On Spoilers and Suggestions

Toward a Unified Theory of Spoiler Windows

It came up again on my Twitter feed recently, and I feel like it’s time for me to try to get this ball rolling. (To give credit where credit is due, it was this tweet by Saladin Ahmed that got me thinking about it again, and John Scalzi .)

I’ve said for some time that the Internet really needs to get its act together on the subject of spoilers. Barring some outliers, we all seem to agree spoilers are bad as a general rule: you should be given fair warning and a chance to consent to receiving information about a story you have not experienced yet. However, the exact details are a contentious issue in both directions; I’ve encountered people who insist that saying a minor character shows up in a given book/episode is not a spoiler, and I’ve also encountered people who insist that spoiling a book released in the 90s is reason enough to rage.

I think the Internet would be a nicer place if we agreed on a statute of limitations for spoilers. It turns out, the inestimable John Scalzi already hit on this back in 2009, but given that I’m still seeing people talking about this on Facebook, clearly it didn’t stick. Also I’m not sure his numbers work, and they don’t differentiate between what I think of as “soft spoilers” (the above mentioned “minor character appears in this part of the work”) and “hard spoilers” (“X character is the murderer”). So here’s me, trying my hand on my much less circulated blog. What do you think?

Definition: Hard Spoiler vs. Soft Spoiler vs. Softest Spoiler

A “soft spoiler” is a piece of information that is not known unless one has gotten to the part of the work being discussed, but does not actually affect any particular mystery or moment of tension. Examples include the above-above-mentioned appearance of a character, but also “There’s an episode all about Character Y in Season 2 that I really love!” or “Man, you’ll love Chapter 10!”; or fairly obvious tropes of the genre/setting/main character, like mentioning that Han Solo and Chewie have a scene where they pilot the Millennium Falcon. Note that I said that a soft spoiler does not affect a mystery or moment of tension, meaning it cannot even incidentally answer a question the narrative asks prior to the point being discussed; “Han pilots the Falcon” is not a soft spoiler if the survival of Han or the Falcon is uncertain at some point prior to that scene.

A “hard spoiler” is a piece of information that is a factor in a major conflict, plot twist, or other keystone moment in the work. Examples include, yes, saying who the murderer is in a murder mystery, or saying a character dies partway into the book, or explaining the big twist of the movie. Basically, if it reveals key information ahead of the work doing so, and absolutely no mental labor is required to make that connection, it’s a hard spoiler. (See how I didn’t use examples? Good job, me!)

“Softest spoiler” is added because of the example Scalzi brings up in his own blog post (whether or not The Comedian jumped in Watchmen): a “softest spoiler” is a piece of information you get within the first couple minutes of a work beginning, or something that makes absolutely no sense without the greater context of the movie. In other words, it is still a spoiler, but it does not ruin anything for you. In the former case, you still get to have all the emotional ups and downs and big reveals of the main body of the work, because all that’s happened is someone has skipped ahead about ten pages/two minutes for you; and in the latter case, you will only realize something was a spoiler after it cannot any longer be a spoiler.

So, that down, here are my recommendations for the statute of limitations on spoilers, divided into hard, soft, and softest. My proposal is that, after the statute of limitations, you are allowed to discuss the work more or less freely, perhaps with some courtesy checks (“anyone mind spoilers for Game of Thrones?”) when speaking aloud in a group whose experiences you don’t know.

Preamble: If you are not sure how much of a spoiler something is, don’t spoil it without tagging. If there is any nuance to your interpretation, don’t spoil without tagging. And personal requests always trump the statutes of limitations: if I still haven’t read Ender’s Game and have asked to not have the ending spoiled, don’t tell me the ending of Ender’s Game.

Main body:

Television:

Softest spoilers: 48 hours (because people often don’t have cable these days and should get a chance to view it via streaming sites; most will have it within 48 hours)

Soft spoilers: One week (because people are busy and may not get to their Hulu account/DVR backlog before then)

Hard spoilers: Two months (give it plenty of time to have been available before you’re just tossing out the ending of the episode)

Movies:

Softest spoilers: One month (long enough to allow people a chance to arrange child care or finish their papers or whatever and get out to the movies to see it)

Soft spoilers: Three months (long enough even second-run theaters are starting to get it)

Hard spoilers: One year (long enough for it to be widely available on DVD and streaming)

Books (Including Novellas):

Softest spoilers: One year (like Scalzi says, books take longer to reach a wider audience)

Soft spoilers: Three years (time enough for paperback and e-book versions to be created)

Hard spoilers: Five years (a nice, long period of it being available in multiple formats)

Short Stories: Double the times given for books (because short stories are even less likely to reach a widespread audience than books, and are often not presented in alternate formats for ease of reading unless they win an award or make it into a collection)

Thoughts?

On KublaCon 2016

Where You Can Find Me

IHey everybody! With 9 days to go, I thought I should say (for what will not be the last time): I’ll be GMing at KublaCon 2016! If you want to come play some games with me, Burlingame, California is the place to be! I’ll be at the con all weekend, though typically we leave early afternoon on Monday. As far as formal events I know I will be partaking in, here’s my schedule:

On Friday, at 4pm, I’ll be demonstrating Sentinels of the Multiverse. Come see the card game I never stop gushing about!

Friday at 8pm, I’ll be running my four-color superhero one-shot, “Head Games.” “Head Games” uses the Wild Talents system with the optional Nothing But Shock and Four-Color Healing rules to give it that DC Animated Universe flavor. The game is scheduled to run four hours. Come be heroic at me!

Saturday morning at 10am, I’ll be demoing Villains of the Multiverse, the multi-villain add-on to Sentinels of the Multiverse. More of the card game that never stops! The card game is forever! The card game is legion!

Then Saturday night, I will be with Sonya, helping run support for her as she runs two sessions of “Darkbad Dungeon Dungeon” at 3:30pm and again at 8pm. “Darkbad Dungeon Dungeon” is her intentionally bad, unbalanced, randomly generated Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition dungeon crawl, and I have to say, as a playtester of the game, that it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun. I highly recommend you check it out.

Otherwise, I plan to play whatever the sign-ups afford me the opportunity to play, and generally be a kid on Christmas. If you approach me with a book, I’ll happily sign it, but I’ll also just be happy to say hello! Hope to see you there!

On Reviews: Captain America: Civil War

Some Bulleted Thoughts On One of the Best and Most Complex Superhero Movies
This is the short version while I gather my marbles and think and edit, but I want to be sure I get my thoughts out while they’re fresh.
**SPOILERS FOR CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR ARE UNMARKED BEYOND THESE THREE MAGICAL DOTS***
.
.
.
I adored this movie, I think it’s one of the best movies to come out of the MCU (along with Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3). In no particular order because I can’t rank them, the things I loved:
  • The way they approached the plot. I never felt like the division between Team Cap and Team Iron Man was illogical or like either side was being forced to carry the Bad Decisions Ball to drive the plot forward. Both sides made good points, both sides made mistakes, and usually both sides recognized that about each other (except…see below).
  • Spider-Man. That was the best Spider-Man I have yet seen on the screen, hands-down. They nailed his awkwardness, his drive to do good with the gifts he’s been given, his youth, his genius…that’s the Peter Parker I’ve wanted all along.
  • T’Challa. He was intelligent, kind, regal, unrelenting, and burdened. He was also the most mature of all the supers to date, and his emotional struggle underlined the general emotional core of the entire movie.
  • The character moments for every single supporting character; I felt like the writers and directors bullseyed every character in this movie. Special shout-outs to the conversations between Scarlet Witch and Vision, Ant-Man totally geeking out over meeting the Avengers, the grudge held by Falcon against Bucky, and basically every scene with Cap and Tony, who were just absolutely on point.
  • The fight choreography. Those were the best superhero fights I have ever seen on-screen, hands-down, and they could so easily have been a total mess (it would have been understandable and forgivable, even). Special mentions go to: everything Ant-Man did in the airport fight (Giant-Man!); Scarlet Witch showing why actual superpowers would, in fact, terrify people; Spider-Man being the hyperkinetic ball of quips and webbing that we all know and love; Cap using that shield of his to absolutely masterful effect; and him and Bucky as the unstoppable tag team of World War II-era grit. It would be gorgeous if it weren’t also driving home how destructive superheroes can be when they let themselves go to town.
  • Speaking of which: The willingness to make sure this movie had consequences, physical and mental, for everybody involved. People got hurt. Things broke. Teams disassembled but left hope for reassembly. No-one ended sure they did the right thing (except for maybe Thunderbolt Ross, but he’s not what we call a “good guy”). The MCU was fundamentally changed by the Civil War in ways I now know I can trust Marvel to keep playing with as we go along.
  • The comedy moments. They were perfectly timed to make sure this very sad, very intense story never became more than appropriately overwhelming. (“I hate you” being a major one, along with “I’m shaking your hand too long!” and also everything involving Spider-Man).
  • The emotional core of the movie. T’Challa says it best at the end: This is a movie about people being consumed by their emotions and failing at empathy and logic as a result, but in entirely believable and often temporary ways (though not temporary enough). Tony is pro-Accords out of guilt and fear (over what he caused in Age of Ultron and what others like him could do, and how much worse it could be if superheroes did put up a fight). Steve is anti-Accords out of fears of his own (of governments overreaching like SHIELD did or like happened back in the fresh-in-his-mind World War II). Bucky is paranoid and hurt and gun-shy and tends to flee as soon as he’s in danger, which gives the people hunting him evidence to support their decision. The most dangerous, destructive moments (Crossbones’ explosion hurting all those people; Vision accidentally hitting War Machine with his laser; the entire last fight) occur because someone lets their emotions rule completely. Even our villain, Zemo, is about being so angry, so in pain, that he spends a year making sure he can inflict that pain on those he believes brought it to him.
This movie was amazing. I think I need to see it again.

On Choices No-One Should Face

Sexism, Violence, and Every Iteration of the System.

(Content Notes: Discussion of misogyny, violence of both a sexual and non-sexual nature, death threats, threats of violence, institutional discrimination)

This week, I had to ask myself the question twice: Do I choose possible once-in-a-lifetime advancements of my career, or not working with people I know to be horrible?

There were two different opportunities sitting before me this week. One was to submit a packet of writing samples and a resume to DC Comics, for a chance to get included in their Talent Development Workshop for writers. If I got into that, I would embark on a 13 week online course in writing comics that might end with a chance to write for DC. You don’t need to look through my old posts to see that this would be a dream come true for me — writing comics? Writing superhero comics? The chance to work with a professional and learn how they do things on the getting-paid side of the equation would be such a godsend…

Then, earlier this week, I was pointed to an opening at Privateer Press, the makers of Warmachine, among many other things. Privateer Press apparently needs a Copy Editor, a job for which I am qualified; and I could get in the door at a gaming company, which would marry my passions and my work, and would also facilitate Sonya and I moving to a slightly more affordable part of the country and maybe starting to get the next step of our life on the move.

“Wow!” I thought to myself. “Maybe my cup runneth over? Maybe my life could be starting to turn a big, shiny, sunlit corner? Maybe this is the next step we need! Let me polish up the resume and select some writing samples and try to remember where I was recently hearing about Privateer Press, given that I don’t play Warmachine…”

It was when I told my wife about the opening (with the lead-in “how do we feel about moving to Washington?”) that I was reminded.

An excellent, hard-to-read Tumblr post made the rounds of the social justice spheres recently, entitled “Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem.” (All my content notes for this post? They apply double to that article.) The writer discusses in no uncertain terms her own experience and the shared experience of women in tabletop gaming spaces, and in the world in general — specifically, that white men are allowed to and enabled in harassing and outright assaulting women who attempt to be part of the tabletop gaming hobby, and that authorities will not help them — will, in fact, often blame them for their attempts to portray themselves as victims or otherwise attempt to cover up the truth. Among the stories related in that post is a story of a person slapping the writer across the ass while she is discussing the Privateer Press product Hordes, and the Press Ganger (Privateer Press’s game demonstrators/event organizers) who witnessed it insisting the writer was getting emotional over the whole subject. So, that gives me pause regarding Privateer Press — even if the Press Ganger’s response is not exactly a statement from the CEO.

Then there’s DC Comics. DC Comics, who continue to employ Eddie Berganza. Berganza is accused, very publicly and by multiple women, of being utterly vile toward women — harassment that, according to the tweets linked in this Mary Sue article, have actually caused DC Comics to avoid putting women to work in Berganza’s department as a form of “quarantine.” Other tweets I cannot find have been more specific about what Berganza has done, but as I cannot find them I will not engage in second-hand hearsay, only say that what he has supposedly done is absolutely vile. And while the writers are not at fault for that, and while I doubt the entire company is actively complicit in that, it leaves me wondering if applying to/being employed by DC would be interpreted as tacit condoning of Berganza’s behavior.

Which brings me back to my initial question: Which, if any, opportunities do I pursue, given that they might be interpreted by either victims or victimizers as my stamp of approval? Which brings me to my next question: Why do I have to even consider that question? Why are there so many different reports of sexual violence, of harassment and the sheltering of harassers, that I have to think this about two different opportunities I learned about in the same month?

That, right there, was the icicle to the heart. That right there was one of those moments my white male self has to sit back and go: This, self, is proof of how deep the problem really goes. And just imagine, women don’t have to just ask if they are condoning harassment — women have to ask if they are opening themselves up to that harassment. Any woman who joins the Press Gang not only has to consider whether they are saying it’s OK to touch women without their consent, they have to consider whether their body is the next to be violated. Any woman who works for DC has to wonder if they are saying that it’s OK for Berganza to behave the way he does, and also whether they are putting themselves in the line of fire for the Berganzas of the world to attack next.

These are the questions women have to ask every day, self; these are the risks they have to take for the crime of doing something they want to do while also identifying as, or being identified as, a woman.

And this is a question we all have to keep asking. How do I know no-one at my current office is horrible? How do I know any given publisher I work with has no-one who is horrible? It’s easy when I work at smaller companies like my current one, but it’s not like I have never had a toxic interaction there. It’s easier with smaller presses like Alliteration Ink, where there are single-digit employees and a clear harassment policy, but what if I ever get picked up by Penguin Random House or Harper Collins? What if I move on to copy edit at a large corporation? What if, in a some-day life as a freelancer, the jobs that will put food on my table are coming from Gators, from Puppies, from people who hold or have held MRA views? How do I reconcile my promise to believe the victims with my own desire to advance my own life, and what does that say to the marginalized people in my life about how I value my life over theirs?

I did decide to apply to DC, with the reasoning that the whole company is not Berganza, and that I could help from within the offices more than I could from outside, at least by being a voice of privilege corroborating the stories coming from voices more traditionally silenced. But I recognize the enormous privilege shielding me in this case, and I recognize that this does not change the basic truth at work here.

No-one should have to make a binary choice between full-throated success and dealing with terrible people. The victimizers, not the victims, should be the casualties of restructuring, the ones having trouble finding work, the ones who have to explain themselves and apologize and work their way back into the good graces of those in powerr. This needs to change. And there is not a one of us who does not need to be involved in changing it.

It’s so easy for me to say. Let’s see if I can do it. Mostly, today, I am hoping that someone besides me is now really thinking about this, and that some day very soon, we push hard enough that no-one has to think about it anymore.

On Tolerance and the Cartoons Who Practice It

The Social Justice and Storytelling Masterclass of Zootopia

So, I finally went and saw Zootopia this weekend. tl;dr: “Wow” on all levels.

OK, who came to this blog looking for the short version, anyway?

Let me first hit the point that everyone is hitting, and say that this really is as beautifully stated a message of tolerance and inclusivity as I have seen put on the big screen. It has a message about racism, for sure, but it’s also a message of treating people as a collection of individuals, not judging them based on superficial assumptions, the damage careless words can do, the healing careful words can bring, and the poisonous power of assumptions. It also teaches that no-one is perfect, that people do bad things for good reasons, that people do good things for bad reasons, and that prejudice can be a powerful weapon if it’s allowed to go unquestioned (and that questioning hatred is always the right thing to do). On top of that, it is also a beautifully structured movie that serves as a fantastic introduction to the art of storytelling. I’d show this to any child I was lucky enough to help raise, and also to anyone who wants to be a writer of any stripe.

That’s the spoiler-free version of my thoughts. Everything after this contains spoilers.

The thing I adore about the inclusivity message in Zootopia is how deeply it runs. This is not just a movie where everyone else learns to respect the bunny as a police officer and the bunny learns to trust a fox; it’s that, for sure, but it’s so much more. It’s also a movie that shows people being…people. The victims of prejudice are not just victims; their behavior is informed by the prejudice they have experienced, and they have found some strength in their victimhood, but they have also been blinded to (or self-justified) their own prejudices. Authority figures are shown as, well, the kind of people who tend to seek power — the well-meaning who get blinkered by “big picture” thinking (Mayor Lionheart), the angry and the wounded who want to hurt as a response to having been hurt (Assistant Mayor Bellwether) — but most importantly as people, with good bits and bad bits mixed in together. (Also, note that Lionheart is still in jail at the end of the movie — he isn’t given a pass for doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and that’s an important lesson to dispense.) Stereotypes are shown to be inaccurate, and while some people are shown living up to certain of those stereotypes, they are almost all either doing it deliberately (Nick’s decision to double down on the “sly fox” archetype) or are also radical departures from the stereotype in another way (Flash the sloth being the most obvious one), and just as many, if not more, people are shown totally bucking them (Clawhauser’s love of donuts and lack of physical fitness — by the way, kudos for not turning him into a fat joke, Disney).

Zootopia also treats prejudice as something that is countered by deliberate acknowledgment and action — and shows how important thinking about the implications of our actions can be. Through Judy’s unfortunate press conference midway through, we see the incredible damage words can do when deployed inexpertly or thoughtlessly; but we also see the power of an apology and forgiveness when Nick forgives her and their reunion allows them to crack the case. Judy’s parents hire on Gideon Grey when they decide, through Judy’s actions, to acknowledge their own bias against foxes and give Gideon another chance — a chance which pays off both in the story of the movie and in Judy and Gideon getting a chance to reconcile over Gideon’s childhood behavior. It shows adulthood — well, life in general — as complex and, as Judy puts it, “messy.” I don’t think it’s an accident that Judy successfully cracks the case by employing the very real police tactic of looking the other way for minor crimes as a bargaining chit to get information on more serious infractions.

These points have all been made eloquently in other places, I realize, but I want to make sure they are repeated. What I haven’t seen discussed (and I may just not be looking in the right places) is just how well this movie can be used to teach someone how to write a good story; I’d even argue this movie should be taught to young creative writing students as a masterclass in the structure. It is a very basic story with a lot of great flavor and depth to the meat that’s put on those bones. The twists and turns of the narrative feel natural and always feed back into the basic messages of the film. It has rising and falling action, building to a climax that does not use simple violence (though, that too) to make the scene feel personal and intense. It has an ending that wraps everything up neatly while still leaving some realistically messy bits. On another level, it uses tropes of its parent genre (noir detective films) in an inventive and fun way, and it stays true to its own premise in the details of the world the characters live in. I aspire to write something as beautifully simple and yet wondrously complex as Zootopia, and if I succeed in sharing something like it with the world, I will consider my life to have been a legendary success.

In other words, if you haven’t seen it already: go.

On The Other Edge

Why I’m At My Most Neurotic When Doing A Thing I’m Good At

(CN: The following is about gaming as much as writing, and contains discussion of my mental illness.)

Let me start with some self-indulgence. This weekend, I am running a one-shot for some very dear friends of mine, and I am excited and scared. While discussing it on Facebook with my friend Roo, she said:

I was telling a friend about your one shots…and found myself saying something incredibly true: you are on a very short list of people whose GMing skills and style are such that if I have a chance to play in a game you’re running, I will jump at the chance every single time. I adore playing your games and getting to spend these bits of time sharing the space in your head.

This is so kind of her to say, and it felt like a beautiful payoff for all the hard work I have put in getting better at running games (among many beautiful payoffs, but I needed one today especially). But the point of this post is not to sit here and pat myself on the head; it is to discuss the other side of that coin. My gaming stuff is good because I care about it a lot. And my gaming stuff is hard for me because I care about it a lot.

Writing is a fraught activity for me, and as a GM even more so than as an author. (I also have a lot of anxiety and angst about gaming as a player, and some of what I am saying here may be true for that end of things, as well.) This is something I am coming to grips with in my life right now, as part of my effort to understand myself better on both a macro- and a microscopic level — that I have a lot of anxiety about doing creative things well, even though I demonstrably do them at least pretty well (well enough to get lauded in the case of GMing, and well enough to get published in the case of writing), and that a thing I have chosen as a hobby causes me more stress than a thing that I do as a theoretical paying gig.

I put a lot of time, energy, and care into my creations. For fiction, that means outlining, editing the outline, maybe working on story beats before or after that if I think I need to worry about pacing (especially for things like comic scripts or flash fiction where I have a very restrictive format or a limited amount of space for the story to breathe); it means writing the zero draft, the rough draft, the first draft; it means alpha and beta readers; etc., etc., etc. For gaming, it means penning the scenario; figuring out what notes I need to write and what I need to let myself wing; selecting (or writing) stats for the various characters; parceling out the clues (for mystery stories) or big epic moments (for superhero stories) or monsters, traps, and loot (for dungeon crawls); finding ways to set the right mood (for literally everything). A lot of that detail work is done unconsciously, though I think more of it is conscious with game design, since you do not get the same kinds of second chances in GMing that you do with fiction.

And that’s half of it. What Roo said put the other half in stark relief for me, so much so that it gets its own separate paragraph for maximum drama — like she says, my creations are a walk inside my head. It’s only natural that seeing people taking that walk in real-time is harder than the idea people are doing it where I can’t see.

When I run a game, I am seeing peoples’ reactions to it in real time. When a moment falls flat, it falls flat right then and there, and I have to recover from the lack of impact in just as little time. When an encounter proves to be unbalanced, I have to fix it now, or at least decide how to prevent the game from either moving forward much quicker than anticipated or grinding to an unsatisfying halt. Even if somehow a total garbage piece of my fiction goes steaming and stinking out into the world, the worst I will see is a nasty review on a website somewhere. If my game is screaming-out-loud bad, I am in the middle, watching it happen.

It hurts to have a creation fail. I care about my stories, RPG and prose alike, and caring about them means I put a lot of time into it, and that loads things in a way that I’m not sure people outside my head always see. (And I wouldn’t demand they do so; it’s not their responsibility to take care of my feelings.) So when things fail hard, the first thought I have to deal with is not “How do I improve on that?” it’s “Oh God I’m a failure!”

That is manageable; anxiety is something I deal with every day, and while I am not perfect at managing it yet (and perfection is not a realistic goal anyway), I manage it well enough to see it coming eight times out of ten and not act out one of the other two times. But the thing is, because of the anxiety, there are things that set off the failure alarms that are not indicators of failure; and a lot of those need to be things I can roll with if I want to truly be in control of my anxiety.

There are gamers who are happiest when they are testing the boundaries of the narrative, looking for unorthodox solutions and trying to be clever. And that’s valid! But to anxiety brain, it can read as them trying to poke holes in my creation, which leaves me scrabbling to fill those gaps.

There are gamers who do not do a lot of external roleplaying, who roleplay through their actions rather than through facial expressions or tone. And that’s valid! But to anxiety brain, it can read as my emotional content failing to hit its mark.

There are people who come to a game just plain wanting a different thing than you were delivering — who were expecting a powered-up dungeon crawl when you prepped a diplomatic mission, or were going for personal horror in a game that is more about solving a murder, etc. And that’s valid! But to anxiety brain, it can read as a failure on my part to accurately set the stage for the game. (The subject of being explicit about the narrative, mechanical, and temporal goals of a game you are running is a whole other animal that I am not wrangling in the space of this post, but, that’s a thing, too.)

The list goes on. The point of this is to say two things: that GMing is hard, and that sometimes enlightenment comes from the most unexpected places.

I’m going to run a one-shot tomorrow, and it may not go quite like I intended. But thanks to today’s unexpected insight, I’ll be better equipped to deal with that than I was when I woke up this morning.

And even if that’s all I get from today, that makes today a victory.

On Leaving It Behind

The Ways Giving Up Helped Me Move Forward

Late last year, I made one of the most important decisions of my entire writing career: I gave up on a project.

A personal project, lest I sound unprofessional; and actually, two of them. I had two novels in the works (read: on their third and fourth deep edit passes, respectively) that just were not clicking. There were germs of good ideas there, some wonderful turns of phrase, some characters I adore; but in both cases, the whole was lesser than the sum of its parts.

I rewrote one, and started rewriting the other, examining them for what was not working. The rewrite of the first one of these two was incredibly fruitful, teaching me a lot about what I was doing wrong in my writing at the time I wrote it and giving me a chance to move past it. The second one…not so much.

I mean, I saw I was doing wrong, but I had done so much wrong that trying to undo it left me like a kitten tangled up in string. I was trying to find my way out and continuously making it worse, with no capacity to get enough distance from the problem to actually perceive the whole. I kept slogging onward, re-plotting and re-outlining and doing every other form of hacking and cauterizing I could think of, until I realized one fateful weekend that I had been dreading going back to writing after one of my twice-weekly days off from the creative process, and that the dread was all because of this project.

I’d had this revelation once or twice before, that I was hugely burnt out on rewriting this novel, but I had powered through, operating under the axiom that you need to write when you don’t want to if you want to be a professional writer. But this time, it was different. This was not writing being difficult; this was writing burning me out and sapping my joy for creation. I sat back and examined why that would be the case, and I had the next revelation (a true Apocalypse over here, I tells ya): these novels were part of my million bad words.

It’s an old adage, one I need not repeat exhaustively, that every writer has to write a proverbial one million bad words in order to get to the good ones. It’s a fancy way of saying that in order to do something well, you have to do it badly first. That’s part of learning. It’s not something my culture really teaches anymore (though the Internet is getting that lesson out there pretty effectively), but it’s the truth. Few people (possibly no people) are instantly good at something; at best, they have raw talent that needs to be refined. Writing these novels, especially this one I couldn’t salvage, was an important part of that refinement for me — but that does not mean it is worthwhile for me to go back to them right now.

Some day, I may need those ideas, those characters, those plots. I may need them to make another attempt at saying what I was trying to say, but this time with a much more skilled hand; I may need them to say something completely different, but still said best with those people and those situations; I may just love some tidbit of description or dialogue and want to plug it in to something else. But I was not doing myself any favors with this rewrite: I can’t get through my million bad words by trying to redo 100,000 of them. I realized it was best, as heavy as it made my heart, to recognize what didn’t work and move on.

So I did. And friends, I feel so free.

Since letting those novels go to their long sleep in the depths of my files, I have tried writing in new formats. I have pushed myself to write about new kinds of people, to inject new themes, to push my boundaries in every direction I had the opportunity to push. I have written a story that an editor told me haunted them, and yet ended with a little ray of hope that things could get better for these people after the words “The End.” And I have written a zero draft of a new novel that honestly might be my favorite thing I have ever written. Someone who reads a lot of my work, who is kind enough to review my work constantly, has told me how much more they like my writing now than my writing from a few years ago, and there is an obvious dividing line between the last story they mostly liked and the first story they loved: the latter of those two not-so-great novels.

I do not generally recommend giving up on a creative project. Giving up is a bad lesson to teach yourself, most of the time. But at the same time, it’s invaluable to give yourself time to be bad at something so you can become good at it later; and that is the most valuable lesson of my creative life to date. So in this way, those novels were not failures, not at all. In fact, arguably, the novels I have moved on from are the two most important pieces of creative work I have ever done.

For now.

On International GM’s Day

International GM’s Day, for this GM and this Writer

It’s International GM’s Day, as dictated by the folks at EN World and now adopted across the Internet, and I can think of no better day to talk about roleplaying games and writing.

I’ve never made any secret about playing roleplaying games. I cut my teeth on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition; I made an ill-fated attempt at Paranoia as a young middle-schooler; I toyed with but never actually got to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness; and I had a pile of GURPS books I never used. Four different editions of D&D; the World of Darkness; the Chronicles of Darkness; 7th Sea; Legend of the Five Rings; Wild Talents; Unknown Armies; Eclipse Phase; so many more I do not remember or only barely flirted with. These were the tools of recreation during my childhood, my early adulthood, and now. More campaigns have died unended than ever been completed (I think my Changeling campaign, Roo’s Eclipse Phasegame, and the first leg of my D&D 4th Edition campaign are the only ones I have ever personally seen conclude rather than die the slow death — or get killed in a fit of drama and broken friendships), but all of it has stuck with me. All of it has made me who I am.

Through playing and developing characters, I learned to develop empathy for people who are not me; actually meeting people who had radically different experiences than I did was obviously necessary for me to bridge that gap, but it got me on the right track. Through running ongoing campaigns, I learned about communication, conflict management, and scheduling; through running one-shots and limited-run campaigns, I learned about navigating limited narrative spaces, and writing plots that fit into the time/space you have available. Through gaming, I learned how to write a plot that affected a consumer emotionally; how to take the germ of an idea and expand on it and refine it; how people interpret data presented to them, and how to both ensure the data is clear and manipulate interpretation to make a later revelation shocking or surprising; how to navigate the narrative tools of coincidence and convenience and ensure they do not turn into crutches. My understanding of storytelling structures, my comprehension of social dynamics, and unfortunately, even my ability to identify abusive and toxic behavior; all these things were refined by my time in the mental crucible that is gaming. None of them started or finished there, but my skill set and my personality are inextricably tied to my hobbies. They are a source of recreation; but they are also a source of creation. Hell, learning the difference between writing a story and writing an adventure for an RPG was one of the biggest moments in which writing “clicked” for me — and that, along with the message that everyone fails before they succeed creatively, is the most important lesson I have learned as a creator.

So, thank you to everyone I have ever gamed with. Thank you to the AD&D 2nd Edition, Mage, Changeling, and Vampire players in high school, for letting me just utterly reek at this whole thing so I could learn. Thank you to my Changeling players in college, for letting me really try something big, and for helping me struggle with the deficient parts of it, and for reminding me to this day that it was the best thing I had done at the time, even if seeing the ways I did not do so great helped me do better in the long run. Thank you to my D&D 4th Edition players, who helped me confront some anxieties I have about gaming and creativity and start to move past them, and who helped me try something a little weird (that may get weirder if we ever go back to it). Thank you to my Wild Talents players, who are part of my most ambitious campaign to date and who make me feel good about it every session.

Thank you to my high school GMs, for stumbling right alongside me and for giving me something to build on. Thank you to my college GMs: Josh, Kat, Tyler, Chris, Matt, the aforementioned Joe, all the Jasons, and Mo, for taking the time to run games and showing me both ways I did and didn’t want to GM, and for some golden moments that will stick with me forever. Thank you to Ted, Ralph, and Gary, my GMs in my grad school days, for showing me yet another different way and for pushing my boundaries. Thank you to Joe, my first 4th Edition D&D GM, who reminded me games could be fun again. Thank you to Sonya, for letting me come along on her first foray into GMing. Thank you to Matt, my current 5th Edition D&D GM, for helping me have fun playing again and helping me work through an awful Eeyore period with my dice. Thank you to the Alliance GMs, Brandon, Dan, Sarah, Jim, Sonya, Warlock, Madhawk, and Mike, for making me feel welcome and for trying some new things and some tried-and-true things, both with me and at me. Thank you to Terrance, my L5R GM, for showing me a different side of Rokugan and reminding me we’re here to have fun. Thank you to Nate, my recently concluded Mouse Guard GM, for showing me all kinds of tricks that may never have occurred to me. Thank you to the unnamed fellow GM who taught me it was OK to have anxiety about running games, and taught me we all work through it in our own ways. And thank you to the con GMs who have taught me a thousand little tactics that I could only learn by playing with total strangers.

Thank you to everyone. I needed all of you to become who I am today, as a gamer, as a writer, and a person. And the value of that is a price above rubies.

On 2015

I am 4.5 hours away from beginning the celebration that will put 2015 firmly in my rear view mirror, and therefore, it is time to reflect on the year.

“Mixed bag” defines most years in a human life, but in many ways this year has been one of extremes in that regard. I’ve had some of my lowest lows this year, but also some of my highest highs, and the latter often came as a result of the former.

Low point: Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a manageable disease, but still a disease, and a chronic one there is currently no way to cure, only to avoid being hurt by (and that partially with a little luck); having my wife, the most important person in my life, receive the same diagnosis a month before I did. Realizing both diagnoses only came because she went in to have something unrelated checked up on, and that if we hadn’t checked we would have kept eating in a way that was ruinous to our health and potentially deadly long-term. Dealing with the tide of internal and external fat-shaming, diet-shaming, and general feeling of screwing up that comes with a type 2 diagnosis, along with the feeling that somehow this was life laughing at me after I decided to take charge of my mental and physical health this year.

High point: Going in for our first quarterly check-ups on the disease only to discover we have them totally under control with diet and exercise, we have praiseworthy amounts of willpower and discipline, and barring a curveball we should be able to avoid complications for our entire lifetimes. People told us we were an inspiration, and we learned that we are capable of a level of courage, self-discipline, and mutual support that will serve us well in every aspect of our very long, very healthy lives.

Low point: After resolving to submit more stories and novels, batting a perfect .000 for submission acceptances from January to December.

High point: Learning that I’m not the only one who goes through fallow periods like this; the hardship forcing me to learn things about my writing strengths and weaknesses that I might not have seen had I met with even moderate success. I’m finding my writing voice in a  way that I never have before, and I’m relaxing into the act of writing in a way I never have before. I’ve also figured out how to set reasonable goals for myself creatively and, as a result, in other aspects of my life. While I am not a financially richer writer after this year, I am a richer writer in every other sense.

Low point: My anxiety went off the rails at the beginning of the year, with multiple explosive crying jags, only further exacerbated by the discovery of the diabetes issues.

High point: The explosions were finally bad enough that I had some conversations with Sonya about our relationship that were absolutely necessary and strengthened our bond as friends, partners, lovers, and teammates — there’s no steel without fire, as I think they say. From that came the decision to grab hold of my mental health as well as physical, and from that came a relatively saner Tyler; not one free of anxiety, because that demon is never truly slain, but one who can take a step back and assess his problems and deal with them rationally in a way he never could before.

Low point: I found a safe space for social justice-minded folk like myself, and promptly said something truly terrible and followed it up with a series of anxiety-riddled mistakes and outright bad behavior that ended in me needing to leave said safe space and in fact helped catalyze a general fracturing of it, losing myself at least two friends and leaving my Internet social media experience awkward to say the least.

High point: That huge screw-up and wrongdoing on my part forced me to confront problematic aspects of myself and my relationships, forced me to accept that there are consequences for my actions in a way that was frankly a little abstract before (being as I am a very privileged person), and took me down the road of learning a whole lot more about how to be less problematic and how I need to comport myself in public and in private. And I did keep a few good friends out of that, who though they are wholly digital right now, are an important part of my support network going into 2015.

High point: I rediscovered my love of comics, especially superhero comics, and broadened my artistic tastes in all fields.

High point: I navigated the waters of how to relate to my friends and family, and how and when and why to identify people who are unhealthy for me and keep them at the necessary distance.

High point: I celebrated a year in a fantastic marriage with Sonya, who has helped me learn to be a better person and has helped me learn just how happy I can be. I love you, sweetie. Hail Hydra.

High point: I recognized, eyes wide open, how truly lucky I am to have the life I have, and how valued my contribution to the world really is.

High point: I made mistakes and still have friends and loved ones. Forgiveness can be so important.

High point: I learned how to be diplomatic when angry.

High point: I got to hang out with my new nephew and niece (marriage grows families in the most unexpected ways) and watch them continue to be interesting and smart and engaged.

High point: I had a tweet liked by Squirrel Girl.

High point: There are way more high points on this list than low points.

2015 kicked me in the bojangles more than once, and it did its level best to get me on the ground and bloodied; but in the end, the scars left by this year are scars I can bear with pride. I’m a better person, a better writer, a better husband, and a better Tyler all around than I was last December, and that is a treasure that will never tarnish.

Next year’s resolutions:

Keep up the writing schedule.

Attend more cons, as a guest and as an attendee.

Keep working on excising problematic language.

Take time for self-care.

Go on more dates with Sonya, and recognize that sometimes, time at home quietly reading is the best date night of all.

Play more board games, especially ones I have not played before.

That said, play more Sentinels of the Multiverse and Red Dragon Inn.

Watch more wrestling that is not produced by the McMahons.

Go to more Fathom Events.

Have a really good beer when the carb count is available.

Love Sonya.

Love my friends.

Love myself.

Now if you’ll excuse me, two friends and their wonderful son are coming over soon to hang out and play some, oh yes, Sentinels of the Multiverse. I cannot think of a better way to start saying goodbye to 2015.

I love you all. Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.

Happy 2016,

Tyler

On Mary and Also Sue

tl;dr: As of today I am going to make a conscious effort to use neither the term “Mary Sue” nor the term “Gary Stu” any longer, as after reading some very smart posts from my very smart friends and colleagues, I believe the roots of those terms to be misogynistic, misguided, and mean-spirited.

Disclaimers:

  • This all got started in my brain thanks to a Facebook post from a friend of mine. I want to give him full credit for inspiring me here, and to say that the root ideas here are his; I’m only not naming him because I don’t yet have his permission to do so, and it’s the Internet.
  • Trigger warnings: mention of violence, rape, racism, homophobia, transphobia.

Longer form commences. It may get a little essay-format in here. I have tried to avoid spoilers and do not mention anything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So.

Mary Sue.

For a definition of the term(s), I turn to the august Web sites Wikipedia and TV Tropes.

From Wikipedia’s entry on “Mary Sue”:

Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities…”Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment…the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting…

From TV Tropes’ entry of the same name:

…the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

Okay. That’s enough to go on.

Let me sum up my feelings: this is garbage.

I say it is garbage not because bad writing and wish-fulfillment do not exist; but because bad writing and wish-fulfillment should be allowed to exist, and shaming people for involvement in them is simple cruelty.

(Well bad writing should not be allowed to exist without criticism…I’ll follow up on that later.)

Life is hard. Life as an oppressed class of person (woman, person of color, LGBT, etc.) is especially hard. Wish-fulfillment, escapism, and fantasy are perfectly reasonable responses to how hard life is, and legitimate ways of coping with getting through the hard parts of life.

We could argue back and forth all day about how much escapism is too much escapism; we can throw around words like “addiction,” and maybe even ableist nastiness about discerning fiction from reality; but the bottom line is that basically everyone, in every culture, sees the value of living and learning vicariously through entertainment, whether that’s a win by your sports team, a painting that speaks to you, seeing a fictional character succeed in the face of adversity that looks a lot like your own, or seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.

Let’s hang on that last line for a second. “Seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.”

You don’t have to look far to see the kinds of venom that are spit daily at women — say, rape and death threats when they criticize any form of media in any way — or at people of color — a potential Presidential candidate calling for all “Muslims” to be banned from the country or forced to sign a registry — or at LGBT people — the entire Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to link to real examples, because those monsters do not deserve the attention, but they are out there and easy to Google or ask your friends about.

If you have to deal with that on a daily basis, you probably want to see a ray of light somewhere, right? Some indicator that it is possible for someone who is like you to be a badass, strong in the face of difficulties, successful in the face of insurmountable odds? Hell, you probably want to see that on your harder days, even if it does not involve being threatened with sexual violence, right?

And you acknowledge the idea of “different strokes for different folks,” yes? You recognize that your wish-fulfillment/stress relief/enjoyment/whatever does not necessarily look like the method of achieving said state that works for spouse, or your best friend, or your next-door neighbor, right? If nothing else, do you understand intellectually that when your team plays the rival team, your idea of “fun” is probably going to look a lot different than the idea of “fun” held by most fans of the other team?

OK. Great.

So, assuming no-one is actually being hurt, and I mean actually being put in an actual negative place that lessens their actual quality of life…

Where do you get off deciding that another person’s way of having fun and feeling better about themselves is bad?

That is one of my three root issues with the term “Mary Sue.” No-one should be shamed for enjoying wish fulfillment. No-one should be shamed for wanting to have a good time, so long as that good time is not coming at the cost of the well-being of others.

I’m going to tap into that last statement in a moment, but I want to finish up my issues with “Mary Sue” first. My second issue with the term “Mary Sue” is the inherent gendering of the term. Yes, we have now come up with “Marty Stu” and “Gary Sue”; yes, people talk about how the term is not gendered; but, as TV Tropes says, “The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character,” and if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

The term grew out of Star Trek fanfiction (specifically, it “comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’” [Wikipedia]), and it’s an accepted if not concretely observed notion that fanfic writers were, initially, largely female. It is also overwhelmingly applied to original female characters who get to be as important as canon male characters — and as it has grown into a term used in fiction at large, it has continued to be disproportionately used to describe female characters. The only male character that I hear routinely get called a Sue/Stu is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation; other male characters who are just as obviously given a disproportionate chunk of the spotlight (e.g., Wolverine and Cyclops from the X-Men franchise) or just as obviously get to save the day when the chips are down despite not being the only ones canonically capable of same (e.g., Batman in any DC universe fiction), either do not get slapped with the label despite qualifying, or get the label alongside so many jabs at either their “feminine” traits or their sexuality that it’s hard not to see this as being about shaming women for wanting to have rad protagonists available to them.

And that’s gross, people. Gross.

And now, my third and final issue with the term “Mary Sue”…it is generally used as a hallmark of bad writing, right? We are all agreed on this point? Well, bad writing needs to exist.

Writing bad stories is the only way you figure out what doesn’t work and get to good stories. Just like every hockey player (except maybe Wayne Gretzky) had to play some truly terrible games of hockey before they figured out how to reliably play well; just like every baker’s first-ever batch of chocolate chip cookies was likely inedible; just like if I went out today and tried to run a marathon, I would wind up calling someone to come pick me up in my new superhero disguise as the Human Cramp; every writer has to write bad stories. Most of us even keep doing it, because everyone has their off days!

Even if something is bad, it may represent the absolute best a person can do right now, not because they are in any inherently bad, but because they are still learning how to be good. Criticism is a part of helping that person to grow, but dismissive criticism may snuff out their fire while it is still just sparks. Also, not everybody is ready to be put on blast just yet; that’s why I don’t publish every rough draft I ever write on my blog, and that’s part of why fan-fiction communities exist. We need safe spaces to figure out how to be the best us we can be. Why invade and dismiss that just because you don’t think my How to Train Your Dragon/WWE crossover fic is the next Aenead?

Now, there are forms of (or elements present in) “bad art” or “bad escapism” that are truly, objectively bad. Those that uncritically glorify rape, racism, murder, or other forms of violence and hate. Those that reinforce negative and problematic social narratives, like the idea every rape victim “kinda enjoyed it” or that a person of color is “asking for trouble” by behaving in a certain way. Those that stir up hatred toward a real-world group. Those that encourage hateful and destructive urges rather than offer a catharsis that prevents the need for actualizing those urges. In short, things that actually hurt actual people, even if only by making it seem OK to hurt those people. And those do need to be taken out behind the woodshed sometimes, and called out as either “problematic” or even sometimes outright hate speech.

But…

Don’t deride people for doing their best, just because their best isn’t the same as somebody else’s best.

Don’t deride people for liking things that aren’t hurting anybody. Liking things is cool.

And don’t ever forget that everything is problematic in some way, and that criticism and dismissal are not synonymous.

Like stuff. Make stuff.

Figure out how to be you.

Figure out what doesn’t work.

Figure out how not to hurt people.

The world will be a better place.

That, in a 1700 word nutshell, is why I will never, ever again call any character a Mary Sue.