Making Time To Create

When I give workshops or panels or even when I’m just hanging out, the number one question I get asked is “How do you have time for all the things you do?”

Now some people get asked this question and they can point to the fact that they’re one steep staircase away from a heart attack and they’ll look to their marriages disintegrating in the few minutes they pry themselves away from their cubicles, and they say, “I work really hard.”

But that’s not a really satisfactory answer, because everyone works hard. I mean, yes, there is that segment of the population who espouses the philosophy that life shouldn’t be work and it shouldn’t be hard, and while they’re partially right, these are also people I’ve noticed who do a lot of wishing about how their life will be later, like they’re waiting for the Life-bus to pull up and whisk them away to Happy Success Land where they don’t have to do more than blink and be showered in fat stacks of cash.

That is an awesome lifestyle. For most people, that’s also an awesome fantasy. You say that to people coming out of offices and sitting in rush hour traffic, you’ll be lucky if they don’t break your nose and fatten your lip. We are raised to understand that doing work generates rewards, most often financial. And over time we’ve evolved this idea to separate the fun out of our jobs, so that we work “dayjobs” and like Batman (minus the wealth, minus the costume, minus the utility belt) we prowl for fun once the sun goes down, or at least until the alarm clock goes off and you have drag yourself kicking and screaming to that building with that job and that boss and deal with shit.

I decided when I was sixteen that I would never work a “real” job that wasn’t fun. I decided this while working a register at my local pharmacy, handing out drugs, condoms and wine (that store sold everything) to local people. That job was not glamorous and I often ended up sitting on a stool behind a counter listening to soft-rock and waiting for the local drunks to show up to buy lottery tickets. I had to manufacture my own fun. I wrote, I read, I kept myself out of trouble. That job did teach me a lot, I learned way more chemistry and science than I ever did in school, and I also learned how to make my own schedule. I was in charge of me and my time, so I could, if I wanted, block myself into one task for hours (as I had already discovered that if I moved slowly enough, refilling a beer cooler could take 3 hours).

What I didn’t know is that years later I’d be taking that same scheduling mentality with me wherever I went. These things don’t occur to teenagers I guess. So now, more than sixteen years later, I have an answer for that question.

I make time.

Now, (and thankfully) I don’t have to drag myself out of bed when some alarm clock blares. And I don’t have to slog my way through some commute to sit in an office, probably while wearing a tie, and deal with paperwork and projects and action-items. I get to roll out of bed, make breakfast, check my Google calendar and then start reading or writing. Then I get hungry, so I eat something (or I get reminded to eat), and then I repeat the reading/writing portion of the day until I get tired of it, then I go play a game or watch TV or something. That’s my whole day. And I do this, every day, all day. #notbragging #hatersgonnahate

There are books out there you can buy that say what I’m describing is a “dream” and that you too can live that dream if you outsource your scheduling and get really lucky. But, to be honest, I’m not comfortable employing someone half the world away and I’m certainly not comfortable giving them access to my life. So I do these things myself. (Lately I’ve been getting help, but it’s more a collaborative help and not a “do-this-for-me-random-Indian-sweatshop-worker” way)

But let’s look at how you can do this, even with your job or school or responsibilities or kids. No really, the only reason those things are obstacles to you doing what you want is that you’re making them obstacles, and not cheerleaders (we’ll get there later in the week).

Go get a legal pad, or a blank piece of paper. I’ll wait here.


Now let’s look at your typical work day. I want you to roughly sketch it out by the hour on the page. Maybe it looks like this:

6 am Wake up 
7 am Commute to Work
8 am Work
1pm Lunch
2 pm Resume Work
6 pm Commute Home
7 pm Arrive Home
7:30 pm Eat dinner, pay bills, deal with kids
8:45 pm Kids go to bed
9:00 pm Watch TV
10 pm Go to bed

Admittedly, I’m speculating here. I don’t have kids and I don’t commute (unless you want to count my steps from the bed to the bathroom to the office to the kitchen and back). Your schedule may be different, and that’s totally fine. Notice I didn’t break down “Work” because a) it’s not important to this exercise and b) I really am not going to understand why you do it. Also c) You’re not Batman, Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Dirk Pitt or Harry Dresden, therefore I am not interested in what you do at your job.

Now, I want you to circle the activities that CANNOT be changed. I’ll make them red and bold here.

6 am Wake up 
7 am Commute to Work
8 am Work
1pm Lunch
2 pm Resume Work
6 pm Commute Home
7 pm Arrive Home
7:30 pm Eat dinner, pay bills, deal with kids
8:45 pm Kids go to bed
9:00 pm Watch TV
10 pm Go to bed

If you laid out your schedule by slot (i.e. 7-8am Commute), then that’s what you’d be circling. What we’re trying to do is block out the times you cannot manipulate. This is when what you do isn’t exactly under your best direct control, because it’s a response or reaction to an obligation bigger than you. Translation – It’s the shit you have to deal with.

Let’s look at the uncircled items. In my example above, I didn’t circle lunch because a lot of people don’t always have a set lunch hour, it sort of floats depending on how their work day unfolds. If you’re asking yourself why I highlighted “10pm Go To Bed”, it’s because that’s the end of the day, and most people I know aren’t feeling all that jazzed and energetic at the end of their day, they just want to collapse into bed and somehow hope the alarm doesn’t go off in the morning. That means bedtime is a no-fly zone for creativity (unless your creativity involves sexy pantsless time, at which point I think/hope your schedule looks different).

The uncircled items/times are when you can exert some control over your schedule. It’s worth remembering – you are in charge of your life, so you get to figure out when you’re doing things like getting out of bed and eating dinner and what/who you’re doing in your non-work hours.

It’s in those hours that I want to break it down even further.

Why do you get up at the time you do? Sure, you might mash snooze on the clock three, four or seven times before you have to rush around, but what if you made an effort to get up earlier? You can “reclaim” some time for yourself. Think about it – the house will be quiet, you don’t have to rush anywhere or fight for the bathroom or try and get other people organized, you can just be awake and get things done. And when I say things, I mean being creative. You could get up half an hour earlier and use those 30 minutes to make coffee, shower and get dressed so that when you normally are doing those things, you’ve got this new set of 30 minutes in which to work. It’s like magic how you just created this new chunk of time. Does it have to be 30 minutes? No! It could be an hour. It’s up to you. The point is, you could get up earlier, even once a week, and do something creative.

What are you doing on your lunch break? Contemplating how you’re going to burn down the office if they take your stapler one more time? Thinking about how you wish you were anywhere but where you are? Try desperately to get that person from some other department to notice you so that you could in theory ask them out on a date? Your lunch break is YOUR time, you’re off the clock and therefore free. You could leave or go sit under a tree or go home or do anything you want, because in that block of time, you’re the boss. Sure, there’s eating to do, but seriously, how long does it take you to eat those carrot sticks and chug that diet Coke? (Fun exercise: Time yourself eating. Not like it’s a race, but just notice how long it takes you to comfortably consume your meal. If you’re in an office with a cafeteria, include the amount of time spent purchasing the food too).

There are undoubtedly free minutes that you spend staring out the window, leafing through a magazine about the Kardashians (no, nobody knows what they do) or writing and deleting that text message to the person in the other department who you want to ask out on that date. Seize those minutes! Carpe minuten! Even if it’s just ten minutes, that’s enough to write some notes, or put together a list of characters isn’t it? You are in charge of your time!

Do you have to watch that TV show when you get home? I get it, you unwind when you get home from work. It’s so frying to your brain that you plunk yourself down on the couch and watch something so utterly devoid of genius, talent or laughter that you sort of glaze over and then snap back to reality after 22 minutes of absolute garbage making its way into the creative parts of your brain. Or maybe you’re so stressed from that high pressure job you need to deflate your entire thinking process down to level of paramecium?

Now before you get all finger-pointy at me, yes I watch TV. But House is ending in 4 weeks, and I can watch Castle the next day (thanks DVR!) and…my schedule isn’t your schedule, and this is about you not me.

I’m not saying you’re “not allowed” to unwind after work. Smoke a joint, have a drink, eat some nachos, play with the dog, marvel at what your kids drew today in school. Do whatever you want to do to unwind. Just do me a favor — stop thinking that being creative is going to feel the same way your job does. Being creative is not work. It’s fun. It’s relaxing. It will help you. Stop treating it like an impediment to your happiness, and start seeing that it could be a bridge to your happiness.

That hour you spend watching that bankrupt and vacant alleged-entertainment? Carpe minuten! That’s a whole sixty minutes you could write a page of dialogue, craft a poem, sculpt or figure out which dice engine you should use to create your new game. In doing that, you’re being active, not passive in using your time and saving your brain cells (and creating new pathways for new thoughts, thus staving off dementia, Alzheimer’s and decay).

But the magic trick to this is making that commitment to being creative. Yes, it’s going to be tough at first. If you’re getting up early, you’re not going to like doing it. That bed is going to look way inviting, more so if you have company in it and there’s a good chance you might get to fool around. It might be easier to come home from work and drop down on the couch and just sit, it might be the first stillness you’ve had in twelve hours, but you’re never actually still. You just checked out from focusing on things, because you’ve spent the last six-plus hours focused on other people’s things (and not in a fun way). It’s time to check-in on your own stuff. That’s right, this is a commitment to yourself – you have to do what matters to you, because no one else will.

I know this guy, let’s call him Ken (because that’s his name). Ken is awesome. Ken made a commitment to getting into better shape, and according to his Facebook posts, the dude is totally sticking to it. Now I don’t know if his health is the only reason he’s doing it (maybe there are some very fine ladies at the gym, or dudes, I don’t judge), but I’m so proud of him for sticking to a plan that he’s in charge of, a plan that improves his life and makes him happy. Good for Ken. Ken seized those minutes and now seizes new minutes to work on his writing. Go Ken.

Barring the appearance of attractive eye candy, I’m guessing there are days where Ken doesn’t want to go work out. And I’m guessing there are days where you’re not going to feel all that creative either. Maybe your boss yelled at you about ‘the Johnson account’ (do bosses actually yell about that stuff?) or you spent the whole day dreading coming home to your spouse/significant other because they were totally going to bitch you out for what you promised you do and you haven’t done it yet. Yeah, you’re going to have moments where you don’t want to deal with the commitments you made. You’re going to want to run and hide. Believe me, I’ve done so much running you’d think I was a Kenyan marathoner, but lately (past 2 months or so) I’ve stopped running because it occurred to me that I had no idea where I was running to, only that I knew what I was running from.

I didn’t want to deal with this person or that responsibility or take on that challenge or do that chore. I thought that those activities and peoples were drains on me, pulling me down and holding me back. And while I was partially right (some of those people and their shitty lives suck ass), what I was doing was choosing to hold myself back. Seriously – I wasn’t going to take ten minutes and do the dishes? I wasn’t going to call that family member and wish them a happy birthday? What’s that take, like 3 minutes?

Carpe minuten. Seize your minutes. You’re in charge of you, so you can make the choices. Not all the choices are easy. They’re not all fun. Sometimes you’re going to feel awkward or embarrassed or humbled or ashamed to deal with the consequences of those choices, but I swear, it’s worth it. Sure it sucks while you go through it, but once you’ve done it, you’re totally done. No more shitty people hovering in the periphery. No more annoying activities to stress over later. Just like Andy Dufresne, you crawled through the shit and now you’re clean on the other side.

Let’s recap:

Break your schedule down by the hour.
Block off the hours you CANNOT do anything about.
In the hours you have control over, make time to be creative.

Yes, you can say that it’s only an hour a day, but if you write around 2 pages a day, that’s about 100 pages in about 2 months, and don’t forget you have free time on weekends and holidays that I’m not factoring in here.

If your creative endeavor really matters to you, make time for it. Carpe minuten.

Happy writing.

Publishing & What’s Important

This post may not make you very comfortable. It may not make you happy. But since this blog is designed to accomplish exactly neither of those things, I’m going to use this space to talk about my thoughts and feelings about publishing. I’m going to try and not quote numbers or limit myself to specific citations, I want this to be broad view not because I don’t know the particulars but rather I believe that it is in the particulars where all the fighting happens, where people see a stat or get a quote and blow things way the hell out of proportion.

So this is just me, John, talking to you, the writer/creator/artist/producer/game developer/whatever you call yourself. This is not my axe to grind or my “converting you to one side or the other” because, as you’ll see, I don’t care what side you’re on, so long as you’re creating for the best/right reasons. Before we go any further, we should talk about those reasons.

Why are you creating the thing you are? Doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s lawful, doesn’t harm kids or sap my life force out of my body, I’m not really going to oppose you doing it. I’m going to be honest with you though, there are some reasons that are better than others.

Creating art should not be done so that you be taken seriously. Creating art is not going to repair the relationships you’ve screwed up by being obnoxious, immature, unprepared, crabby, bitchy, catty, superficial, dull, uncaring, mean or intoxicated. I’m not talking shit about art therapy, but that’s therapy designed for the patient – the random person who hates you for what you did isn’t going to suddenly forgive you because you drew a sunflower. Sorry, it might be the best sunflower this side of Van Gogh, but that person has made a decision to hate you and its an apology, not a canvas that’s going to fix that bridge.

Creating art also shouldn’t be for financial gain. Yes, sure, you can make a living producing and selling your work. And yes, sometimes, that living is going to be comfortable. Other times though, you’re going to look at the Groupon emails in your inbox and say, “Not this week, I gotta pay my electric bill.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t make money off your art, it’s your art and you can do what you want with it, but I’m saying that if you’re just churning out material so that your bank account swells, or so that your spouse can “live in a style they’re accustomed to” its very likely that what you’re selling is your soul and what you’re buying is empty space in a destructive relationship (believe me, I’ve been there.)

Creating art also isn’t a badge of superiority. Way back in caveman days, when your ancestor cracked some quadraped in the mush with a rock, they could hold up the pelt or the skull and that was superiority, exclaiming to the heavens and the rest of the tribe, I did this, I am better than you. But there’s also a purpose there – dead quadraped equals dinner, so providing for the tribe is better than mooching off Thog’s rock prowess. And the guy who told the first novel on a cave wall, he wasn’t doing it for an Amazon ranking, or for First Rights, he was doing it so that the tribe could pass on a story and learn from their experiences. Again, a purpose, not just a mark of I’m-better-than-you.

So why do it? Because if you don’t, if you don’t get the story out, your head will melt. If other people don’t sit down and experience what you’re creating, then some part of you, some part however “flawed” people may term it or think it, goes unsatisfied. Creating scratches some deep itch and fills a hole that no amount of dead quadraped trophies or fancy purchases can top.

But the downside to creating is that you create in dynamic times, which I guess is the John-version of that Chinese proverb. And change now isn’t the enemy, it’s not the thing keeping you from creating (if you think it is, then you’re just afraid and you’re letting the fear stop you from doing what you love**)

**Note: If you are afraid, ask yourself, if this wasn’t about creating….if this was about getting laid or playing a game or eating your favorite meal or making yourself happy, would you let yourself be stopped?

Change happens. The car replaced the horse. The mp3 replaced the phonograph. The smartphone replaced the old Bakelite desk monstrosity. Your ability to adapt and work with (not against) that change, even sometimes acting in favor of change is what’s going to make your end goal all the easier.

What end goal? Well that’s up to you. I cannot tell you your end goal, nor can any author, publisher, owner, bazillionaire, celebrity or religious figure. Like He-Man, you have the power to determine your end goals, and you should. And they should be HUGE because that’s how you get better. Yeah, that makes them difficult to accomplish, but nothing worthwhile is easy.

My end goal is to tell stories and get those stories into the hands of people who pay to read them. Notice that this particular goal doesn’t claim sole ownership of the stories. Yes, I have my own stories to tell, but while I’m telling those, I can help other people tell theirs. I want all kinds of stories to be available, so long as they’re told with the best ability to be told and they’re told to people who give a damn about sharing them.

When it comes to telling stories, there are loads of media options and there are loads of ways to distribute that media. In fact, understanding the flow and distribution of your media is critical, but that’s something I’ll probably end up writing in another post. For now, let’s just agree that there are lots of ways to skin the cat called “publishing”.

There was a time, yes, when you had ONE road to get published. You wrote/typed your manuscript, you dumped it into an envelope and mailed it off to some “big city” office where someone you didn’t know and didn’t communicate with made some sort of gross and broad determination based on criteria and metrics you knew nothing about that somehow defined whether or not your work was “good enough” to be read by the masses. And they took you on as a client and acted as a middleman to help sell your manuscript to other “big city” offices that you definitely didn’t communicate with because it was akin to mortals chatting up Olympus, and your manuscript, the little pages that could, went so far out of your hands and someone else gave you approval and validation that your hard work was worth it.

That, if you’re paying attention, is traditional publishing. You write something, go shop it around and hunt for an agent and then the agent goes and finds a publisher. It’s one route to getting your book into the hands of readers. It is no longer the only route.

It’s also not the “best” route. There isn’t a “best” route. If the route you take achieves the same end result, then who’s going to bitch about how you did it? And okay, let’s say you find some people who will bitch about the method – do you really want to associate yourself with those people?

Things have changed. You have options now, and it has to do with how much work you want to assert in getting your art into other people’s hands. Now I’m not trying to imply you’re lazy or anything, if you want to go the traditional route, but please please remember:

i. No method is “better” than any other.
ii. No method is “right”.
iii. Publication isn’t validation, it’s a transaction, it’s something you’ve done in your step towards your end goal.
iv. Publication isn’t legitimacy.

Here’s my note about legitimacy, which I talked about when I got interviewed on Jennisodes — There was a convention of game designers and creators about 5 minutes from my house. These were people whose products I owned, people I admired and people I thought I’d never be “good enough” to associate with on any level beyond “I buy your stuff”. And I got there early, and sat in the lobby, and watched people (some I knew, some I didn’t) all congregate and greet each other. They all radiated this sense of belonging, like it was a big fraternity/society, practically a family, and this was just what they did. And here’s me, the overweight guy who feels like he’s best suited to live under a bridge sometimes and who often prefers the company of books and games to humans, sitting in the lobby, feeling very much like the kid picked last in gym class. And as I sat there, I said to myself, “I could leave. I mean, I paid like $50 bucks or something for this event, and I have a workshop to do, but it’s at midnight and I can just do it and bail or whatever.” I didn’t feel like I belonged, is what I’m saying. I didn’t feel legit. But over that weekend, I started talking to people. I figured if they were going to laugh me away, at least it was a short walk back to the house and I could spend the weekend playing Xbox on the couch. They, to date, haven’t laughed me away. In fact, they keep handing me work and keep asking for my help and my opinion and they invite me to barbecues and other states and to meetings with people. So I don’t know what I did, but to this day I keep taking steps towards my goal — tell stories, help other people get their stories told.

Legitimacy, I have discovered thus far, comes from me knowing that I’m capable to do a really great job on the projects I’m lucky enough to be a part of. I’ll say that a different way – the fact that I’m attached to this project or that project or this company or this developer is not proof that I’m legitimate — the fact that every day I get to wake up and do all the things that make me absolutely ridiculously happy are what make me legitimate. Because I’m the only arbiter of how legit I am. Not my family. Not the readers. Not the fanbase who will buy what I’m working on. Not whoever I date or who I dated. Just me.

So with all these methods and ways to tell your story, I say, go for it. Make that podcast, read from steno pads at open mics, write blogs, make videos — go wild.

The only “bad” option is the one where you don’t go after your dreams.

Let’s summarize:

1. Go after your dreams. This will not be an easy pursuit (if it is, dream bigger), but the things that truly matter are not easily obtained.
2. Don’t let anything or anyone external dictate the validation or the reason for why you do whatever you do.
3. You are the sole judge of your “legitimacy”, not the method you take to accomplishment, and not the reception you get from people who may not yet fully enjoy/understand/accept what it is you’re doing.
4. Once you set a goal, go after it. If you’re able to put it down because it doesn’t excite or interest you, it’s not a goal. It’s just something you like doing.
5. Don’t let anything get in the way of #4.
6. What’s “best” for you is the route that allows you to meet or exceed your goal/dreams and you’ll know you’re on the right path because it’ll never feel like you’re doing work and you’ll always want to do it instead of distracting yourself from it.

Have a great weekend, happy writing.

The Super-Protagonist

I meant to write this post weeks earlier, when I first saw The Hunger Games. While this is not a movie review, I have two points to make, the second being the topic I want to discuss today.

I. Shaky cam does not equal action or intensity. Now maybe this is a sign that I’m getting older, or proof that I spent too many afternoons too close to speakers cranked up too high and it screwed with my inner ear, but movies lately make me dizzy. When did people take every opportunity to jiggle, wobble and rattle the camera around during even the most benign scenes to give the audience a sense of “hey something’s going on and you should pay attention!”  The problem is, when the camera’s having a seizure, it’s hard to pay attention.

Maybe it’s those damn kids, and their attention spans being smashed down to fractions of a second, maybe it’s because we all secretly enjoy a good jostle now and then, I have no idea….but I look at a lot of older action films (even stuff from 5 years ago) and the camera doesn’t look like it’s being held by a monkey going through meth withdrawal.

It’s hard to convey intensity and “grr” when the camera bobs drunkenly along. If the action is supposed to rivet our eyes, why not lock in on it? If we’re to invest in the anguish of a character, why not get us in a tight close-up?

And while that aggravates me, it’s not why I started writing this post.

II. The Super-Protagonist is not as compelling as you think. What’s a Super-Protagonist? That’s a protagonist that isn’t challenged by the situation they’re in, but they say they are, and you sort of have to take their word for it.

Wait, John, are you saying Katniss Everdeen isn’t challenged by the situation she’s in? In the book, she totally says she is. And in the movie, it totally looks like she is. 

If I say I have trouble opening a soda, but you see me drinking a soda, how much trouble did I really experience? You took my word for it. I told you rather than showed you that I had a problem.

Yes, it’s the old show-versus-tell problem again, this time in a new minty flavor. Let’s break this down.

What defines a Super-Protagonist?
Main characters are supposed to experience trouble and difficulty along their path through the plot. It’s supposed to be a challenge to them, to inspire/force/require them to change states from however they were at the beginning of the story to however they’re meant to be at the end. A Super-Protagonist coasts through the challenge, sure they get a scrape or a bruise here or there to prove their humanity or mortality or their toughness, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s a scrape versus being beaten and bedraggled and really limping toward the finish line.

And that’s Katniss?

But does that mean you expect or want all characters to just barely scrape by?
No. I don’t want all characters to just barely scrape by. I’m not asking for the global difficulty level of books to get jacked up to ‘Hardcore’ or ‘Insane’ mode, I’m just asking that the challenges be modulated for the character. Big, strong, smart, capable character? Then break out the big, powerful, brilliant, creative problems.

But…Katniss is a YA heroine and a model for girls, etc etc? Is this a sexist thing?
This has NOTHING to do with the gender of the character or the range of the readability of the book or the genre or anything like that. This has to do with the core ends of storytelling, and the ability of an author to imperil their characters appropriately, whoever they might be.

So the idea that Katniss has to leave her home, kill others and survive isn’t dangerous?
Um, no. It’s not.

Well you see, Katniss is a hunter (or as I identified her, a 1st-level Ranger). So outdoor survival isn’t a new skill for her. And it’s not that she’s set up to be a killer, she’s far more interested in self-preservation than in an active killing spree (besides, that’s for the badguys to do to prove that they’re bad, because, like, murder is totes bad), so she’s not really out of her element.

But she sacrifices herself to save her sister….
It’s only sacrifice if she dies. Else she risks herself, and as I just said, sticking her in the woods, where she’s far more comfortable than when she’s ever anywhere else (this is really clubbed over our head in the movie), that’s not a risk. It’s sort of like asking me to risk myself by going and sitting in my house with a stack of books, my Xbox and an internet connection.

But it’s noble…..
No it’s not. She’s a great character, she’s driven, talented, capable and powerful, but we can’t see the full breadth of her potential because she’s not out of her natural element. She’s not challenged by the environment or the situation once the Game starts…her challenge came before she reached the woods, when she was back in the City and had to deal with the Game set up. But the book wasn’t about Katniss-in-the-City, this was about Katniss-being-Katniss, doing-Katniss-things-that-just-happen-to-be-the-things-she’s-good-at-already. Ho hum.

So how is she Super, exactly?
Okay I’ll spell it out:

i. Her “struggle” occurs in her native environment.
ii. It’s repeatedly made clear that she’ll have access to her preferred weapon/tool.
iii. It’s repeatedly said by other characters that she has a good/great/the best chance of surviving.
iv. Her knowledge (something unknown to other people, but something she acquired being herself) of berries sets up the conclusion. This wasn’t knowledge she learned during THIS struggle, this was knowledge she came in with.
v. Even when she is out of her element, she’s put into situations where she is clearly superior to others (she gets the Penthouse, she receives the most oohs and ahhs from the audience while interviewed, she makes the most striking impression).
vi. She says rather emphatically “she’s not scared”, when fear would be a natural reaction to oh-now-I-have-to-kill-23-teenagers-on-tv-and-not-die-trying.

But how is that a bad thing? I liked the series!
It’s not a “bad” thing. The book/thought/movie police aren’t going to come to your house and take away your ability to enjoy the experience, I’m just saying that writers need to be careful not to let themselves get drunk on the brew of their own protagonists.

Are you talking about character balance?
Partially, yes. But it goes deeper than that. This isn’t just about making sure there’s a flaw to counteract every positive you grant the character.

It’s okay, I’ve given my super-smart, strong, attractive lead character a horrific mental disorder and/or drug addiction! Problem solved, right?
No….that’s sort of exactly the problem.

Imagine a scale from -10 to +10. The character starts at 0, the center, and when you list the positive abilities or attributes, you move the character positively up the scale.

0 ———> +4 
(for example)

And every time you give your character a flaw or a drawback or a hindrance or penalize them in some way, you slide that character back negatively so the overall effect is a dramatically lower state –

-8 <——— +4 
(still with me?)

Which has the added complication of meaning you have to overcome that negative state when the story climaxes to prove the character positive overall

-8 ———> + X 
(because you want your character to succeed and end on an up-note)

Now the tendency here is say, ‘Oh but my character is so awesome, she’s no longer believable, so I’ll offset these mega bonuses with a super huge negative!’ So that your sporty, independent, intelligent, outspoken, attractive female star now has cooties, agoraphobia and….really bad cramps or something.

Look: You don’t have to swing the pendulum that far back to offset the positives. You don’t need to -7 the character just to make us like them. We’ll like the character for the SUM of the positives and negatives, but that means you have to show us both sides and trust us to make our own decisions.

Wait, what do I have to do?
You (the author) have to trust us (the readers) to make up our own minds about your character(s) after you present us the character(s).

But what if I want to hold something back from the reader for later?
If that “something” is skill or knowledge or something, be careful, it may come across as convenient (i.e. Your character knows just the right fact about a shoe print). If that “something is backstory, be careful, because it may change the way some readers respond to the character. (i.e. We finally learn the reason Character Bro is a douchebag, and it’s different than our opinions, therefore we will make hyperbolic statements on the interwebs and rage at you!!)

I’m not saying that every story needs to spell out EVERY facet of a character for the reader. You, author, can pick and choose what you want to say and how you want to say it, but I’m cautioning you that the idea of “sum to date” (what the reader knows at whatever their relative “present” moment is) is how they judge the character – and it can be unfair to ask them to wait for stories down the road to hold off on passing judgement, especially if you spend a lot of the story cementing an idea that this character is pretty much an unstoppable force in your created universe.

But, I want the readers to love this character!
Yes, we all want that. We all want readers to love our characters, but we’ll love them all the more when we see them pushed to their limits, overcome obstacles we didn’t know they could and take on bigger odds to make themselves more heroic.

If you play it safe with your character, you’re doing us a disservice as readers (we won’t get to know the character fully) and you’re doing a disservice to yourself (you’re not testing yourself as best you can as a writer). If you think your character is so original and so “out of the box”, ask yourself how big the box is. And how much of that box does the reader know about at any given time.

But I’m scared. What if I suck? Or fail or get it wrong?
That’s sort of what makes writing hard, but worthwhile. If you do it everyday, if you commit to it, you’ll get better at it. That’s about the best I can tell you without getting all ranty or raining on your parade.

What can I learn from Katniss as a character?
Well, a lot, if you like physically strong and capable female protagonists with a skillset and mindset to overcome obstacles. Slightly less if you want to use her for an intelligence study (there are characters in other books admittedly older, more experienced and smarter), and slightly less than that if you want to use her for an emotional study (there are characters who experience and demonstrate a wider swath of emotions more intensely and more visibly and more acutely). But you’ll get far more if you learn the pitfalls.

I. Risk includes taking the character out of their comfort zone. Like all the way out. Nero Wolfe left the brownstone (under protest, but he did); Sherlock Holmes (especially in the modern version) struggled more with people than casework; Captain America was a paragon in the 1940s, but lost in a sea of individualism in the modern era.

II. Your character does not need to be nearly flawless to be liked. Katniss has “a voice birds go silent to hear” and “a beauty enhanced by what’s inside”. Those are pretty high watermarks for a character. You don’t need to be the best ever just to be liked (it comes off desperate and fearful on the part of the author when you’ve made characters that are too perfect).

III. Your character does not need to be mega-super-flawed to be realistic. You don’t need to take that super skilled character and give them crippling Asperger’s. Nor do you need to make them the angstiest-girl-in-high-school-like-OMG-why-won’t-Edward-like-notice-me. Remember the number line, you don’t need the character to ‘zero’ out. You need the character just end up positive if you want a positive ending, or negative if you want a negative ending.

IV. When in doubt, SHOW us the situation and SHOW us the character’s responses and reactions, rather than tell us what they’re thinking. Let the reader draw their own conclusions (which you can’t control anyway), and stop dictating to us what ‘we’re supposed to think/feel’ even if you’re worried about us ‘getting it right’. Paint for us the picture, and we’ll ‘get it’, but yes, that means you (author) have to do some work and demonstrate your skill and your craft. Sorry, them’s the tradeoff.

Anything else?
Yeah, when you make the movie version of your book, stop shaking the damned camera.

Writing/Gaming – New Faces, Same World

Good morning everyone.

Today’s suggested blog topic comes from Jeremy Morgan, and for his suggestion, he gets my endless thanks, since he suggested the following topic:

 Inventing an interesting character in an existing setting. Writers working with canon and players doing backstory

Now before I get started on this, I need to disclaim something, just for the sake of balance and fairness.

I am not a fan of fan-fiction. I find it sort of like writing with training wheels on, because the person who wants to be a writer is playing around with other people’s established pieces, moving them in different ways that may entirely be contrary to how the writer wanted things to play out. When this happens (I’m looking at you, shippers), you’re basically lamenting that things didn’t work out the way you wanted, so you’re going to make it happen your way.

Here’s the fundamental issue with that – you’re not the original author. And that means a lot of things. You may lack the author’s particular talent for stringing words together, you may lack knowledge the author has held back, you may even lack the necessary skill to write effectively and evocatively. But, you say, I make up for it by finally making sure that protagonist gets a kiss from the female sidekick. 

There’s something to be said for having that tension and not paying it off. Tension aside, if you’re taking characters and exploring space just as an exercise to write sexual words and images (I had no idea that so many characters from my beloved TV shows were into intense BDSM, by the way), then go masturbate or have some sex or something – you don’t need to express YOUR urges through someone else’s characters. 

As for creating backstory, again, I point to the very large truth that “Those aren’t your characters” and “Sometimes, you’re better off not knowing.” Yes I get it, you feel this insatiable drive to know what happened during The Great Hiatus, or in the years before the Battle of Yavin, or just after the Verse finds out about Reavers….but that’s not your sandbox. You have literally your choice of any other sandbox of your own design, you don’t need to play it so safe by rocking out with that other guy’s shovel and bucket. 

Okay, maybe yes, you can tell a better story than the prequels. But that’s for another day. I’ve said my thing, let’s talk how this gets done.

Gamers, you’re going first.

Tables Are Freedom

Look, I don’t know if you know this, but for the most part, we’re not all gathered around your game table with your group whenever it is you play. You don’t have to justify, rationalize or explain why you’ve elected to hack the Care Bears into Pathfinder or why you’ve bodged Operation Dumbo Drop with Risk Legacy and Settlers of Cattan.You did that, some of us won’t get it, but you did it for your group for your reasons. Awesome. If people have a good time, more power to you.

To hack a game, you have to declare the constants, and give yourself a framework of what you’re going to operate within. Maybe you’ll take the time period from this game, the character creation system of that game and add the…..combat system from that third game. The beauty of this is that so long as you don’t get the lofty idea that you can sell this idea and don’t want to contend with the legal headaches, you’re free and clear to do so.

There’s just something about games that lends them to deconstruction for the sake of enjoyment. I think that’s a conceit that writing doesn’t have.

Now writers, let’s get more critical.

The 4-Hack

Writers, here’s my quick and dirty hacking trick. There are four main things you can change in a story:
* Characters
* Location
* Plot
* Time

Characters’ traits can be changed. Where the story takes place can be changed. How the story proceeds can be changed. When the story occurs can be changed.

Here’s the trick – if you change 1, the other 3 remain the same. If you change 2, the other 2 not only remain the same, but become reinforced. Don’t change more than 2 if you want to consider keeping to whatever source material you have.

Let’s look at some examples:

Hound of the Baskervilles (it’s on my shelf)
Characters — Holmes and Watson
Location — The Moors
Plot — There’s a ghost dog and dead bodies
Time — The Victorian Era

If we change the time and plot, we get the BBC’s Sherlock. If we change the Location and the Time, it’s practically indistinguishable from any other mystery pastiche.

Characters – Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Location – Danish Castle
Plot – Hamlet’s dad is dead, his mother’s a tart and he’s a sad panda
Time – Ye Olde Times

Most often the Time gets changed, usually to something more modern. Occasionally this also means the location changes, often to a city like Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles or New York.

Now Jeremy’s question though asks not about using existing characters, but creating his own within someone else’s canon.

Character creation in fiction, Jeremy, happens the same way whether we’re dropping that character into a world of our own design, or a world you snagged from someone else, but there are red flags.

1. If your character is better defined than the native characters, you’re going to encounter dissonance and static from within the world, and the character is going to feel out of place and limited. — Imagine Han Solo in….GI Joe. Or Indiana Jones in….the Teletubbies. Yes, I’m using extremist examples, but I’m hoping that it makes the point clear — if one character is more/better defined than those around them, the others either feel flat or the defined character feels ostracized, put off and out of place (if you’re going for a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other vibe, then this might be the best road to take)

2. If you character’s motivations exists outside the scope of the world’s offerings, that character is going to feel out of place. Remember the Transformers cartoon, how they all wanted Energon cubes, and everybody knew it? Remember the Transformers movie where they…didn’t want that, but suddenly everyone was just cool with sentient vehicle-aliens (who happen to look like Earth vehicles, which no one questioned)? For a character to pursue something that a world might not offer, you get a fish out of water (see….the most recent Thor or Captain America). The challenge there is to reconcile that desire and modify the character accordingly.

3. If the character is too insular, or too internally motivated, there’s not as much room for growth as you think. Let’s imagine you’re making a miser…….Scrooge, for instance. If you look at Scrooge, and you identify the flaw “greed”, then his only logical arc (the only way to grow the character) is along that ‘greed’ track. It would make very little sense for Scrooge to suddenly develop a need for thrills or crime-solving while he was being altruistic. Wrapping a character too tightly around one idea means that before you can introduce other concepts, you have to get loose from that first tether.

With canon as a timeline, you’re hemming yourself into a chronology. If I want to tell a story about what occurs between Temple of Doom and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I am held to operating within those years.

And, on a side note, operating within that world and that time as well. It’s the mid-1930s, Indy isn’t about to Google up the info on some lost city, nor is he going to make dinner reservations via Open Table….

The Rules

Rule 1 – Understand that accepting a chronology may also mean you accept a location and all the mechanics/knowledge of that era (see above)
Rule 2- Understand that accepting a chronology and canon gives you fixed points (don’t get all snippy with me Doctor Who fans, you know what I’m trying to say here), between which you operate. – So that story of what happens to Greg Smith, Harry Potter’s unmentioned friend, can’t too radically intersect with the events of Goblet of Fire…because Greg Smith isn’t in Goblet of Fire.
Rule 3 – Understand that because of those fixed points, it is unrealistic and impractical to make radical changes to existing characters – let’s say you want to give Luke Skywalker more lightsabers before Empire Strikes Back: Is he going to just lose them when the movie starts, or worse, forget that he even had them?

So Jeremy, your short answer is – it depends on how closely you want to hold onto canon and how much respect you want to pay it. If it’s just a template, something to put a flavor in your mouth so you can create something new, that’s okay, but at that point, you might as well develop your own thing entirely. If you hoist it up on the pedestal, then treat it with care, because someone worked really hard on it (unless you’re going to redo the Star Wars prequels, at which point, go nuts) and they deserve some kudos.

Hope that helps.

Happy writing.

Forward Vs Lateral Movement

No, not football.

What I’m talking about today has both a writing/gaming component and a writing-lifestyle component. I’m not really sure where to start, so let’s start with the broadest and work our way down. 
How’s Your Life?
Lately, I’ve been doing two things differently — I’m eating decadently (on a budget!) and paying for it afterward. I guess it’s because I’m in my thirties now, so this shouldn’t be a scientific breakthrough or great revelation for anyone, but I can’t eat the same things or the same way I used to, say, ten years ago. 
I can eat pretty much anything I want, barring allergies, but not that doesn’t mean, I’m discovering, that I should.  Big heavy meals weigh me down and put me in a fog. Meals that scream “Yeah I’m healthy, look how cruciferous I am!” often taste like lint and leave me ready to gnaw off someone’s arm. I will even admit to getting way too freaked out that what I’m eating (which is seldom fried, seldom battered and seldom wrapped in other foodstuffs) is going to immediately kill me (thanks scare tactics of diets and nutrition, way to make me feel powerless). 
After one weekend where I ate far too much, I started taking stock of my food-life. Sure I’m getting the 8 glasses of water a day (sometimes more), and sure I’m avoiding too much junk food (because there just isn’t any in the house), but I look over my life and see that I’m not in the best health. Forget the shape, forget muscles, I just want to be healthier. 
To that end, I’m making better food choices, eating regular portions, eating regularly and doing my best to stay hydrated. It’s not a thorough diet plan, it’s not a complete panic-inducing revamp of the food I eat. This is forward progress, I’m moving towards my goal.
Lateral progress was all that time I spent thinking about getting to the goal, but not taking any steps to get there – reading reviews, putting off going to the bookstore, listening to podcasts talk about the book, etc. 
This same question of lateral-vs-forward comes up every time I look at other things in my life.
My book — GOAL: Finishing it
Forward Progress – Writing new pages
Lateral Progress – Buying/reading books about how to write those pages, watching movies and tv shows that demonstrate how scenes look, talking about writing pages.
The state of my office — GOAL: Cleaning it
Forward Progress – Cleaning the desk off, filing papers away, throwing out/shredding what I don’t need
Lateral Progress – Buying organizational racks, shelves and items to sort out things (while still leaving so many piles), thinking/feeling that I’ll never make any headway

My income — GOAL: Having more of it
Forward Progress – Being visible and helpful to others, finding clients, doing work, sending invoices
Lateral Progress – Bitching about how after I pay my bills I don’t have much money left, scrounging up change out of laundry, swearing to never again buy stuff all week (see above)
See what I’m getting at? 
Sometimes, the lateral progress looks like forward progress, and for whatever reason, I guess because it’s not difficult or changing the state of anything, it feels like I’m making progress to my goal. 
Forward progress isn’t always fun. Forward progress on eating better means I have to amend my grocery lists, exercise some willpower and spend time actually cooking better things rather than settling. It takes work, but the goal is worth it, isn’t it? So why not do it? That’s the lesson I’m learning now. 
Forward and Lateral Around The Table And At The Desk
We revisit this idea of forward and lateral progress when we sit down to play a game. Board and card games aside, let’s look at role-playing experiences. 
The Forward element is the plot of the campaign. Whether that’s killing the dragon, solving the murder mystery, reaching level 10 or defeating the conspiracy against you, Forward comes in when the player(s) do things that bring them closer to resolving that goal. 
The Lateral element is a little trickier, since sometimes people will argue that the lateral movements are just as important as the Forward ones. For example, my brother and I spent WEEKS playing Final Fantasy X when it came out, maxing our characters’ stats, acquiring all the items and weapons and basically lording over everything on the digital landscape. We didn’t advance the plot too far while this was happening, because we were too busy in making it easier for that to happen.
You see, we had this idea in our heads that if we did all these side quests and branches off the main plot tree, the main plot would be easier. And while that’s true (the items we got as rewards totally made the endgame simpler), it speaks to the underlying issue – we thought the endgame would be hard, and that we were too unprepared. 
As GMs we can offer players a lot of paths to follow, no matter the game system. We can give the paladin a sidequest to get a horse, we can tell the secret agents to spend some time protecting their family members from attack. Sometimes, the players jump at these actions because it’s a break from the main story, or because it offers them a chance to be at the center of attention for a little while, but other times they take based on how it’s sold to them.
If a side quest is sold with the same intensity as the main quest, you can’t expect them to be able to make the distinction that one is superior to the other, and by extension, that they should or shouldn’t throw their full weight of focus towards that new (and perceived important) goal. 
A lot of this has to do with how the hook is baited, and if the players are invested in their characters. A lot of this also has to do with the reward offered. Too great a reward, or if the reward is thought to be bigger, more immediate or more useful than the reward of the main plot, naturally the players are going to jump at it. How could they not?
Some games mechanize around this possibility by creating conditions that lead the hero(es) into side quests so that they gain material or knowledge they must apply to the main quest — Link can’t fight Ganon until he has all the pieces of the TriForce nor can Mario reach Bowser without first traversing the level(s) of the castle. 
Writers I didn’t forget about you – many genres (detective in particular) hinge on the idea that the bigger case is related to the smaller case or its solution. Likewise, we can bog down protagonists with side quests that develop emotions or responsibilities or new character arcs outside of the change represented by the main plot. 
So What Can We Do?
Writers, it’s time to face the possibility that you’re going to finish your book. And that this book isn’t going to be perfect, but it will be complete – with a plot and character development and all the trappings therein. Forget the idea that you have to X number of plots and subplots, that you have to have exactly this number of scenes that develop specifically this or that idea and that flashbacks all have to be a certain and specific length. Accept that you’re going to finish the story, and it’s going be a good thing, and it will get edited and become a better thing.

Gamers, take a good look at your players. (Designers, you take a look at your audience) There is a very good chance that they’re not going to take the bait on many of the hooks you throw at them. The problem is that you don’t know which hooks they’ll take and which they won’t, so you just have to keep putting them all out there. Sometimes they’ll move laterally, sometimes they’ll go forward. What you can do is offer them the best path forward (the most compelling, interesting, superlative story) and the most evocative path laterally (so that when they step off the plot, they’re immersed in the flavor and the world(s) you’ve built).

Remember – this isn’t a one-or-the-other, all-or-nothing prospect. You can do very well for yourself making steps forward while laying out side routes along the way. It’s also not required that you sprint towards the finish line. We all want that end goal, we all want our work to be published, there’s no reward for finishing ahead of other people, because the market(s) we’re going into are wide enough to support all of us. Don’t fall for that scarcity-trap. We can all “win” at this.

Happy writing

An Open Letter to Younger Me

The idea for this post came from reading this. And while that is humorous, what I’m doing here also verges into serious-land.

Dear Younger Me,

If you’re reading this, then someone finally got around to perfecting time travel or I was lucky enough to encounter Doctor Who, which is likely way more awesome than you can even imagine. But that’s not why I’m writing. This is designed to throw some ice water on a few of the fires you’ve got burning, because quite frankly, dude, you need some perspective.

Your 34 year old self is writing this to you, my 17 year old self, because where you’re about to go and what you’re about to do I’ve been doing now for as long as you’ve been around, and since we both know that you’re not going to listen to any of the “authority figures” you’ve got around you, let’s hope you’ll listen to yourself.

You’ve got a great thing going, and no, you don’t realize, and no you don’t agree with that idea, but let’s work through it a little.

1. You’re way angry. You call it sadness, you call it loneliness, and those are components to it, but realistically, you’re angry, and you get really defensive and really worked up about things and you feel out of control, so to get back in control, you get angry at anything that moves. That’s going to totally bite you in the ass several times in our twenties, but let’s stop and look at why you’re angry.

If I remember right, and I like to think I do, our big complaint was that “No one was listening.” And yes, it’s true no one listened. Of course, the flip side of that was that we weren’t saying anything. The people around you aren’t mind readers. Sitting and fuming, or sitting and staring off into space or sitting and wishing for things to be different are SILENT activities to the outside world. Nobody hears the arguments, discussions, volleys of thoughts in our head. Also, you’re not saying them. (We’ll get to that in the next one.)

If you want to feel better, the trick is to talk to people about it. If you want to work out the problems and ideas and explore the brainspace (seriously, you’re going to start using that term in your 20s, and it’s going to be so dumb), you need to bounce ideas off people. Yeah I know, they not the same as you, they’re not thinking the same way you do, and you feel incredibly isolated. I hate to tell you this – but we still feel that way in our 30s. Although a lot of the arrogance and superiority is gone. (We’ll talk about that too).

Anger isn’t going to bring people in. And the anger abates when you talk to people.

2. Silence is not “okay”. Alright, this is going to be probably the worst part of this letter. Some REALLY REALLY bad shit is going to start happening to you in the next decade. And while death is not one of them, oh man, prepare for a rollercoaster ride at the No Fun, Super Sadness Amusement Park. Now mixed into this big vat of awful are some really great things (and great people), BUT staying quiet about a lot of things (especially how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking) makes the rollercoaster ride CONTINUE, NOT STOP.

You want off the ride? Start talking. Start sharing. Start doing shit. You’re going to run into a lot of people later who are going to basically make this all about feelings and emotions and ooey-gooey stuff. Dude, really, the “trick” that you’re going to want to employ here is this:


3. Protecting Yourself. Post-bad shit, you’re going to develop the idea that protecting yourself is a great idea. It is. But, you’re going to elect to protect yourself via posture and facade, which is sort of like saying that you can totally hide from a volley of arrows behind a shield made of Saran Wrap. Dude, I’m sorry bad things happened to us. I’m sorry we’re scarred and broken and hurt and tired and not like the people around us who we want to be like (newsflash: what you end up doing in your 30s blows them all out of the water – seriously)

Now this posture and facade are going to cater to our intelligence and vanity. Which is great for deflecting the annoying people who sort of flit in and out of our life in our early twenties, but it sucks when we don’t build an “off switch” for that until our mid 30s. By the way, a lot of people are going to want to be that off switch for us. Two words – Flute section, is all I’m saying. Trust me on this, everything falls totally into place, after all the other shit dies down.

So you elect to become smug and superior and a little prissy. This is going to bring a lot of people around you, and separate you from a lot of others. Some of those people aren’t good for you, some are (also: remember the Tattoo Rule when you learn it, it’s a lifesaver). And some of those people (even the good ones) you’re going to treat like shit, because, well, we’re kind of an idiot that way. But, don’t worry (flute section AND frankly yes, that thought you nurse in the back of your head that when “it’s right, you just know” is TOTALLY 100% true), you’re going to work with and meet some amazing people who aren’t dicks and they’re going completely revolutionize your life and how you work. Let them. (Dude, we’re going to Gen Con, really. Let these people in.)

4. Have a backbone. See, this weird thing is going to happen. You’re going to get all down on yourself, and that’s going to invite in people you don’t want around you. And because they pay attention to you, or end up naked near you, you’re going to keep them around. Eventually, either you or they are going to burn that bridge. They of course are going to be upset. Let them be upset. Those are their feelings. They own them, they have to sort them out, it’s not for you “fix”. (Here’s a new rule for our 30s – We get to choose the bridges we repair). What would have stopped a lot of the above-discussed bad shit was having a backbone. But, we weren’t ready for one until about 2 months or so from before I write this letter. Had to grow into it. Also, when it’s right, it’s right.

You’re going to feel like doormat for a lot of people and positions and opportunities. You’re going to let some really great ones slip past and you’re going to go through some really crappy ones linger for years or months because you’ll end up trying to do what they want, not what you want. DO WHAT YOU WANT. AND TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU WANT. YOU’LL BE GOOD ENOUGH TO GET IT WHEN YOU ASK FOR IT.

That backbone is going to put you on a lot of good radars and get you a lot more “living the dream” moments than you can fathom. You will do phenomenal things, when you’re done being a dick.

5. Trust. Okay, so bad things happen. You’re going to miss out on a lot of “traditional” benchmarks of success, but I swear to you, once you’re nearing birthday 34, you will realize that all that shit won’t matter. Oh, for the record, you’re going to realize that when you wake up in someone else’s bed, (which is WAY more comfortable than yours) and when they make you breakfast. That person? Trust them. It pays off.

But there are going to be heaps of people you aren’t going to trust.

Here’s the litmus test: “Does this person gain anything from my doing this?”

Don’t listen to the people saying they don’t…of course the jerks of the world aren’t going to admit when they’re using you, taking advantage of you or in the case of one person, mapping out your existence while running you slowly into debt and then complaining why you aren’t successful and supporting them. (Again, Tattoo Rule!)

When you find people that you trust, and believe me, there are going to be plenty of them, everything’s going to be awesome. You’ll work with them, hang out with them, be yourself with them, enjoy their company, and be a better person around them. Those people, those wonderful amazing people and their awesome experiences they offer you and the things you do for and with them….that’s the reward for making it through the shitty 20s and shitty early 30s.

Don’t get me wrong, there are bright spots between where you are and where I am, there are fantastic people and things going on, and you’re going to know moments of true happiness….but you’re also going screw some of that up, or lots of other factors are going to collide and those moments and people will leave. It happens.

It’s not about where you find yourself, it’s what you do once you’re there. Depending on when you read this, you’ll have heard this at one of those boring dinner parties you were dragged to, when you had to wear a suit (Oh, we grow up to work in a bathrobe.). It’s true. It comes to define much our mid-30s.

You’re about to spend the next 17 years of your life feeling like you’ve got no handle on things, like you can’t do this, like everything’s a waste. I’m writing this to you today to tell you it so totally isn’t. Life now is the best it’s ever been, and that does NOT mean it’s tenuous and about to fall apart. It’s because you work your ass off (though not literally, you should probably consider walking more) and a better life is your reward.

Four rules: 1. Don’t be a dick. 2. You will work hard to get what you want. 3. You deserve it. 4. Speak up.

If there’s a fifth, then it’s this – Your path is your path, and while lots of people will influence it and try to change it, you still have to walk it.

Okay 17 year old me, it’s April, that means later today you’re probably going to go play street hockey after school. And while you will tell yourself that life won’t get any better, it does.


PS Girls will finally talk to you.
PPS We still don’t like peas.
PPPS Puppies and babies are still AWESOME.

What Not To Say To An Editor, Part 2

Last week, I wrote Part 1 of this series. This is Part 2.

For the people just coming on board now, I’m an editor. (It’s not my only job, but it’s a good one) And what I’m detailing here are things you shouldn’t say, write or mention in your correspondence with me (or other editors, but I’m speaking mostly from personal experience). The following statements are BIG HUGE RED FLAGS that will often lead you to rejection, suspicion of being creepy, uncomfortable work situations and becoming an example of what not to do.

Take note, good readers.

I’m not sure you’re worth it.” This has only been said to me four times, and each time was a new experience in uncomfortable and bad times. If you (prospective client) and I are talking, and you heave a sigh (which is totally visible when you type, if you’re curious) and then drop that bomb on me, I used to freak out and then spend inordinate amounts of time justifying why we should be working together.

When I was struggling for work and was way too busy helping other people without actually succeeding, I was always working uphill for paychecks, wondering when I’d be able to have some money in my pocket. And that absence of cash (which admittedly is a good thing to have on hand, say when you want to go out on a date or buy a burrito or purchase a video game), really turned me into a doubt factory. I doubted whether or not I was good enough to do this job, if I should get a “real” job, if I should just give all my time and energy to this relationship so that someone will love me, etc etc. Basically, being poor and thinking that having money equaled success (newsflash: it doesn’t, sorry Gordon Gekko) made me think I wasn’t worth much of anything — so I’d always have to prove that I was good “enough” to a person / place / relationship / job / client / ice cream sundae so that I didn’t have to walk away in shame and hide myself in a cave or something.

The point is — that’s a shitty attitude to have. And if you or I spend our time forever justifying whether or not we’re worth it to other people, we’re not going to have the time or the energy to actually do the things we wanted to do in the first place. (Side note – sometimes those people you’re trying to be good enough for just aren’t worth it. For realsies.)

So, if you say “I’m not sure you’re worth it.” what you’re really saying is “I’m not sure I’m/the work/your potential to change my work is worth the commitment to improving, since I’m really scared about doing this because it might succeed or it might fail and discovering that really makes me uncomfortable since it is not what I am used to.”

You’re worth it.
Your work is worth it.

I’ve been editing on my own for years, what good is your help?” I’ve been doing a lot of things myself for years. I built the desk I’m writing this on. I just ate some food I made the other night. But you know what’s nice? Not having to do that. Letting someone else take care of a task for you is nice, and gives you more time to other things (like bathe and knit and golf). Also, if you come look at this desk I’m writing on, it’s not a bad desk, but doesn’t even come close to the super-desk in the other part of the office that dates back from Ellis Island and the 1880s. That thing weighs in the hundreds of pounds and was built with more skill than I thought a man could have. I trust that construction and that work far more than I trust my own, and likewise, you should trust people do the job they’re good at. Anyone can screw together an IKEA desk and it’ll be serviceable, but for really awesome work, go to a professional.

If you edit my work, it won’t be the same. I’ll lose the voice/tone/feel/structure/vibe/sound I want.” Let me just clear up a misconception about editing. What I do is make YOUR work clearer and stronger. Editing is not me coming into your work and changing it the way I want it, editing is refining your work so that it can be enjoyed by others the way you intended.

What happens when you hand me work is that you and I talk. And we figure out what you’re trying to do in the story or the chapter or across several pieces of story or whatever, but basically we map out what’s going on, and how you want it to be seen/experienced by the audience. Then I go back to my lair and educe that desired experience from the text. Yes, that means I might chop up sentences, delete whole paragraphs and suggest that entire characters get the boot. So, you’re right, it won’t be the same. Things will have changed, but that’s on purpose – the changes are there to help you get your point across, get your ideas out there and get that voice/tone/feel/etc etc broadcast.

Can I pay you a little up front and then more when I sign my book deal?” Now if this were fifteen years ago, and book deals still had large sums of cash attached, I’d say yes. But, in today’s industry, and with traditional book publishing not being the cashcow it used to be, my answer is NO.You can pay me over time if you absolutely have to, or you can pay me when the job’s done like everyone else. I don’t want to wait for your ship to come in weeks/months/years from now and you just happen to get around and write me a check. Pay your editors, support us, and help us help you.

[INSERT TITLE OF BOOK OR NAME OF WEBSITE HERE] says that I should get an agent and then let them handle the editing, so I like, don’t need you.” Ahh, the agent quandary. Here’s where things get a little murky. Not because I don’t know an answer to this, but because there are several answers and people don’t always like them. Here we go:

a) Not every book needs an agent, it depends on what the author wants to do with it (if you’re self-publishing and only need like 40 copies for example, then no, you don’t need an agent).
b) Not every agent is (gasp!) a good editor (likewise not every editor is a good agent).
c)Not every book and/or website is going to be useful for you. (Be discriminating. Educate yourself with a variety of sources then make your decisions.)

There’s also a fourth element here: That in order for an agent to pick up your manuscript, it should be in the best shape of its life. That means free of glaring errors, formatted correctly, and engaging with the best story and characters possible. Getting an editor to help you make that happen goes a long way to securing the agent and all those other steps down the line.

My work is perfect, and I don’t ever need an editor. I don’t change a thing, and I just send it straight to Amazon. You can buy my things here, here and here – (and the rest of the email is basically a sales letter).” I’m very happy for you. Honestly, I’m glad you’ve distilled down the formerly scary publishing process to a few mouse clicks after you spend a few afternoons writing.

(I should point out that the above quote came paraphrased from an email that also included a sentence “I don’t know what’s so hard about being prolific, I already have several books published in under XYZ years.” – and yes I got permission to tell you this.)

Publishing your work shouldn’t be so scary that you’re discouraged from doing it, but it shouldn’t also be so simple that there’s no talent or craft required to do it. And if you do as much reading/trawling/searching through Amazon as I do, you may encounter a lot of self-published authors with a dearth of books….and a matching stack of 1-star reviews, that often include comments about poor story structure, weak writing, bad grammar and being a general waste of money. Hiring an editor can prevent a great deal of this before it happens, the caveat being that in order to avoid ignominy as the one-star-Amazon-author, you have to exercise your brain and talent muscles to produce work and get it edited so that it’s in a better than first-draft-shape.

And for the record, no one’s work is ever 100% perfect on the first draft. It’s just not. Expect it to grow, change and evolve as your tastes, skills and other factors (like a reader or time) influence it.

I hope you’ve found this helpful.

Happy writing.

When You’re Busy, But Not Succeeding

Who wants to start off this week with a deep thought?

I spent a mighty long time being busy but not succeeding. And by “mighty” I mean “most of my career to date”. And when I say “most”, I mean “Everything before last Thanksgiving”.

How do I know this? How can I say this? Because I’m looking at my bank accounts after paying all the people I need to pay and there’s still money in it. Which, if you have known me in the last three to five years, wasn’t always the case. Money came and went, but it was never steady, and I just accepted this as a condition of the type of job I do – that sort of nomadic existence moving from client oasis to client oasis in a vast desert of it’s-hard-to-make-a-living.

So, being a reasonably smart guy, I saw the connection between money and work. If I had more clients, I’d make more money…so what I need is a lot more clients. I filled up my schedule and took on a lot of clients. This sounds great, right?

The Freelancer’s Dream
It would be, if all the clients required the same type of work, paid the same amount of money (and on time) and all took me the same amount of time to do that work.

Note – the above sentence is often called “The Freelancer’s Dream”.

What I had though was not the Dream. I didn’t have the Nightmare, but I did have a lot of clients and jobs and things that paid erratically, inconsistently and didn’t actually make me feel like I was succeeding. Sure, clients got stuff they wanted (websites, sales copy, etc), and I got a check….but it wasn’t success.

And it wasn’t success for a few reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved the job, so I way cut down my rate. Like ridiculously. Like 40+ hours of work for a single $200 check that I took up front. This, I thought gave the impression that I was easy to work with, but it in fact turned me into a doormat. What I learned: If some people can’t afford me, (and not everyone is going to, and no I can’t go out and help EVERYONE, despite urges to do so), there will be people out there who can afford me, and I shouldn’t lowball myself, ever. ((Still working on that believing in myself part))

2. It wasn’t very challenging work. I got paid to do things I’m good at. I know, that sounds wonderful, and it’s sort of the point of a job, but if you look at the work I’m doing now and compare it to the work I did then, there’s a HUGE change in both the quality of my work and my happiness. What I learned: I do better with a challenge. I’m more satisfied by a challenge, and more satisfied by the reward of saying and knowing that “Wow, I had a hand in making XYZ a great product.”

3. I took the work for the wrong reasons. This revelation didn’t occur to me until a month or two ago, when I was saying yes to more work and more opportunities and really “putting myself out there”. I used to take work because someone suggested I go help that person out, or because I felt guilty because this person knew that person and somehow it reflected poorly on me if I didn’t do the job. What I learned: The best reasons for taking a job is knowing that I can make a difference for someone and that I will enjoy doing it. Yes, there are going to be jobs I like more than others, just as there are companies and people I prefer working with over others, but the best reason for work isn’t wealth accumulation – wealth is a byproduct of happiness and success.

John’s Formula
I’d prefer not making this section grossly metaphysical, mystical or new age-y. I just want to share with you my view on how I judge my wealth and my success and how busyness doesn’t factor in.

Wealth = 
Happiness + Success + 
Future Doors Opening + 
The Best/Right People Around Me

The order doesn’t matter, but for me, I say wealth isn’t just a fat bank account, wealth is the sum total of all I got, all I get to do and all I will get later, combined with people around me who want not to take their slice of the pie or claim credit (because it’s not about percentages or proof, it’s about just having it) who make the experience all the more satisfying because there’s a celebration rather than a finger-pointing hootnanny or a pat-me-on-the-back-too shindig.

Do I have the best people around me? I do now. I didn’t always before. And occasionally I let other people tell me who were and weren’t the right people or what was or wasn’t the right job, even though this is my life, my career and my path to tread.

For those who want me to break down the above formula here you go.

Wealth (Life wealth, not financial) = Being Happy + Being Successful (seeing the fruits of efforts, tangibly, financially and personally) + Having Opportunities to Repeat This Happiness & Success Later (like being brought on to do more work, or one job turning into multiples or meeting great new people with the promise of meeting more great new people) + Having Fun, Intelligent, Practical, Rockstar Princes, Princesses, Hooligans, Geniuses and Lunatics Around Me.

Note – if you think I mean actual insane people, I don’t. I mean the crazy-like-a-fox people.

The End Result
I used to be busy, and wasted SO MUCH time running around from underpaying task to underpaying task to relationship where I wasn’t invested to activity I couldn’t give a shit about.

Now I’m working on what I want, at a pace I dictate, doing the jobs I’ve always wanted to do, and am so very invested in so many parts of my life (that I didn’t even realize were previously there).

I encourage everyone reading this to take time to really sit down and ferret out the reasons they’re working as hard as they are, and if they still feel “stuck”, and look at what they wish they could do, and how they can make time for it. You can do the things you want to do, whatever they are, even if you just start doing them a little at a time.

Make yourself happy, success comes from happy.

Rock on.

What Not To Say To An Editor, Part 1

One of the more popular series of posts on this blog is the What Not To Send An Editor.

What I want to start today is a new series, What Not To Say To An Editor. Previously, we talked about stuff I get in the mail, now let’s talk about the things I hear, get told and read in emails.

Now before some of you cry foul that a guy who has problems with his tone shouldn’t be talking about sounding professional, I’m not chastising you specifically, I’m just pointing out red flags that I see in emails.

Thanks but I’m not interested in having my work edited.” This comes after I get an email asking what I do, and possibly after the email where I say how much what I do will cost. What this tells me is that you don’t want other people to see what you’re creating for any number of reasons (some discussed below), and that possibly you think your work doesn’t need to be edited. Generally, if you think you don’t need an editor, you do, often badly.

I don’t want to give you a copy of my work, you’ll steal it.” No, I won’t. Here’s why – I’ve got my own work to deal with, and don’t really have the time to go around shopping your work as my own. This is particularly true if your work is fraught with errors and problems and things that need fixing — why would I put my name on something that isn’t the best? (And if you think I’m going to spend the time fixing your material, not get paid for it and then turn around and claim it’s mine, you should probably consider how much effort that is without any sort of paycheck.)

I don’t need an editor, I’ve had my friends look this over a few times.” I’m glad you have friends. Are any of those friends trained in writing theory and craft? Do they have experience in helping improve your writing, word by word if you need it? Are they unbiased? It’s great to have your friends read your work, but to help the work develop, you need someone critical and unbiased. Like an editor.

I’ve already given the story out to beta readers, and they’re totally helping.” Okay, I’m going to repeat what I just said about friends and add to it that if you’re giving a reader a story in fragments or a story incomplete, you’re robbing them of the total experience of the story and hurting yourself by not working hard at your craft. This is magnified if you’re letting the reader dictate how the story should proceed or end, since the story is yours, not theirs. If they want to tell a story, they should be writing.

I don’t need you to tell me what I’m doing wrong.” When I hear this sentence, I usually have to walk away for a second, because what immediately follows is the person saying that editing is basically what your high school English teacher did, and she was a real bitch, so you don’t need that again in your life. The problem is that I AM NOT AN (YOUR) ENGLISH TEACHER, and it’s my job to help you write better, and that means we’ll be talking about what you’re not doing well and what you can do better. If this was a gym, would you not want the trainer to tell you you’re lifting the weight incorrectly?

Don’t you just press F7 in Word? I can do that.” Sure, you can do that. I think I could train my dog to do that. But that’s not all editing is. Editing is the process of evolving the story through technique and construction. Editing is part of the story telling process because it helps clarify and strengthen the material on the page. Pressing one key might take care of typos and some (it’s not perfect) generic grammar, but you can do a lot more to help a story stand up and be noticed than just spell all the words correctly.

I edit my own work.” Yes, that’s what every author should do. We should go through our work and look for the parts we need to tweak and look for the big glaring errors that jump out at us. But, we also have blindspots – scenes and ideas that we’re attached to, or feel bias towards, so even if they don’t help the story, we keep them in, because we like the work we’ve done. (I should point out, we like ALL the work we do, but like Animal Farm, some work is cooler than others). The best way to correct the blindspots is to hand the work over to someone else.

I heard from XYZ person that you didn’t edit their stuff, I think that makes you a jerk.” The reason(s) I didn’t take XYZ on as a client are none of your business or your concern (in much the same way you can’t really comment as to how I spent my Wednesday evening – you weren’t involved, you weren’t there.) If my decision not to work with someone leads you to think I’m a jerk, that’s a you-thing. Your mind, your thought, your decision. If that decision you made means you also decide not to work with me, that’s fine too, I understand – there are other editors in the sea.

You’re so expensive.” If you look at the pricing guide put out by the Writer’s Market and then look at my prices, I’m just a little north of the middle of the road given the type of work I do. Why? Because I’ve been doing this half my life. Because I’ve built myself on delivering good results quickly. Because I’m good at this. Because it’s a job and this is how much it costs. Just like when the sink clogs, the washing machine goes kaput or the car starts making that weird sound, you can try and fix it yourself.

(This one time my dad tried to fix the dishwasher when I was growing up. We ended up re-doing the whole kitchen (new appliances AND floor AND cabinets) that year).

Don’t skimp on what’s important to you. If you care about this story, make sure it gets the care and help and support it needs to be the story you meant to tell.

And yes, this will be a series of posts. Stay tuned for part 2 which gets a little more technical.

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Show versus Tell

Time for a classic debate. Time for some good ol’ fashioned barroom brawling over what-to-do-when-and-what’s-better. Time to roll up our sleeves and get really INTO our work.

Today we’re talking Show versus Tell.

I haven’t brought this up on the blog before, but I think it’s time. Now I’m going to come at this first for the book people but then for the game people, because while many of those elements overlap, the game design aspects have a spin on them that changes the nature of the debate. Let’s introduce the sides of the debate…

This is more explicative, and treats the reader as more of a current viewer of the story. Also, this gives the reader the sense that the story is unfolding AS they read it, which helps make them feel like they’re more a part of the story, and they enjoy it more, so they read more, so in theory if you’ve written more, they’ll buy more. This is also a slower approach to developing characters, scenes, settings, and actions.

Were I to show you what I’m doing now, I have the option of treating your eyes like a film camera and zoom you all the way in to show you my fingers striking the keys on my awesome ergonomic keyboard. Or I might show you the room I’m writing in, describing it as the stunt double of a book and game store right now. Or I might start you in from above the scene, and sweep you into the office via the window, past the curtains and in over my shoulder to watch me write this sentence.

Regardless of how I choose to do it, the important thing is that the action and the character and nature of what’s going on is unfurling around you in a relative real-time. I’m showing you that I’m writing this, because…that’s what I’m doing now. I’m showing you the laundry basket of clothes I need to sort together for this weekend, because it’s relevant to the distracting thought I’m having while I write.

Remember Rule #1 – Writing is the act of making decisions. And I, the author, am deciding to give you a view of the action AS it happens, so that you feel like a part of it, so that you can take advantage of all the details I’m providing, so that you have the most complete picture on your mental canvas.

Showing can consume more space, use more details, take more time and tax a writer more (because there’s more work to do) than Telling, but the payoff is greater. Even on a egoic sense, through good use of Showing I can show-off (see what I did there?) my ability to write pretty sentences or describe things really well or demonstrate just how much “in charge” I am while you’re reading.

Telling is more direct, but it does require the assumption that the reader trust the author. The author is giving specific details and specific explanations of details so that the reader knows what went on and what is on-going. It’s a little more clinical, but also more subjective (if the voice doing the telling is biased or unclear or not omnipresent).

If I were going to tell you what I’m doing now, I can start in any fashion I want – If I want to set a tone that I dislike my work or my day or whatever, I can tell you that detail while I tell you what I’m doing. I also don’t have to describe or paint any picture outside the relevant facts to what I want – When I tell you that I’m really sort of worried about X because of Y reason, I don’t need to involve the awesome description of the wind chimes out the window if I don’t want. (Remember, decisions)

Also, telling compresses time. It’s fast-forwarding through actions you may not want to dive into, it’s speeding through the lulls in action. This is particularly true if you go so far as to tell me that time has passed. (Two months went by…)

Telling allows the world to pass by, change, develop and grow outside of the bubble of the story, which we can cut back to when the action/story/drama/stuff resumes.

So What’s All The Fuss About?
People, books, careers and media outlets make a huge fuss over showing and not telling. Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, it’s something a writer should be aware of. Yes it often requires a writer work harder to paint the picture for rather that telling me about the picture they’re seeing.

Telling when you should be showing IS NOT a sign of a “wrong” writer. It’s a mistake, for sure, but it’s not enough to ban you from all forms of communication and shun you to some weird leper colony.

Like so many things, there should be a balance between the two — you shouldn’t be all one-or-the-other, and I’d be a little leery of anyone who advocates so strongly to exclude one side too often.

There are going to be things you tell, and things you show, and it’s important that you figure out which is which in your story.

What Can I Do?
If you’re expecting a checklist here, there isn’t one. I’m sorry. But since we’re all telling stories differently, the checklist is too circumstantial. But what I can tell you to look for are some key elements:

1. How close (or far away) do I want the reader to be in this scene? Do I want them over the shoulder of a particular character? Do I want them floating above the entire scene? Where do I want them focused?
2. What’s important in this scene? Is it one character more than another? Is it the environment around them? Is it some tension that’s conveyed without speaking?
3. What comes AFTER this particular scene? Where are we going from here? Do I have to ratchet up the emotion/action to get things rolling forward? How can I help this scene go into the next one?
4. What do I want the reader to take away from this scene when they’re done? Should they have gained plot-critical information? Should they get some character-developing info? Are they just going to read that same description about the same chair over and over? Is anything new here?

In a later post I’ll likely explore specific examples of each. Right now, authors, tell your stories. Get them all out of your heads, past the scratch notebooks and into some drafts. Just produce material for now. There’s a whole other round of editing and developing that can happen AFTER you get the story out. But that’s later….go tell me the story first.

Authors, happy writing.

Gamers, you’re up.

For you, this debate has all the elements discussed above with the added issue of mechanics.

Because a game has to on some level be instructional, and teach the players what they can do, mechanics have to SHOW you HOW and TELL you WHAT.

Show me (the player) how to adjudicate different situations. Do I roll dice? Which dice? Show me the examples.

Tell me how to handle combat. Is there one mechanic I apply repeatedly? Are there steps? What am I allowed to do? What can’t I do? (And why, don’t forget the why).

There’s still a blend required, still a balance to strike in the economy of show-and-tell, but you can use the mechanics as a lens and a bridge to walk the reader/player through the base of the story so the players can expand it as they see fit — and yes, you do have to let them.

(Note – I really thought it would take me longer to say all that, but I’m satisfied.)

Happy writing.