when I was younger (I was literally told on at least one occasion that I’d made them up), so I’m already inclined to dismiss my feelings as false, or at least as nobody else’s problem. It’s a thorny hedge-maze to navigate, for sure.

The good news is, Sonya took our brief conversation on the topic pretty much in stride, and we can file it all in the bucket of things to work on. I suspect we will die with things to work on, really; if we don’t, I hope we manage to be sassy mentors that teach some stuck-up businessman how to love fearlessly.

On the writing front, Eyes of Stone edits continue apace. I’ve decided that after I finish the next chapter, I want to switch gears and work on my next novel for a bit. I’m going to start up a wiki for myself, as I threatened to do on Twitter, and start some world-building for that story. Try to get everything connected up. Then, after I get through a few more chapters of Eyes of Stone, I’m going to actually put pen to paper and/or fingers to keyboard. It’s been a couple of years since I started a completely original long work like this. I’m excited, and scared, and a few things in between. It’s a good place to be.

I know it seems like, lately, I talk about myself more than I do about my writing. In all honesty, that’s partly because it’s hard for me to talk about my writing; but it’s mostly because I’ve needed a space to talk about myself. I had the grim realization this week that I don’t have a lot of people to talk to about the really serious weird stuff in my life. Not because there are not friends who would be willing, but because, after years of oversharing, I have no idea anymore how to bring this stuff up to people who are not Sonya – and I know Sonya doesn’t need or want to be my only sounding board. So instead, I blog it out, and it relieves the pressure a little bit. Also, I feel like it enhances my writing to get my feelings out on paper. The transition from emotion to prose is a rough one, especially for me, and by practicing with emotions I know intimately (thanks to being the one experiencing them), I refine my ability to describe ones that I am manufacturing for my characters. So, I suppose what I am saying is, thank you for not giving me a lot of grief for using this blog for therapeutic purposes.

On the point of it being hard to talk about writing, that is also something I want to work on. It should not be so hard for me to talk out my process with people, but it is. It feels like sharing something really private about myself; like I’m modeling underwear for a group of strangers. I worry about judgment; about being told the process is flawed; that I’m producing something ugly; that I’m not trying hard enough. The fact that I got myself word-count shamed not too long ago (of all the things) kind of reinforced that fear. Also the fact that someone literally told their entire Twitter feed that I write like I’m mentally disabled.

So, OK, maybe there’s a reason it’s hard for me to talk about this stuff.

The bottom line is, I want it to not be anymore. I think, next week, I might write out my writing process and post it. I don’t know that anyone will care, but an exercise in confronting my fears might be just the thing I need to stop having them. If it becomes too raw and too abrasive in the process, well, then I know to take a step back from it. I can’t know if I don’t try.

So…yeah. I’m having a bit of a rough, toxically introverted morning. The good news is, it’s getting better. Sonya and I have a date tonight to eat comfort food and then listen to an audiobook of one of my favorite novels, which has me pretty excited. I was reminded that as rough as life can be sometimes, I’m not alone in going through it – in any sense of the word. And I have a wiki full of fictional characters to play around with, which if Wild Talents is any judge is going to make me feel amazing.

I think that’s all the news that’s fit to print this week, so I am going to hit Publish and move on with my Friday. My recommendation to you for the week is, in fact, How to Train Your Dragon 2. It has a lot of heart, a lot of sweetness, and some amazing cinematography. The extra charge for 3-D viewing is absolutely worth it. Not only that, but the movie actually has some semiotic subtext to its visual storytelling. It’s a bit obvious in a lot of places, but I think that is an excellent way for a kid’s movie to approach that kind of content; it gives kids a place to grab on to the very complex world of semiotic analysis and start to see the same kind of thing appearing in other media. Also, the film has a lot of positive, but not bludgeoning, messages about consent, respect, and the appropriate relationship between peacekeeping and self-defense, which in a world where MRAs are still allowed to peddle their poison is something the younger generations sorely need. Check it out; I think you’ll love it.

And now…have a good weekend, everybody!

On Progress, 6/20/14

Here is where I yawn.

This week has been average, but extremely low-energy, oh my brothers and only friends. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting either enough sleep, or good enough sleep, beginning on Saturday and going all the way through to last night. I’ve woken up in the night several times, woken up strangely awake very early in the morning a couple times, and in general had trouble getting myself to actually be tired when it’s time for me to go to sleep for work the next day.

Some of the problem has probably been the vicious circle of caffeinating myself to get through the work day, leading to there still being stimulants in my system when it’s time to sleep. Some of it has probably been me having some drama around my asthma medication this week (I ran out and have not, until today, had both the money and opportunity to get all my prescriptions refilled), and the subsequent breathing troubles and anxiety-fueled worries that brings about. Some of it may have also been the lack of exercise, spurred on by me not wanting to risk needing the asthma meds I didn’t have. I have resolved, as a result of this experience, that having a little extra balance on our credit cards is better than going through this, and should not have this problem again.

The bottom line there is that I am not planning anything for this weekend. I am going to hash out some wedding plans (we finally have an appointment with our caterer), play some games, clean up the house a bit so my Wild Talents players don’t come in to what looks like an explosion in a game store, and sleep like I’ve never slept before. Probably also exercise and have time with my sweetie. But I am not promising anything.

In the meantime, I am pampering myself a little bit; I wore a comfy t-shirt to work instead of my semi-usual button-down, I have a nice new pair of sandals on, and I’m taking the day slow and leisurely except where deadlines demand I not fuck around. The sandals have actually reminded me how much physical comfort matters to my mood; I am badly affected emotionally if I feel at all awkward or uncomfortable, and I need to keep that in mind when other factors are already making my week tough.

In writing news, writing continues apace. I’m still a lot more impressed with Eyes of Stone than I entirely expected to be, and I’m still pretty pleased about that fact. I have run into one scene that needs a good, vigorous rewrite – as currently written it makes no sense in the chronology of the narrative, and more importantly it covers emotional ground that has already been covered elsewhere in the story. I was supposed to rewrite it last night, but that lack of energy I mentioned hit me, and so I did something I rarely do and skipped over a scene and edited the next one, which didn’t need as much work. I will be back to the rewrite this weekend and I’m sure I’ll feel grateful for the extra time to let the ideas ferment.

Also in writing news, I had a very important landmark in the middle of the night a few nights ago. Sonya and I were in bed, half-asleep, talking about our exhaustion (she’s been sleeping at least as poorly as I have) and our lack of desire to go to the day job in the morning. I said, half-jokingly, “Clearly I need to earn ten million dollars off my novel and let you retire from this horrible rat race.” Her response, a little muzzled by sleep, was “Even if that doesn’t happen, I’m proud of you for writing it.”

It’s something I knew was true, but it wasn’t something I had really consciously thought about. That I am receiving a ton of passive and active emotional support for my writing career, and that she’s proud of me, and also that it is something worth being proud of. It’s easy to feel, in this world where everyone has a book deal and you can read about Joe Hill’s choice of movies to watch tonight, like I’m not actually getting anywhere with my writing career. Like the publications I do have don’t count. Like I will have wasted my ration of time if I don’t wind up buying a house with the advance on my series of horror novels. But the truth is that I have gotten farther than many will ever get; I have accomplished something tangible, something I can even try to submit in the first place. Even if I die tomorrow, I wrote four books. I wrote dozens of short stories. I had some people decide it was worth their time and money to pay me for the privilege of publishing my work on their website or in their books. I’ve also made a lot of friends, had not a few adventures, eaten some delicious and interesting foods, earned an advanced degree, written a thesis, gotten engaged, had some pretty great sex, cried, laughed, written a comic book that no-one but me ever read, made up an entire detective story with my father, dressed up like an orc, dressed up like Max Headroom, dressed up in a dress, fired a gun, barbecued a steak, and had many, many hours of great naps and reading on a nice overcast day. And someone I love, someone whose opinion I value the highest of all, feels what I’ve done makes her proud.

I’m doing fine with my life, I really am. I want to do more with it, but for the first time in a while, I don’t feel like dying tomorrow would mean I never lived. I just feel like it would mean someone else would need to take up the torches I bear for me.

It’s a nice feeling. Thank you, sweetie.

On that heavy note, I am going to hit Publish and go finish my work day. My recommendation for you this week is Batman: the Brave and the Bold. It’s a lighter and softer take on the Bat than his previous animated fare, highlighting the four-color action side of his character and pairing him with various side characters from throughout the DC universe. We watched the two-parter “Deep Cover for Batman!” and “Game Over for Owlman!” last night, and it had one of my favorite explorations of the Batman/Joker relationship I have ever seen. Go check it out; it’s on Netflix, so you don’t even need to try that hard.

 

Have a good weekend, everybody.

On Progress, 6/13/14

The battle for spoons continues.

There was no blog post last week because I simply couldn’t deal with writing a blog post last week. It’s not that it was a bad week, all told; it’s that I just did not have the spoons to blog that day, and I needed to sit down and let my brain do a full memory dump and start things all over. If it’s any consolation, it felt really good.

This week, I am in more of a blogging mood, even though the week actually has been a little tough. Sleep has been at a premium, and we’re doing some things with my family this weekend that have been very high-energy affairs to organize (next week, if I’m still annoyed, I’ll tell you about the sandwich shop). To be fair, those sleep issues were partially because of my recommendation for the week, so it’s not exactly on the universe that I’ve been a bit groggy. But, for whatever reason, now feels like the right time to share. I will not be looking this gift horse in the mouth.

This past weekend was our now-bi-monthly board game night at my house, and I was once again reminded of the two things every Game Night reminds me of: how much gaming helps me replenish my spoons; and what wonderful friends we have. I’m so lucky to know such intelligent, kind, interesting people, and to have them actually go out of their way to spend time with me. I’m also lucky to be able to play my favorite games with such great people, and to have a partner who supports me getting to do that as much as I support her getting to sit in another room and talk to others who aren’t playing. I do wish Sonya and I got to play more board games, but having our separate interests is important – plus, I finally found the game mechanics she likes and can make sure we have more of them in the house.

In writing news, I’ve finished four chapters worth of edits on Eyes of Stone. I try not toot my horn too much, but I actually really like the book. I can see myself getting better at complex plots, better at characterization, better at…Jesus, everything. It has a much stronger voice than some of my other work, and it never stops amazing me to see that the daily refinements I’ve been through have actually added up to a lot. I am still not where I want my writing career to be; but I am happy it’s going where it is.

I’m also looking at perhaps churning out a bit of flash fiction this month. It’s a format I struggle with a great deal, but I think that makes it a useful challenge. We’ll have to see how that goes.

One creative project that I suppose counts as writing, and that has obsessed me of late, is playing around with Obsidian Portal. For those not in the know, OP is a site where you can, essentially, get a couple free megabytes of wiki space, with some extra add-ons specifically customized for using the site as a repository for information about roleplaying campaigns. On a whim, I decided to start putting together the wiki for Great Responsibility, my Wild Talents campaign, and I think I’ve gone mad. I’m churning out brief wiki articles constantly, hurling dozens of characters into the database, and linking everything together like a particularly drunk and fastidious species of spider. It’s become almost meditative for me to sit down and write a little bit about my universe’s answer to the unbreakable super-metal (I call it dynamium) or draw parallels between the staff of the local newspaper and disgraced former mayors of the city. It’s not true writing, in the getting paid sense, but it’s been an interesting side application for my craft, a way of approaching worldbuilding that I had not attempted before except in a brief and abortive game of Lexicon. I look forward to its possible future use as a tool for working past creative blocks. If you want to have a look, the Obsidian Portal page is here; go ahead, it won’t bite.

Speaking of the wiki, I feel like adding a couple more articles, so I’m going to go ahead and truncate this post here. For my recommendation this week, I have a doozy – watch the HBO series True Detective. Season One has Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, as well as some The Wire alumni, all dipped in the swampy, sweaty, oily musk of the Louisiana Bayou for a Southern gothic character study/crime drama with two detectives who are all at once ancient archetypes and very new people all on their own. The mystery itself is fairly basic – you piece it together yourself for the most part, before they ever get to the end of it – but watching them snake and skid through their self-destructive, grim little journey toward the conclusion is almost hypnotic. We binge-watched the show as much as our work schedules allowed us, and I do not regret the lost sleep one bit. Go check it out. But before that – or perhaps because of that – have a great weekend.

On KublaCon

OK. This? This will be both long and ebullient. You have been warned.

This past weekend, as discussed in last week’s wrap-up, was my first actual, full weekend at a gaming convention. I had registered for some RPGs via the Shuffler, I had volunteered to run an RPG of my own and also demo Sentinels of the Multiverse, I had some board games I was interested in signing up for, and I had enough money in my pocket to get Sonya and I a little something and keep us fed. So, on Friday, after work, I took my backpack and my dice bag and ventured northward, to the Hyatt Regency SFO, to see exactly what a gaming convention could bring me.

It turns out what it could bring me was glorious.

The Hyatt Regency is a fantastic hotel. It’s built around a glass-roofed atrium with enormous ceilings, plenty of plants, and a waterfall, giving the place a great organic vibe. I’d been here for a more general fan convention, Convolution, prior to this, and I had loved it then, too. The hotel really feels like my home away from home, so it was a great place to go after a kind of harrowing and stressful series of weeks. When I arrived, the con was in full swing, swarming with people in pop-culture t-shirts clutching dice bags, carrying board games, chatting about comics and books and games and life. I was already relaxing.

The first night was a bit of a surprise: Sonya, also at her first real gaming convention, got into a game of Crypts and Things, an old school D&D retroclone* RPG that purports to pay homage to Robert E. Howard’s original Conan adventure/cosmic horror stories. The GM was a very affable middle-aged man dressed up like, well, an aging metalhead who had cleaned up a bit for professional reasons – clean-shaven, all-business haircut, but in black sweatbands and a hardcore band t-shirt. He gave us all free copies of an EP by a band called ArnoCorps, apparently an “action-adventure hardcore rock” band, and informed us with an ear-to-ear grin that none of our pre-generated characters had bows because in Crypts and Things, bows are “the weapons of cowards and children.” He took us through, with great bombast and a neverending smile, the stone castle of the immortal wizard Nazar-Thun, where my character slept with a demon and had to watch her birth his unnatural child, another demon aided us in our quest for the wizard’s potion of immortality, we banished a tentacled horror from beyond reality, and we ended by battling an army of skeletons and having a drink and a smoke with a ghost. My con was already made.

The next morning, we were up early for the Pathfinder MegaDungeon, a game of Pathfinder** played out on Dwarven Forge Master Maze tiles. The board was beautiful, and the game was fun, though the GM had been forced to swap timeslots with someone else and so was a bit rushed in their preparation. That said, it was a nice time, and I got to play a game with Sonya again, which was wonderful.

The rest of the day was lunch (the chicken curry at the Hyatt cash-n-carry station is delicious, by the way), then a round of Sentinels of the Multiverse. I set a new record by having a player step back while I was still explaining the rules, call a friend working the floor in the dealer’s room and giving them cash to bring a copy of the game to the table. The players got really into the game, trading high fives when Baron Blade got knocked down. It was beautiful to see. Then I had dinner with Sonya and two good friends, and it was off to run Wild Talents, the scenario I’d been working on for weeks.

Three players out of five registrants showed up, and two of them were people from my regular gaming group. I was all prepped to be discouraged by this, but the truth is, I actually had a really, really good time with it. Part of it, I’m sure, was relaxing into playing with people I knew well; but part of it was also that my anxieties and worries just…weren’t there that night. The players seemed to have a good time, and we ended with a valkyrie riding a rocket (containing a mind-control satellite) back down to the launchpad and straight into the time-traveling psychic brain in a jar who had launched it in the first place, and I loved writing that sentence just now. But we’ll come back to the anxiety part later.

Sunday morning started a bit rough; the night before, I discovered that the game I had planned to play that morning and had gotten into was using a few house rules that meant the game wasn’t really going to be a good introduction to the system, which was disappointing and left me with a free morning, then I got beyond frustrated dealing with the mini-fridge coming apart suddenly (we had some bottles of soda in there from a free event and trying to take them out knocked the “freezer” “door” off its hinges). I managed not to completely explode over it (being physically unable to fix problems that seem like they shouldn’t be there is my secret rage button), but I still got pretty angry and wound up with an anxiety hangover over having gotten angry.***

But again, somehow, once I got down to the gaming floor, I was more or less fine – a little worried, sure; I hate when I get shouty. But then I saw what was in the offing for the day, and I managed to move past it and accept that nothing could be done now except to watch out for upset going forward and manage it better. Which was good, because that morning I got into KublaCon’s first ever Red Dragon Inn tournament, and tempers were going to be high there already. Or so I thought; it turned out to be the single mellowest tournament of anything I’d ever played in. Everybody was cordial and joking, people complimented good plays, and in general, a good time was had by all. Eve the Illusionist and I didn’t actually get past the two qualifying rounds, but in a field of 20, that’s to be expected; and hey, I got to play two games of Red Dragon Inn. It’s only now that it’s occurring to me that my competitive streak never once kicked in during that experience.

From the tournament, I headed to the open gaming area, and actually played-played my only non-demo game of Sentinels of the Multiverse for the entire weekend. I played with three good friends who I do not get to play Sentinels with nearly often enough, and we squeaked out a win against a very tough villain. Life was glorious for a few minutes, and then I got to go prep and do my second run at demo-ing Sentinels. We didn’t have a sudden sale right at the beginning, but I definitely got folks interested.

That final night of the weekend, I played Apocalypse World, and I think from what I’ve already said in my last post, you know how I felt about it. My teammate got to deliver the first baby born in 15 years in the backseat of my character’s car, and in the end we evaded the crazed survivalists in the bombed-out wastes of Missouri and got them back to the people who would help them. I legitimately felt moved by the narration the GM gave us, and the system allowed us to tell an awesome story without ever getting in the way. At the end of it, the GM told us he really loved running for both of us and he’d love to do it again, which is the highest compliment a con veteran can give, I think.

The next morning, we by surprise got into two things at the same time – a King of Tokyo tournament, and an informal game of Red Dragon Inn. Though we wanted to battle for the right to take home a Space Penguin, twenty people in a tournament was a lot of spoons for the Monday of a three-day weekend, and it could easily result in one of us sitting around waiting for the other to finish. So, after one final spin around the dealer’s room (wherein we picked up Nuclear War and some tokens I plan to use for my home campaign of Wild Talents), we sat down to play Red Dragon Inn. I wound up with Erin, a character I had never played before, and managed to grok her just in time for Sonya and the guy playing Gerki to raise my Alcohol Content to the point where I passed out. Sonya was already out due to loss of Gold at that point, so we shook hands, thanked everybody, and headed the heck on home to our cat and our bed and our decompressing and playing Skyrim until it was time to get up and go to work.

I had a lot of fun, as that epic retelling may have gotten across; but more importantly, I feel at peace in a way I hadn’t prior to getting there. I did not realize it, but the stress of work and a cat who was misbehaving and trying to finalize wedding stuff and all that noise has really taken a toll on me; but I was in that place where I had been living with the stress for so long that I didn’t realize that wasn’t just breathing or waking up. I knew I would have fun at the con, but I did not expect to feel ecstatic after I was done. I feel like I did when I used to visit my parents on vacation from college, or after a really good nap on a Saturday afternoon. I feel like I went to a completely safe, completely stress-free place. Anxiety is still there, and depression, and the buzz of me worrying about the future and death and the things that preoccupy me in the quiet hours; but with them is also the feeling like I can handle them all. Like I finally remember what downtime feels like. I feel like I went home for a while, in a very real, very metaphysical sense. Gamers are my people, in a way other fandom subsets just plain aren’t, and some time among them, free of judgment and already possessed of a common language, is exactly what the doctor ordered. I’m going to make this a yearly pilgrimage from now. Not only because I had a great time, but because it clearly has a very positive impact on the rest of my life.

Also, I still owe my wedding photographer that game of Sentinels.

 

*A modern RPGs that work to emulate the loose-but-mathematical style of the original, pre-Advanced Dungeons and Dragons style of game.

**A modern RPG that is basically a rules-patched version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5th edition. Confused yet?

***having a partner who supports me working on anger management but also doesn’t tolerate the anger when it happens is definitely a plus in this regard.

On Progress, 5/30/14

My KublaCon wrap-up is going in its own post a little later today. It deserves it.

In terms of writing, I’ve gotten around 8,000 words or so into my edits on Eyes of Stone, and I am so glad I am doing this right now. Eyes is a much, much better book than Done with Mirrors was when I started in on the rewrite. Not to say that a bad book came out of my efforts, at all; but Eyes is requiring much less work to make it good. There are some consistency errors, sure, and a few places where I used too many words to say something quite simple, but those are symptoms of a first draft. I knew I had to be improving; my ability to get stories accepted anywhere at all is proof that I am heading in the right direction. But Eyes is the product of an older, stronger, better author, and I’m really glad to have solid, undeniable evidence that I’m undergoing that process.

In other, non-convention news, life is really just going pretty well for me right now. I’m reading a book that’s meant to help me address some of my anxiety and anger issues, and it’s really helping me attain some perspective on my struggles. Work has been frustrating at times, but it’s mostly the good kind of frustrating. I feel like I’m in a smooth patch right now; I know that more anxiety, more stress, more worries are on the way, but right now I just don’t mind. I think it’s a side effect of KublaCon…which I’ll talk about shortly.

For now, I need to go do work at the place where they pay me to do work. So I will leave you with a recommendation. If you’re into roleplaying games, and especially if you’re into the storytelling side of roleplaying games – try out Apocalypse World. It’s a post-apocalyptic setting, but more importantly, it has a very narrativist system, with dice to help guide the story but not simulate each and every action; a couple dice rolls in a scene is typical, and the system is tailored to the idea that you’ll set the scene, decide what you all want to do, roll the dice, and then all narrate out the results of those dice rolls. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, so just give it a look-see; I think you might really enjoy it.

See you in the next post!

On Questions for the Group, Part the Second

Hi everyone, here I am with another question. I could use some advice.

This question is about misogyny and how to counteract it and whether in this instance I should even attempt to wage the war. If you don’t want to have that conversation right now, I’d recommend not reading onward.

Short version: I quit gaming at my local gaming store because of a sexist jerk who hung out there on the same nights as I did. The guy has not yet gone full-bore MRA in my presence, but he has made categorical comments about “what women want,” he has referred to women gaming at the table with him as “the girl” (and, yes, has not spoken to them directly most of the time, either), and he has generally given off a creepy vibe that I’m not sure how to gauge because I simply am not preconditioned to gauge for creepy guys. He has been unpleasant and odious in other aspects as well, so it’s not like he was all giggles and unicorn poop before I discovered the neckbeard lurking beneath his mild-mannered exterior; but that comment, coupled with another guy I was playing with telling me girlfriend was “a bitch” for not wanting to be around second-hand vapors from his e-cigarette, made me decide I wanted to stop going to a place where those two play games regularly and where I cannot readily keep them from playing games with me. (There are behavioral expectations of people who play in the open gaming space, and while being a sexist jerk seems like a violation, I also cannot be sure that the store would side with me on that one.)

As an ally, I’m ashamed of myself for not having done more to call these two out on their behavior. And a part of me feels like, if I’m letting myself stop having a good time somewhere because these two are being jerks, I am doing it wrong – they are undoubtedly affecting the comfort of women in the room, and other men, too, and it is possible that they have the potential to not be another poisoned M&M in the bowl if someone calls them out on it (it’s not like gamer culture is doing them any favors in that regard). But I also am not sure it entirely makes sense for me to make myself deal with them in the name of wanting a chance to call them out. Yes, I want to battle injustice, but I don’t want to make myself completely miserable in the process.

I’ve also considered going the route of talking to the store about it; but the incident was a while ago, and the person in question (isn’t this always the way) also has pretty good standing in the social dynamics of that gaming store, and I am a regular but not as regular as he is, which makes me worry that at this point, at best it’s my word vs. his and we get into a contest of status, and at worst I actively damage my own standing and the store is hostile on the other nights of the week as well.

What should I do? is my question. Should I start going there again, and confront my anxiety about dealing with this guy and his cohort, and maybe, just maybe, strike a blow for social justice by calling them out on their jokes? Should I continue to stay away, and retain my spoons, but also deprive myself of getting to go and game at my favorite gaming store? What is best for me? What is best for society?

I think I know my answer, but a. I wanted to share my story (particularly to my friends who may wonder why we stopped going to the gaming store), and b. I wanted to solicit some feedback. This is one of those things that seems minor, but could also be a pebble in an avalanche, and I’m not sure where to tread.

The dark comedy here is that I’m sure this question is a seven-percent solution of the exact kinds of questions the women in my life have to ask themselves whenever they go anywhere. I only hope that I’m able to answer it in a way that’s satisfactory for everybody, and that having to struggle with it is something I can keep in mind going forward. Maybe it’ll help me empathize a little more; and maybe that by itself could make the difference.

So, there. There’s my question. Answer away.

On Questions for the Group, Part the First

Hi everybody!

I’ll do a KublaCon recap post tomorrow, when I’m sure I’ve properly managed my post-con decompression and have fully reset my sleep schedule (writing when deprived is very hard for me). For now, I have two questions of two very different flavors, and I thought I would elicit responses from my intelligent, capable, and overall excellent blog readers – it’s easier for me to link to on all my social media sites than it is for me to craft a whole series of tweets about the subject matter.

Question 1 is a science question, posed out of a desire for accuracy in my portrayal. I ask that players in my Wild Talents game not read it; it doesn’t contain plot particulars but you may spoil yourself a little. I think meteorology is the area of expertise here, but it’s possible a physicist or anyone with a good scientific background may be able to answer it, and I trust direct answers more than Google.

Here’s the hypothetical situation: someone has released a (wholly fictional) aerosolized chemical somewhere in the United States. This chemical reacts with certain trace particles in the air in a particular, replicable way, and does not in any way dissipate or decay, meaning it will eventually react with the entire atmosphere. If I release this chemical in, say, Boston, how long would it take for the chemical to travel across the rest of the planet, assuming no abnormal weather patterns or human manipulation of its rate of travel? It seems like the answer is a couple of weeks, but I want to be sure I have that right.

Thanks; the next question is…shall we say hairier.