Choose Your Own Adjective & Adjective Bloat

This post might get a little technical.

In order to understand what I’m about to describe, we’re going to need a sample sentence with, let’s say, three adjective in it.

Let’s use this one:

The loud chainsaw ate through the ancient tree, while shaky homeowners looked on

Let’s grab the adjectives out of it.

loud chainsaw

ancient tree

shaky homeowners 

What’s the first thing you notice? That the adjectives come immediately before the noun they modify. This way there’s no confusion as to what noun they’re affecting. Things can get muddied when you put distance between adjectives and nouns, and I don’t want to get into a discussion as to why or how that’s a good thing sometimes or not. (I mean, I probably will, just not right now)

How did I pick those adjectives? Yes, I made the sentence up based on what I see happening in my neighbor’s yard, but I could have expressed the same idea using totally different words, right?

If we discount synonyms (and please tell me you’re not the writer who delights in using a thesaurus to find new ways of expressing “said”), then no, you really can’t.

The minute you change the modifier, you change the tone of the sentence.

Let’s suppose we change loud to powerful.  A powerful chainsaw can still chew through a tree, and that can still lead to there being shaky homeowners, but notice that once I alter the word that makes you think about the sound of the chainsaw doing what it does, we’re now thinking more about the speed or the act of chainsawing, and less about the sound.

Let’s make the ancient tree young. My first question would be, why chainsaw a young tree? Why be shaky about it? I have a young tree in my yard, and cutting to down wouldn’t leave me shaky, since it’s only about as thick as two or three broomsticks. Changing the age of the tree moves us more to the “why” of the sentence, which could propel us into the story we’re reading, or character motivations or something past the superficial “picture what I am telling you”.

Let’s make the shaky homeowners confident. Why would they be looking if they’re confident? Again, we’re past the words on the page and now we’re into story elements.

Adjectives we read help influence the unwritten adjectives we think about. When that tree was ancient, it created an expectation that it was tall, and given its height, maybe that’s why the homeowners were shaky. When I said the chainsaw was loud, that’s the sound, that chewing nasal hum and vibrating sound, I want you to focus on and amplify, so that you’re getting this scene, maybe with sawdust and nervous people, where no one can hear anything over the saw.

I get asked a lot (and conversely I do a lot of asking about) how words get picked to go on paper. This usually happens when someone is curious if something is “good” or not, but it also comes up in discussions of clarity and connection. For a long time, I didn’t have an answer as to how I picked the words I did, and I suspected a lot of people didn’t. But eventually, after I pestered enough people, I put together a theory, and I share it with you now.

Write the adjectives that get readers the closest to the scene you want to describe and let their imaginations fill in the rest

Come back to our chainsaw and homeowner sentence. I given some facts (that the chainsaw is loud; that the tree is old; that people are concerned) but didn’t give others (what season is it? what time of day is it? where the tree is located in relation to the homeowners, etc), and the sentence let’s you (the reader) project a little and fill in the blanks.

Now, I can’t always do that. I can’t always let you fill in the margins around my words, but for the most part,  I also can’t help it. If I just say something like, “The dog barked.” and I’ve written about my dog in previous sentences, there’s not a lot of information for you to fill in.  But if I say, “I took a blue shirt out of the closet.” then you’re free to speculate as to how blue or what kind of shirt it is until I tell you otherwise. I can inform and use more of that push/pull we’ve talked about elsewhere to move you through my writing.

My theory does require to to trust your readers to be able to fill in whatever you’re not saying, and does suggest that you can relax any sense of “You have to do it my way!” control over them doing so. (Yes, I know, I can trust readers with text I create, but can’t trust LARP players to respect my work? Funny.)

It’s a practice thing. It requires a good feel for your writing and knowing your voice and being comfortable in what you’re writing so that you can know what to omit and not omit. If you skip the omission process, you can easily move into a trouble area, called ‘adjective bloat’.

Adjective Bloat is when you have text that’s just crammed with adjectives that you allege all have vital roles to play in the sentence(s) they’re in.  Let me think of an example:

Down down the winding stairs I dragged my beloved queen, her struggles against my grasp futile and her wails of terror echoing hollow and pale against the damp stones of my castle walls. The rain poured from clouds like the tears of widows and lightning and thunder gnashed their twin furies against the outside world. But soon, soon this queen would be mine, forever and always

I like some parts of what I wrote. I like the idea of gnashing twin furies. I like wails of terror as a phrase. But if we pull those parts out, what am I left with? A lot of fat on a little meat.

Here we verge into masturbation, where things get written because it sounds really good, even if it doesn’t serve the story, or because you like letting your words get ahead of you and they end up flowery and purple.  There’s nothing with that if we’re writing something where that melodramatic sense is important, or if we’re going sort of mock-Gothic. But really, truly, you have to ask yourself: Am I writing this because these phrases paint the ideas I want readers to take with them from sentence to sentence, or am I just indulging some whim and writing to fill space.

Identifying bloat is initially easy, since you can prune back excessive words once you’ve sufficiently described a thing (if it’s a wooden desk, it’s likely brown, so you wouldn’t need brown and wooden together, unless other things are wooden and not-brown), but it can get harder when you don’t have an excess quantity of words and you have to look at their quality. Is word X the best word for the job? If I’m telling you about my castle walls, does ‘stone’ do enough justice? What about rock? The things each word makes me picture in my head, are they so radically different that I need to specify? Could I use them interchangeably? Would I be okay with that?

Word quality is subjective, entirely an issue of ‘feel’, and not something I can easily express to you. When I edit something, once I get good handle on the author’s sound and their connection(s) to their audience, I can suss out what words they would or wouldn’t use, and can flag them appropriately.

So what’s the recourse? Practice. Revision. More practice. More revision. Rinse. Repeat.

(yes, admittedly, the end of this post got away from me. I’ll revisit the ideas)

Writing What You Know

Good morning. I want to talk today about a common used and abused writing axiom, one that acts like both shield and crutch, when really, it’s one of the most masturbatory and limiting pieces of advice available to writers.

Write what you know.

Let’s start today with a scene from my inbox. I am a member of about a dozen or so writing-based email lists, communities and message boards. To date, I’m active on three of them, mainly because I field a lot of questions about structure and craft, and every once in a while I say something mildly snarky about Twilight, 50 Shades or other poorly crafted work (I leave it for other authors and creators to be funnier than I am).

Here’s a summation of an exchange from this morning’s readings.

Person 1: Hello, I’m not a white woman who beta reads for a lot of authors, and I really appreciate and feel satisfied by the manuscripts where primary characters aren’t always capable heterosexual white men, or any combination thereof. I think, especially in today’s culture, there should be at least acknowledgement of not-white-men as possible hero/ines without being relegated to “World Books” on some genre shelf.

Person 2: Hello Person 1. I am a white writer who is still working on their first manuscript, but are you saying that if I don’t change what I want to write to sate your feelings about race, sexuality or gender, that my book isn’t ever going to be well-received?

Person 1: No, that’s not at all what I’m saying, Person 2 —

Person 2: Well, I think you’re full of shit, because you’re supposed to write what you know, and what I know as a straight white man and let’s skip all the terminology people toss around to distract from their real intention of being spoiled and selfish, that stories like [NYT BESTSELLING BOOK SERIES] and [POPULAR AUTHOR OF THE LAST THIRTY-PLUS YEARS].  sell well because the authors are white men, so they write white men. Let me explain to you how that’s better than trying to shoehorn in not-hetero-and-white politics.

Person 1: You don’t need to explain anything to me, I’m just saying that I think there’s room on the bookshelf for books with all types of primary characters.

Person 2:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re wrong because [SEXIST REMARK], [RACIST REMARK] and you’re a beta reader, so what do you know about how hard it is to write? 

So yeah, that’s the third thing I read this morning while eating my toast. Putting aside the fact that Person 1 is a clod who needs to knock down other people in order to prop himself up (remind me later to tell the story about the time he made a woman cry during a teleconference), let’s look at the phrase that was a turning point in his argument.

You’re not “supposed” to write what you know, anymore than you’re “supposed” to have citrus fruit, toast, and a bowl of cereal according to commercials that tout “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs are part of a healthy breakfast”.

When you trot out “supposed”, you’re using the phrase as a shield and limitation, hiding behind it because writing what you don’t know might actually take effort, be a challenge or otherwise make you learn something. And oh noes, we wouldn’t want to dare suggest that you should grow as a person as you grow as a writer. That just sounds so super progressive, the next thing you know you’ll be talking about how Adam and Steve should totally be allowed to hold hands and how it’s totally alright for there to be a variety of beliefs for a variety of people. We can’t have that, can we?

You’re not limited in any external way when you write. There’s no mandate from on high, no codified body of legislators prohibiting you in any way when you write whatever it is you write. The only limitations are what you put on yourself. So maybe you think you need to write within some constraints so that you’re “sellable” (yes, there are things that are more conventionally attractive to consumers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write whatever the hell  you want and find an audience for it. Maybe you think that you need to write in such-and-such a way so that people can understand you, which sort of sounds really arrogant that people are going to strain themselves trying to grasp at the edges of your brilliance.

Writing what you know is not supposed to be a limitation. It’s a starting point. It’s a call to reference your own experiences, not boundary your writing because of them.

I write a lot of things. I write detective fiction when I’m not a detective (though don’t think I haven’t looked at the forms to get a PI license or thought about loopholes in the system). I edit books that often contain swords, even though I am not a renown swordsman. I edit books about cybernetic apes, and I’m not a gorilla. Just because you don’t know a thing, doesn’t mean you can’t write about that thing.

Now, if you’re not comfortable writing about a topic because you’re afraid you’re going to sound stupid or portray things poorly (like how I don’t really write about black culture, because I’m not black), that’s not what I’m talking about, because that’s not using ‘Write what you know’ as a shield to prevent me expressing certain thoughts. I don’t hide behind it (and you shouldn’t either).

Because you can learn. There’s no need to stay ignorant or misinformed or uneducated. You can look up things you don’t know. You can ask people who aren’t like you or who don’t share your experiences about how they do whatever they do whenever they do it. It just takes time. And courage, I suppose, since you have to first admit you don’t know something. But that willingness to learn, to find out, to change your mind, is CRITICAL for your growth as a person who writes. There should be a hunger for knowledge, a voracious need to fill your brainspace with new material.

It’s a starting point for writing. I know about how to be a human, so I can write a human character. By extension, I could probably write a particular flavor of humanoid experience, so maybe I could do aliens or some cyborgs. And if I can do aliens and cyborgs, I could write science fiction. But if I turn those aliens and cyborgs into elves and dwarves, I can write fantasy. And all because I started with what I know, I just worked myself into two different genre. That’s pretty awesome. At no time did I say, “I need to spend a month reading about how other people write aliens and dwarves” because my basis for this comes out of my being a human.

Let’s go in a different direction. I’ve been in love, so I could write some sort of romance. I’ve been paranoid and conspiratorial, so I could write a thriller. I’ve even dated lawyers and been in courtrooms, so I might be able to put together some kind of courtroom drama, assuming people would answer some emails. Again, from the basis of my experience, I can go in a lot of directions. It does require some flexibility and a looser grip on my own expectations about writing, and an even looser hold on the prejudging of my audience as to what they’ll like or not, but I can do that, right?

Here’s my challenge you: Don’t only write what you know this weekend. Discover something new, find a new angle for your next piece of writing. Have a conversation with someone who is SO TOTALLY NOT LIKE YOU, and see if that changes your mind about how you can break out of that fear-mold of only writing from limitation.

I’m out this weekend at Metatopia, so there won’t be another post until next Tuesday at the earliest. Happy writing.

Marching to Your Own Beat: Cadence, and How It Helps You

Good morning.

We’re less than a week away from Metatopia, which is my favorite convention, not because of its size, but because it’s where I do the most talking. I love to talk. Go watch any Hangout or video I’ve done. Check out an interview. I will talk, enthusiastically even, with very little prompting. And this one time, when I was trying to actually be silent, it weirded people out.

I love to talk. Because to me, great speakers capture the minds and attentions of their audiences not only through their words, but through their presence. I grew up feeling as though I would need to distinguish myself from the swarm of other kids – kids who could play sports, get girls, ride bikes, and generally appear way more put together than I was. So I chose to practice how I spoke. It never got me girls. I can’t remember a time that I said something and people flocked to me, but I do remember wanting that to happen. I do remember this commercial, although I think my version had kids in a classroom.

There’s power in the ability to hold the attentions of room. There’s power in being able to fill the room with your voice. There’s power to putting words on the page, so that people will turn page after page and want more.

It’s not only knowing a number of words, or even how to string them together. It’s about knowing how to push them. And pull them. To weave together a melody in your speech, not in a lilting capacity, but in a way that insists the listening or reading audience take notice and follow along, is the best professional power available. It will distinguish you from other people. It will make your words matter.

So let’s talk today about how you can improve your cadence. You have a cadence naturally, both to your written words and your spoken ones, so it’s not like you have to acquire one first. You just have to understand it. I’m not a speech pathologist, nor am I an occupational therapist, but I’ve been to each of them in the course of my life, and remember many of the exercises I had to do in elementary school.

I. Listen to any recording of a speech. I did this in the pre-Youtube days, so I had mostly old film clips in libraries and written transcripts. Later though, I remember having a CD-ROM, I think it was Encarta, that gave me access to audio files. Now, there’s Youtube, and you can easily find speeches to listen to. Try this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one.  Yes, I included a fictional speech. Yes, I included some historical ones. The “reality” of the speech in context doesn’t matter, I want you to listen to the words (or mute the video and read the subtitles), and see how they’re delivered.

II. Get a sense of emphasis. When I learned how to diagram sentences in school, and later again as an editor, I had to learn this fantastic set of marks, they sort of looked like apostrophes and dashes (I can’t find them easily on Google, since I can’t remember their technical name), and you marked not only syllables but also where stress came into play. Since I can’t find a Google set for you to look at, I’m making my own. To the badly Photoshopped images!

Let’s look at one part of my favorite poem.

POEMUNEDITED

 

On the face of it, there’s a ton of commas. But it’s poetry, so we can let that slide. The words sound flat if you read it the way you’ve read this sentence. No, we need to inflect, we need to use the words to grab our audience, so we put these commas in place to tell us when to pause, and when to look at the word that comes before the comma and see how important it is.

Let’s mark all the pauses in red.

POEMEDITED01

 

Still with me? Emphasis is a combination of syllable and pause, of sound and silence, or knowing what part of what word needs a little extra kick of volume or projection. Here, we have commas help elongate the words, drawing the audience closer to the speaker (because they have more to say) and lengthening the amount of time that speaking happens.

III. Track your syllables.  In the above piece, there’s only 3 words with more than 1 syllable (father and gentle and into), so we’ll start by looking at them. We have to see which syllable in those words gets the downbeat, the more forceful of the sounds we make when we use that word. We’ll split the syllables with a slash (you can also use a dot), and I’ll mark my downbeats in blue.

Now, yes, this is subjective, based on how you want to sound, so what I mark here might not be what you mark. And that’s awesome, Since I’m me, I can only talk about what I do, and I’ll mark my downbeat syllables. It looks like this:

POEMEDITED03

 

Okay, you caught me. I cheated and picked some lines that all have first-syllable downbeats. It’s just easier to explain cadence this way. But you might find words that require other syllables to get the emphasis, depending on what you’re writing, what language you’re writing in, and how everything gets expressed.

IV. Find the tempo/meter. Meter is the pace by which words are expressed. To find the meter, there are a few pain in the ass exercises, but the easiest one is to look at where the pauses (seen here in red) fall in relation to where your downbeats are. See how in our example there’s always at least 1 syllable between a pause and something emphasized? Like we’re on a rollercoaster, that syllable let’s us go uphill to reach the top, before sending us racing down.

So if we mark our downbeats, and they drive us forward, we have to ease off the gas and let momentum carry us forward to the next set of ups-and-downs. I’ll mark the upbeats (the spots where we can let sound reduce, where we build momentum before the next downbeat) in green and mark more single syllable downbeats in blue.

POEMEDITED04

 

The effect is a pushing and pulling of sound. We draw the audience to us with emphasis, we give ourselves a little distance by relaxing that sound. Down, to up. I like this piece of poetry because it has cases of emphasis and decline WITHIN single words (Curse, bless, etc) and that creates this great tempo to follow throughout the piece.

Here’s today’s magic trick – You can apply these exact same elements in WRITTEN text.

Also, go through this whole post, find the push/pull, then go see how using it can change your own writing.

The Crunch of Conversion

Note #1 As I was typing this post’s title, my typo was “Crunk of Conversion”, which might shape up to be a whole different topic for a different day.

Note #2 This post comes on the heels of Ryan Mackiin’s post about Fate conversion. You’ll want to read his post too.

In his post, Ryan (who I may refer to only as Macklin throughout this post, but that’s mainly because how I refer to him in my head) identifies six problems when bringing new games to Fate flavors and, to some degree, the reverse of that as well. I agree with his six points, I just want to expand on a few and give my own experiences.

To start, I’ve done a lot of converting, though much of it has been for my own local gaming group, or to respond to something someone asks me for in a speculative way. The few times I’ve had to bring Fate to things professionally, I found it far easier to do a hard transformation of either one or the other, which has lead to a lot of questioning assumptions I had both of Fate and of the conversion process in general.

Recently I checked out Reddit, on the advice of clients who thought my writing expertise might be valuable there. Along my searches and attempts to learn the site and its mores, I came across the FateRPG subreddit (my apologies if I’m using the term incorrectly) and found quite a few posts penned by disenfranchised people who felt like Fate was lacking in some meaningful way, that Evil Hat should produce videos to explain the material, that this system sucks to some degree, etc etc.

I didn’t work directly on Fate Core’s primary book. That was handled masterfully by Ryan and Lenny and Brian and Mike and Jeremy, and doubtless I’m forgetting other people. I was just fortunate to be in the vicinity of that creative process. I was however, fairly central to the Fate Worlds books. I don’t say that because I want you all to know how big a deal I am, I’m saying this because my success today is tied very directly to the success of that project. That stack of files turned into two books and gave me numerous opportunities to work with people I’d not have the chance to otherwise, and I am so grateful for every second of that time and those conversations. So, Fate Core as a system is close to my heart.

And to hear these people, these people who were once explained to me as “4chan Lite, depending on where you’re looking”, tell me that this system I have my name (somewhat) attached to might suck or does suck or doesn’t blow their faces off, well, that bugged me. And I wanted to do something about it. But, I didn’t. I read their posts, I saw what they were talking about. I disagree with their premise and much of the (mis)understanding, but they’re totally capable of not liking a thing I like. So I didn’t comment. I fed no trolls. I refuted no linear claims that some system was superior to Fate because Fate didn’t expressly say what to do, or that it lacked tables and elements to produce specific play-results. It just got me thinking.

Then I read Macklin’s post. And I did more thinking.

The result is this post, where I’m now about speak more about conversions, and although I’m going to cite Fate as examples, my hope is that I can be broad enough in my writing as to talk more about conversion from A to B, rather than stay only in Fate’s arena.

I. Not every system will do the same things when you convert to it, or from it. This I think, is the largest hurdle I faced, and a huge assumption I made, that a conversion is just a new coat of paint on existing constructs. That’s no more true than saying a three piece suit is plate mail since they both come in shiny hues. When you have an existing system, like it or not, tired of it or not, that system does something. Maybe it really accurately represents … commercial transactions, or maybe it does so better than other things, if it’s not doing it perfectly. Maybe it doesn’t do gunfights particularly well, so you want to either infuse gunfights into this system (let’s call it X), or take what X does well, and graft it onto another system (let’s call it Y).

So we’re looking at (X + gunfights) or (Y + commerce). Let’s ignore the fact that we’re leaving the remnants of X or Y respectively behind. We’re building a piecemeal thing here, a beast fashioned of many different parts, and we hope all these pieces work together.

They may not. And that’s a harsh pill to swallow. Here’s an actual example.

I continue to do a lot of work on a Dresden Files LARP. I jettisoned the old system once i was brought onto the project and adapted Fate Core (which was sparkly new at the time) to it. I further included ideas for using a deck of specific cards (to be now replaced by the Deck of Fate). I felt pretty good about this, and thought “Oh, well now this should work, since basically, I’ve broken down Fate’s machinery into digestible pieces a LARPer can use, and I’ve tacked on a really nice resolution mechanic that will keep the game from dragging along.

If I had to assign percentages, I figure this build of the system was about 80% Fate Core and 20% everything else – some from this system, some from that. And I liked it.

Then it went out into the world, and we played with it.

It worked. Players loved it. But while I had pictured a race car, to my eyes I saw a Model T. Sure, it worked, but it was one a-wooga horn shy of being comical. I hadn’t planned on the fact that you can’t wholly replicate a system wholesale just under different paradigms and expect the same results. What works around my table does so because of the tacit understandings and conventions of my table, and that is not the same as 30+ people in a room with no tables, dice or regular peeks at character sheets.

So, I poked the system with a few sticks, and that brought me to the second concept:

II. Don’t confuse streamlining for alteration for improvement.

I saw Fate now as broken. I saw it not delivering to one group of players what it did for another group. It didn’t matter that one group was LARP and the other tabletop. Players are fundamentally the same at their core, they’re storytellers and enthusiasts of systems to tell tales collaboratively, so whether one groups gives a shit about costuming while the other is super concerned about whether or not we’re ordering Chinese, doesn’t matter. I was determined then to prove something to these people, because it’s not that the system failed or failed to live up to any expectations, I, as system designer for this LARP, failed. And I do not tolerate failure.

So I gutted Fate. I pulled out the Four Actions. I pulled out the fate point economy. I hobbled stunts. I made Fate not-Fate. I had some aspects, I had some resolutions, I had some skills. I guess I kinda made a gimpy *World engine.  I looked at Fate the way (and forgive me for this metaphor) someone with an eating disorder approaches food – that my original view sucked, that I had to be purging and starving the system until it was “good enough”. What I was doing was mistaking the working components of a system for bloat, and confusing streamlining for improvement. I had an image disorder over the system. I looked at it, and saw something inaccurate.

I don’t know if you know this, but when you pull the principle tenets out of something, it ceases to be that thing. A civilization without laws is lawless. A dinner without plates, forks and knives is just a stack of meat. A plane without wings is a metal tube. But I absorbed the false sense of failure and was consumed by it, I figure I lost whole nights to the alchemy of making one thing into another.

So I worked on it. And worked on it. And simultaneously worked on a lot of other projects, but was still stung by my perceived failure. I didn’t actually fail, no one told me I failed, no one said my work wasn’t good or that it wasn’t enjoyable. And the players didn’t know about the number of drafts or the amount of time I spent going over page after page, rule after rule. Their end result was positive – they got a new game, a good game and had a good time. I should have been pleased when they applauded and whooped and cheered. I should have felt satisfied by their continued mentions that they loved how things worked.

Eventually, I stopped working on it, because I was tired and didn’t know what else to do. I resigned myself to having created a mediocre-at-best thing, and that I was now really good at only creating mediocre things, despite my talent at editing. And I let the file sit untouched for months.

Somewhere in the time, I found the third element of conversion.

III. Things don’t have to be, and can’t always be crunchy, loose, cinematic, dramatic, procedural, fast, detailed, flexible, solid, inclusive, simple or tough to the same degree simultaneously, and certainly not to everyone’s appreciation. What you’re really doing in a conversion is taking a source material, adjusting, adding subtracting and torquing elements in and around it, but you’re doing it for yourself and the bigger picture audience, not just the one guy who complained the loudest, or the one you worry will complain the loudest later.

Once I put the document down for a while. I got to watch the game get played. I gave my little briefing up top, no one had any questions, then I got out of the way. I thought it was alright, I thought this would be … tolerable for people over a few hours. I had weathered some criticism that the game ‘should have’ this or ‘would be better if it had’ that, and caved too easily to those elements (only to later strip them out when no one was looking) so I was ready for more people to remind me of things I lacked or how I was mediocre at best, and I could slink back to my editorial castle and hide.

But they didn’t. People came and asked if they could read the rules. If they could try it at home. If they could do it again with more friends later. It wasn’t mediocre. It just was a different facet of a success experience, and one that changed the way I approach conversion, which let me to the fourth and final conversion note in this post.

IV. Conversion isn’t ‘fixing’ the system or even patching its holes. Conversion is all about transmogrifying one set of experiences so that it better meshes with other experiences. 

Look, Fate doesn’t do equipment the way D&D does. It tasks players to collaborate to tell the best story. It does not work all that well when the focus of the player is to accrue bonuses by the ton for some mathematically penile measuring contest. Fate isn’t perfect. Guess what? Gumshoe doesn’t do aspects very easily. And Fiasco doesn’t care about an economy of gold coins. Lots of games do different things, and don’t do others. Maybe, just maybe, the system does what it does, and it’s your idea that needs to change, not the system. Or maybe both have to meet in the middle, just like how players and the GM have to collaborate.

I can use a variety of systems and toolkits to tell the story I want. But maybe, if I really want to replicate a specific action in a game, I need to tweak some part of the system to do so. Or maybe I will relax my hold on that specific action, and I don’t need to be so fixated on having it be a certain way.

Yes, systems are there to serve the story. But they’re not subordinate to the story, anymore than the Allen wrench is your IKEA dresser’s bitch. Jettison what doesn’t work (but doesn’t cripple play), include and blend in what does, provided it’s not too jarring.

It comes to this: System + Story + Players (+ GM) = Good Experience.

 

Happy writing and gaming. Many thanks to Macklin for getting me thinking.

 

Ripping Open Wounds, Mining Gold and Pulling Things Out of Places: ‘Going There’

Good morning everyone. I hope you had an awesome weekend. I hope today doesn’t suffocate you slowly, since I’ve known Mondays to be particularly good at starting carbon monoxide leaks. Mondays can be jerks. Murderous jerks. 

Today, I want to talk about a writing concept that is often misapplied, applied myopically, or applied with blinders on. 

“You have to write what you know.” 

I believe in the Hall of Fame of Absolutely Terrible Things To Tell Impressionable Creators, this sentence might even warrant its own wing of the building. And there are two aspects of it I’m going to discuss and demonstrate why.

I. I experienced __________________, so I can write about it. 

Let’s apply that sentence literally. Make a list of all the things you’ve experienced or all the things you’ve been a part of. Off the top of your head, I’m guessing you’re maybe listing things like “attending school” “learning to drive” “eating breakfast” and if we’re being risque, “thinking naughty thoughts about someone you went to high school with“. 

Looking at that list, you probably wouldn’t think any of those things would merit enough “goodness” (they wouldn’t be interesting, they wouldn’t hold people’s attention, no one would care) to go into something you’re writing. So you probe deeper. Maybe you list things like “experienced heartbreak” “lied” “got fired from a job” “got into a fight“. Those are perfectly excellent things to strip mine for resources when writing, but, you’re really rolling now, so you go deeper.

Maybe you “suffered abuse” or “were assaulted” or “were the victim of crimes John can’t or doesn’t want to detail in a blogpost“. You don’t like talking about them, they’re uncomfortable, they’re upsetting, but c’mon, you have to write what you know, don’t you?

No, really, you don’t have to plumb the depths of your trauma to be good enough to be a writer. I’m not saying you can’t write about those awful things in an essay (I’ve read some that will blow your mind), but you don’t always have to delve into the dark and painful parts of your life because they’re the most interesting things that ever happened to you. I know a lot of people who suffered trauma, and that’s so very not the most interesting part of their lives, even it if the most excruciating terrible part. 

While this is not the best place to hold a lengthy discussion about what does or doesn’t define you as a person, this is a great place to remind that you’re creative enough, wonderful enough, capable enough and talented enough to pull ideas from every corner of your mind, and that you don’t need to tear open wounds (be they fresh or years old) to have your work read by others. 

‘Going there’, when you’re not writing for catharsis is a dangerous proposition, since a wound can’t heal if you’re constantly tearing off the scab and picking at it, like its some sort of wisdom and talent dispenser, and that you have to hurt in order to be good enough to create. 

You are good enough to create anything you want, because you’re you, and not only because something bad happened to you. Applying ‘write what you know’ here can be brutal to any sense of healing or moving on. Yes, whatever happened to you might mean you really understand fear or being a victim or pain, and you can write characters that amaze readers. But you don’t have to repeat or relive that trauma every time you want to be amazing. 

II. I don’t know anything about ______________________, so I either have to skip it, or do days/weeks/months/years of research

There are loads of things I don’t know. How Advil PM is made. Who invented socks. Why flames are the colors they are. Brain surgery. Engine repair. In some applications of ‘write what you know’ the lack of knowledge either has to be ignored (I just don’t write about things I don’t know) or has to be compensated for, with lengthy and intense research. 

Look, I’m not saying that research is a bad thing. If you’re going to feature activity X in your work, yes, you should know something about X, so that you can express to others that you know X and devotees of X can see you’re handling X respectfully or knowledgeably, so as to minimize the amount of bitching on the internet later. 

But you don’t need to train yourself as a master/mistress of X. The sum total of my knowledge of ballooning comes from a Monty Python sketch, so I probably should talk to a ballooning expert before I write that epic scene about two dudes fighting in a hot-air balloon in the Alps. But I don’t need to go to the extreme of building my own hot air balloon, or devoting my life to the pursuit of ballooning

There’s a delicate balance in this – acquiring just enough knowledge as to be enthusiastic and well-informed about a topic as you need to be, and paralyzing your writing as you train yourself to every intricacy. As with so many things, you can’t hang out on the extremes (know-nothingness and absolute mastery), and there’s a vast grey area where it’s totally alright to find yourself when you’re writing. 

Sure, yes, you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but you don’t need to ‘prove that you know what you’re talking about’ by overloading your work with every detail that a layperson wouldn’t know about. Yes, absolutely, sprinkle a few things in there that we didn’t know, but you don’t have to bury us in avalanche of terminology or explanation just so that we can say “Gosh, this author knows their shit!” because we’re not going to say that, we’re going to sigh heavily, roll our eyes and skip ahead in your work to see if it gets interesting again. 

Also, there’s a huge danger in not writing while you’re compiling this knowledge base. But it may feel like writing, because you’re doing something that will help you write, right? I mean, isn’t this a good thing? 

Writing involves putting your fingers on the keys or your pen on paper. Writing puts words on pages. Lengthy prep work isn’t writing, any more than chopping onions into tiny cubes is the same thing as eating salsa. Yes, you’re preparing to do a thing, but it’s not the thing itself. Arresting your writing because you want sound intelligent assumes that you aren’t smart enough or capable to begin with, and is a wonderful trap to fall into, because you convince yourself that you’re accomplishing something when in fact you’re treading water. 

Of course, if you’re learning AND writing concurrently, there’s still a balance to strike, but that’s what we have discipline for, right? 

Happy writing. 

The Writer And Believing You’re Not Good Enough

I don’t think I’ve ever published three posts in one day. Go me!

So today is Spirit Day, a day when people discuss bullying and being picked on living and how not to have that happen for other people. Since I can think of no awesome metaphors like I did when I talked about shame and Starburst, let’s just talk about me.

Travel back with me to when I was in elementary school … okay, wait, we have to make a few notes here:

  1. I’m not very good with dates.
  2. This is because I was sick and unmedicated for over a decade, and my head is swiss cheese about a lot of things

Ready now?

In my elementary school, it was really cool among my friends to own baseball cards. You didn’t trade them, because you could just buy more (seriously, my friends all grew up with the “do-chores-get-money” system) and if you were extra rich, your parents bought a pack for every pack you bought yourself, so that you could have extra cards to put in the spokes of your bicycle. Now I didn’t have a bicycle, which is likely a story for another post, but I did have loads of baseball cards. In fact, I still have those cards in airtight, waterproof, fireproof cases in my closet, because one day, I can flood the hobby market and make enough money to buy a sandwich, or something, I don’t know.

My two best friends (they lived across the street from each other) were passionate Mets fans, back in the days of Doc Gooden and Daryl Strawberry and World Series hopes. We’d sit in a room and talk about who had better stats, and where we’d put them if we were making a lineup. We were young, and this activity was often punctuated by karate classes at the Y, or pretending we were the cast of Police Academy. But it’s also the first time I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be with my friends.

I was my own bully, because my two friends had this other friend, someone I didn’t know, but someone they knew because they were all on sports teams together. I wasn’t on any sports teams. I wasn’t allowed to be on sports teams, out of fear that being small, frail and sickly, I’d hurt myself. And I grew up with a mostly unspoken policy of “if you can’t do it right the first time, you don’t deserve/get to do it” (see: bike riding, socializing with girls, and sports teams). So I didn’t get to play, but I watched. And I believed that with every hit my friends got, or every cheer they received, I was less and less good enough to do it.

Come with me to school, where in gym class, during kickball games or really any game with bases and running, the infielders, my classmates just sort of accepted that I was “an easy out”. And that even well-meaning gym teachers asked me if I wanted concessions made.

I didn’t want concessions made, I wanted to be good enough at things like running and kicking a ball, or swinging a bat just like everyone else. But I wasn’t. I’d fall if I tried to run, my brain not collaborating with my legs to move in time or work cooperatively to carry the rest of me. So I resigned myself to accepting that I wasn’t going to be an athlete, and that if I was, no one would want me. I’m pretty sure I went through my entire K-12 education getting picked last (or second to last) in any team activity that was more physical than mental.

Contrast all this with the fact that I was the kid who read dictionaries in school. The kid who always scored well on tests. The kid who could ace the exam and explain to you the material so that you could pass too.

I liken it to being a brain on a body made of springs and twigs. I was smart enough to be useful to others, smart enough to get taken advantage by others, and gullible enough to perceive a lot of that as friendship. Of course they were my friends, they wanted to talk to me. Of course they were my friends, they said thank you when I helped them. Not all of them were. It took me twenty years to figure that out.

My home life, which I don’t easily blog about, was a pressure cooker. The son of a prominent educator and an elementary school teacher has a lot of expectations on him – to do well in school, to live up to the name you’ve got, to not embarass anyone along the way. And the fact that I grew up scrutinized to be really good at things, and how dare I not be good at other things, that warps your perspective on growing up. I remember a lot of nights in middle school sobbing over geometry homework, trying to explain that I just didn’t see the shape on the paper, or understand the gibberish of formula, and being told that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. And when I would fail, there wasn’t a sense of “did you try your best?” it was a sense of “so I wasted all that time trying to explain this to you, and you’re just stupid?”. It confirmed that I wasn’t good enough to be smart either.

So I carved this niche for myself. So long as I didn’t fail spectacularly or sit right at the top of the heap, I’d be left alone. If I dumbed myself down in some subjects, and did my best in others, I could pull a range of B’s and D’s, with a few A’s sprinkled in there so that I wasn’t bored. It was enough to coast by.

Then came a pivotal moment in middle school – the day when the school guidance counselor comes in and talks to you about going to high school, as if it’s some mythical place that’s somewhere between Thunderdome, a concentration camp, and a weird hive-like atmosphere designed entirely to get you into college. And the focus of this woman’s discussion was not “this is how you go from one grade to another” it was “If you think your hardest class in middle school is hard, all high school classes are ten times harder, because the minute you walk in that door as a freshman, you’re trying to get into a good college so you can make your parents proud.” I was sitting in the front row. The woman wore a black shawl. It made me think of my own funeral.

That day, as I was totally now panicked about how I had to figure out my life and not let my parents down, I wanted to be alone. The prison yard/recess area/field of my middle school had a steep hill in the background, forming a lip around this basin of baseball diamonds and soccer fields. I liked to sit on top of the hill, because it was under a tree and I would be left alone with a book or an ice cream cone. (I should point out that this same hill is what I fell down in gym class and shattered a knee cap and fractured a bone in my foot, but that came later than this moment.)

My first experience with a true bully came that day. I remember his name. He follows me on Facebook. I don’t think we’ve ever spoken since middle school. But I was walking to my favorite spot, and remember how I said I moved slowly and had to be careful in where I put my feet? This kid was behind me, and then decided to sweep my feet out from under me as I walked. I fell, bounced down the hill, broke my glasses and dislocated my ankle. He laughed. He had two cronies. They laughed too. Neither of them follow me on Facebook, because one’s in prison for raping high school girls and the other is either dead or in prison for trafficking heroin.

So there I was laying on the ground, holding my broken glasses, trying not to cry, because to cry was to admit weakness, and admit that yet again John needed medical attention, which would surely lead to my father telling me that he’d either sue the school or that it was my fault for provoking this. I didn’t cry. I just limped along through the rest of recess, went to the nurse’s office, taped up my glasses and tried to pop my ankle back into place.

Weeks later, I’m still limping on the bum ankle, but at least now I can disguise the elastic bandage I’m wearing under jeans. Along comes my bully and his cronies and as I’m standing at my locker, they “accidentally” stomp on my ankle and foot, then walk away laughing. I couldn’t walk the rest of the day, and my mom ended up taking me for x-rays. I broke another bone in my foot, and my ankle re-dislocated. We kept it a secret from my father, though I’m sure he found out when he paid the bills.

See, I never liked my bully. I grew up Christian, and it was very hard if not impossible to love someone who hurt you, and it was even harder to forgive him. I thought he was stupid and that I deserved this treatment because I was weak and not like the other kids. I’d watch nature shows and cry when the slow gazelle got eaten by cheetahs. Everyone looks like a cheetah when you convince yourself you’re a gazelle.

Move forward in time until the summer of my freshman year in high school. I’m at the town pool. I’m not bothering anyone, it’s really hard to see how uncoordinated I was when I swam, so I did it a lot. I have a new bully now, I remember him too. He only had one crony, who stayed a crony but got traded to other bullies throughout high school. They had this fun game where they’d swim up behind you, pull your bathing suit either all the way down or off, then throw it either in the sand of the volleyball court or over the pool’s fence into the woods. I had seen them do it to a few fat kids. I had seen them do it a kid they thought was gay. I was of course, the next contestant in this fucked up gameshow.

But here, my lack of coordination paid off. Because I flailed my legs a lot, it made it harder to get my suit down over my hips. At most, it was a mooning, not a pantsing. So instead they tried to drown me. I don’t mean in that playful way, I mean he put his hands on my shoulders and held me down while the crony kept an eye on the lifeguards.

So there I am, in the pool, ass hanging out of a bathing suit, not able to see (can’t wear glasses and swim), and a high school junior is holding me underwater. I’m running out of breath. I was saved only because the lifeguards cleared the pool for an adult swim. I didn’t go back to the pool for the rest of that summer. And when I went home that night and told my parents what happened, I wasn’t believed. I don’t think they’d believe me now either.

As someone picked on, I thought I deserved it. I wasn’t strong. I wasn’t able to fight people off. This was to be my lot in life. I had (and continue to have) trouble packing on muscle so for all the martial arts I learned, I couldn’t really fend someone off (that training came way later, when I was no longer bullied).

What cemented my sense that I wasn’t good enough also happened that year. I was working at my town’s teen center, which is not a juice bar some Power Rangers frequent, it was more like a social club where you could dump your teenagers for a few hours, ply them with candy and soda and they wouldn’t drink booze or have sex. I liked the job. Well, it wasn’t a job, it was just nice to have friends, sit in a kitchen and listen to Guns N Roses. And Pilotwings 64 I remember liking that too. But part of the job was to walk the grounds and make sure kids weren’t smoking outside, and if they were, go rat them out. This seemed like a terrible idea, this sort of self-policing, but it’s what we were tasked to do.

So of course, I head out and find eight kids (four couples) not only smoking, but drinking and doing far more than making out. Now it’s pitch black, I’ve got a flashlight, so of course they see me, and once I get a sense of what’s going on, my first thought isn’t “Tell the authorities!” it’s “Oh shit, I’m disturbing these kids!” and I should leave them alone, and they’ll leave me alone.

But they didn’t leave me alone. As it turned out, I stumbled across the star high school wrestlers and football players and their girlfriends. And I’m me. Who still can’t put one foot in front of the other.

I got tackled from behind. I got kicked in the kidneys, I got the wind punched out of me. I got told that they knew where I lived, and that they’d kill me if I told anyone. They were nice enough to hand my glasses to one of the girls before punching me in the face a few times. One of my friends called my mom to come pick me up, because my nose wouldn’t stop bleeding.

So then while I’m waiting, I’m sitting on the steps into the building, and someone (who also follows me now on Facebook) comes to check on me, and I feel a sharp metal prick in my bicep. He laughed and walked away, and when I asked anyone if they knew what the kid was doing, I got told “Oh [NAME]? He found a syringe with AIDS in it.” (Note: He didn’t. It was a thumbtack he took off the bulletin board)

I’ve been beaten up. My nose is bleeding. And now I got AIDS? This whole teenage thing is awesome. Also, big fan of peeing blood for two days. (No I’m not.)

But I accepted all this, figured it was par for the course. Figured that this happens to everyone. Except, this didn’t happen to everyone. My friends didn’t have these experiences, I asked. I was a mark, and an easy target. I swore I’d never be again.

I so firmly believed I wasn’t good enough, that the more sick and lost in my own mind that I got, the more aggressive and manipulative I became. And engaged in a policy of “you’re-not-going-to-hurt-me-if-i-overwhelmingly-hurt-you-first-emotionally”, I lived a day to day existence where I became the bully. I was the bully who wanted to mask how he wanted to die, how he didn’t feel like he lived up to his parents’ expectations, how he wasn’t good enough to learn a sport, get a date, or figure out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

I’m 35 now. I am a fairly coordinated, not frail man. (Sure, there’s a stomach bug today, but whatever) I’m lucky that I don’t get bullied or abused where I work. I’m lucky that I live a life that isn’t picked on or harassed, but that’s mainly because I detach far and hard from interactions and don’t leave the house often.

Fun Facts:

  1. I never confronted my bullies and they never apologized.
  2. I’m still regularly worried and scared that new people I interact with will in fact turn out to be bullies, though far more likely to be emotional or professional ones, rather than physical ones
  3. A majority of my physical safety stems from the fact that I can close and lock a great number of actual doors between me and the physical world.
  4. I don’t always feel comfortable in crowds or groups where I don’t know at least half the people
  5. I devote a lot of mental energy to planning escape routes and defensive strategies when I encounter people – like “Okay, if this date goes poorly and she pulls a knife, I can throw the water in her face, hit her with the glass, keep a chair between me and her, and defend myself with the steak knife. If she swings at me, I can go for the tendons in her wrist or kick out a leg to slow her down.” Yeah, this doesn’t encourage me to interact with people on an intimate social level.

And this came about because I’ve been a victim to bullies and predators. And because I felt such great shame and embarrassment about having a problem at all, I stayed silent. Because not being good enough also means you’re not good enough to deserve a change in circumstances. And you repeat that to yourself, everyday for 20+ years, through panic attacks in bathrooms, visits to nurses and ERs, grades that weren’t A+, failures in college, ruined relationships, mental health collapses and a general sense that unlike the Reader’s Digest article you read once, you aren’t a millionaire at 22, and it codifies in your head.

I’m 35. My most productive professional years didn’t start until I was 32. Hell, I really didn’t start living until I was 32, because it took so damned long to find a way through the fog and terror of mental illness. I can’t even say I’m all the way out, but at least now I’ve got a manageable path.

I hate bullies. I don’t hate much, but I hate bullies at a level that seems beyond cellular. I don’t care if I have to risk some manner of myself to prevent someone from being bullied, I’ll do it. Take away all my money, ruin me professionally, strip away all my friends, cast me out onto the street, injure me, even kill me, but I can’t let someone get bullied. Because they might go through the same hurt I did. And that’s unfair. Part of me is still dealing with the idea that I did deserve it, but that’s what therapy is for.

If your kids are getting bullied, if they say they’re getting bullied, if you see the results of bullying, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Treat the injuries, of course, but talk to schools and authority figures. Don’t just dismiss it and stick your kid in a karate class so he knows how to throw a punch. Pay attention, be active.

And for fuck’s sake, help your kid develop their own self esteem. They’re not stupid. You haven’t wasted your time. They’re kids, and they don’t have the experience or wisdom to master the subtleties of math. That’s why they’re learning it. Don’t take away their bike because they fall off it, help them understand that even though it’s hard and scary, you’ll help them see that it’s important to get back on. And that they don’t have to accept treatment for anyone that belittles or diminishes who they are or what they can contribute. Yeah, sure, they’re kids, but they can contribute a lot to a variety of tables. (I trust the opinion of the kids on my block far more than I trust their parents views on things, but I’m biased because they like my dog)

Sorry if this one was a downer.

Shame Is The Yellow Starburst

Note: I don’t know if this post is going to have any sort of triggering material, but please consider this a trigger warning for rape, assault, eating disorders, physical handicaps, mental illness, victimization and trolling

Yep, still rocking this stomach virus-whatever. Let’s have more conversations!

Have you seen my circle of friends?

Some are men. Some are women, Some are one who identify as the other. Some are people who wear the clothes normally worn by another gender. Some are gay, some are straight, some are both, some are none of those things. Some are rocket scientists. Some are comedians. Some are parents. Some are single. Some are teachers, some are students. Some are big, some are small. Some are a picture of health, some are sick. Some are dying. Some are paralyzed. Some are bed-ridden. Some have crazy colored hair. Some have no hair. Some have survived assaults and rapes. Some have never had sex. Some have all their limbs, some don’t anymore. Some are mentally well, some suffer from terrible depression or psychosis or hallucinations or mania. Some take drugs. Some refuse drugs. Some believe in a god. Some believe in lots of gods. Some don’t believe in any god. And (gasp!) some aren’t even white.

I love them all, for a host of reasons, and in a host of different ways. I don’t always agree with some of the things they say, either to each or to the world, but I still care about them.

And to be honest, I don’t always know what to do when I hear about the things other people (people who aren’t my friends) say.

I don’t understand why it’s important for someone, when they see a person who weighs more than they do, or who weighs more than some idea that a person should only be this weight or that weight, to call them “fat” in a derisive way. Yes, they have fat. We all have fat. We’re mammals. Fat is part of our body structure. Some humans have more of it than others, for a variety of reasons that go far beyond “they must love dessert”. I don’t know what to say when I hear about fat-shaming. This negative person has pointed out an obvious thing, that this other person is indeed heavier than others, and somehow that devalues them?

I’m fat. I am technically heavier than I should be, according to my doctor. And while I do love desserts and large meals, my weight gain comes entirely from the fact that the medications I took in the past (not the recreational ones, I mean the ones I needed) goofed with my metabolism and of course, I kept right on drinking and not exercising while this happened and I have a belly now as a result. It’s not as big as some people’s, but I have one, I’m well aware and embarrassed about it, it’s the reason I don’t like my photo being taken, and the reason why I hate tucking in shirts, or wearing suit jackets. But I am not so large that people would point it out in a negative way, and in fact, I’ve been called “skinny, except for my midsection”, which was both flattering and embarrassing simultaneously.

A person’s weight is something that is sometimes under their control. Sometimes the body has a disorder that inhibits or retards weight loss. And other times, people have illnesses that arrest weight loss for a variety of reasons, medication being one of them. Calling attention to their weight, because you have some sort of expectation or desire that the world all appear a certain homogeneous way to your whims is childish and unrealistic.

Yes, they need to buy clothes in a larger size. Yes, they may need to patronize a different section of a store, or an entirely different store altogether. Yes, maybe that means they’re uncomfortable being in certain places or under certain conditions. I know I’m not a huge fan of being shirtless, and will only do so intimately or in relative comfort and privacy. Yes, their size may reduce their energy levels or mean they take up literally more space in an aisle or in a seat. Yes it may not be healthy for them to be that size, it may tax their joints or their heart. But, is it your place to tell them these things? Do you think this is news to them? Do you think they just woke up on a Thursday, didn’t look in a mirror or look at themselves and you’re telling them something new? And even if you are their friend, even if you do love them, do you have to tell them in such a way that makes some manner of their appearance more valuable to you than who they are as a person?

I’m crazy. I’ve been through a variety of mental health treatments. I currently see multiple therapists, take multiple doses of medication a day and am a member of several support groups to help me cope with the realities of my mental health. Sometimes, it’s a nuisance that hums in the background of my life. Sometimes, it’s a big deal that paralyzes me for hours, days, or weeks. Sometimes it scares me and scares other people. It’s not that how my brain receives, perceives and structures information that is wrong, mind you, it’s just that it does so in a different and sometimes deficient way. Medication and therapy help make up for the lacking areas, and help me manage the on-going symptoms so that I can productive in a job, so that I could interact with other people, so that I could live more than a life where I wake up, stare out a window for hours, then go back to sleep. I get to call myself crazy. It’s my own joke with myself. It’s not a healthful joke. It’s not a truly kind thing to say about myself, I know this. But I can say it, because I’m living it.

You, on the other hand, you don’t get to dismiss me as crazy. I will first point out that you likely have your own insecurities, your own quirks, your own things that upset you, and while yours may not always be as amplified as mine, you are in no way free from the same issues. Just because there are pills taken every day at set times, just because I live with a particular structure that keeps me from losing myself to illness, just because I avoid situations out of a fear that it will do more harm than good for me, does not make me less capable of being a friend, a lover, a colleague, a peer, a confidant or more broadly, human.

Maybe yes, you are a therapist or a doctor or a trained professional in the area of mental health, so yes you have some passing knowledge of the intricacies of the medical issues I face. Maybe you learned everything you need to know about certain illnesses from television (Because that’s never been false, right?). Maybe you’ve read a book about a famous person who had an illness, and it’s easy to say “Well if that person’s illness presented like this, everyone with that illness presents like this.” Maybe it’s time you consider that everyone is different and everyone’s experience is different, and difference does not invalidate their feelings.

I am a survivor of assault. While my assault is different than other people’s, it happened. While I am a man and they may be women, none of us deserve our experience trivialized, marginalized or used as a punchline. What happened, regardless of details, is terrible. The scars, physical and otherwise, persist and can influence any number of future decisions, and they do not warrant being laughed or shrugged off because of a perception that people “asked for it” or “deserved it” or “had it coming.” I didn’t ask for what happened, and I can’t imagine that anyone actually would deserve the fear, physical pain, injury, medical bills, recovery and shame I bear and sometimes continue to experience.

Where, praytell is the humor in suggesting someone get sexually violated? Where do you start laughing about the time you were threatened and and scared and couldn’t stop something from happening? How many chuckles can I share about scars that mark a body I am already sensitive about? Please point the “lulz” out in a situation where you don’t walk somewhere alone, or don’t dress a certain way or you don’t engage in certain activities because bad things could happen again? Please tell me, because I enjoy humor and laughter, and based on many accounts on the internet, these incidents, consequences and experiences and just gold mines for people to enjoy.

I’m a straight, white male. I engage in heterosexual intimate practices. I am an educated man, who has never experienced true discrimination due to the presence of external genitalia or a lack of skin pigment. My work is seldom second guessed, I do not receive lower wages than others for any reason I’m aware of, and I hold all rights and abilities as other citizens and people like me – I can vote, shop, own things and live how I want. I am lucky this way. Others aren’t.  How they have to amend, alter and go about their lives is different than what I have to do. Sure, yes, there are things we all can do – like go get fast food, have a glass of water, watch paint dry – but what if you were uncomfortable about going to the bathroom, because you were pressured to using one you didn’t like? I don’t mean the one with the toilet no one enjoys, I mean the one for the gender you aren’t. What if you really enjoyed wearing a nice dress, but someone told you long ago that you really shouldn’t do that because even it’s not “what you’re supposed to be wearing”? What if you really liked a person, felt strong feelings of attraction to them, but knew that when the two of you were in public in a group, you couldn’t share or enjoy anything intimate, because other people would react negatively, maybe even to the point of violence? What if you were told you were sick, with an illness without a cure, an illness that would surely land you in hospitals on numerous occasions, that may erode your sense of sanity, that may cause you to hear and see things that others don’t, and that most other people, were you to tell them that you have this illness, which isn’t contagious, would assume that you’re two seconds away from killing people or burning down buildings or harming kids?

What if you experienced all these things, and rather than being accepted as being more than these things, you were laughed it? Mocked? Ignored? Treated as if you didn’t matter?

Making people feel shame or guilt or wrong for being a certain way or for experiencing an event is terrible, and should be criminal. It should be exposed for the cancer that it is on society and expunged. Not that the speakers of these statements need to be cast off to a remote island or butchered publicly, but the behavior must be called out. Yes, sometimes it will be like whistling in a hurricane. Yes, sometimes it will be like spitting into the ocean. Addressing a problem sometimes means that you have go against the grain, but how else can things change?

Now, a caution – there is an equal danger in letting this passion and this belief in calling out wrongfulness turn into a biasing crusade, that exposure to the wrongs of people will over time poison perception, rendering this just another assumptive lens: that everyone, excluding themselves or at most a very small portion of people, and possibly none as dedicated as they are, is at fault for fomenting and perpetuating these problems and it falls to them to save or reform, rather than educate and demonstrate alternatives.

See, I don’t like yellow Starburst. I think they taste like the way Pledge smells. I think they’re particularly waxy, the shade of yellow annoys me, and when I buy a bag of Starburst, I dump out the whole bag, sort out the yellows and relegate them to a bowl that I keep next to my microwave. I used to just throw them away, but then a friend of mine said, “Oh, I love yellow Starburst.” so I began to save them. Now when I see him, he gets a ziploc bag of candy I can’t stand.

What I was doing was shaming the yellow candy. I didn’t like them, I thought them inferior, so I excluded them from my sight (since I don’t normally eat candy when I’m next to the microwave), or disposed of them. There are people who like them, and while I may disagree with their assertions, that doesn’t change the fact that there are people who do think the yellow Starburst contribute something to the bag of candy, and that they are worth enjoying.

Now, I’m not in charge of Starbursts. I am not Great High Emperor of Candy (I can’t even get on the ballot), so while I have an opinion and preference as to what I like, I don’t hold sway over what others like. And part of being an adult is recognizing that I might not like what you like and vice versa, and because of that, no one is less than someone else. We’re just different, and difference doesn’t invalidate.

I don’t cosplay. It’s not something I enjoy, but I can appreciate when it’s done well. I’m even envious that people can do it well.

I like structure and having things a certain way. When people cut or color their hair in new ways, I don’t handle it well. This is not because I’m offended they did it, but because I have trouble distinguishing people if they’ve changed their appearance (they literally don’t look like the people I know). And yes, I do have a preference against short hair, because in my partners and relationships, I prefer and am attracted to long hair. But since the whole world is not comprised of only my partners and relationships, and because there are people I’m not attracted to, I don’t get to make the blanket statement that my word is law, and I must have my way.

I’m not gay. It never occurred to me to try and be gay. I’m not aroused by men, but I can appreciate a good looking one. Not because I’m secretly gay, but because I can appreciate beautiful people and maybe go so far as to envy them.

I don’t dress as a different gender. This is both because it doesn’t appeal to me, and because I have a terrible sense of my own appearance and body image. I can appreciate it when it’s done well, because again, I’m able to appreciate beauty and enjoy people expressing themselves.

None of those things make me less of a person for not doing them, just as the people who do those things aren’t less human than I am.

Calling attention to our differences in ways that belittle or subordinate is fruitless and cowardly. What’s gained in making someone feel bad for being who and what they are? What great prize gets awarded for making someone embarrassed to express themselves? Why reduce something that happens to people (the statistic is something like 78 an hour or 1.3 a minute) to a poorly constructed joke?

What I always ask people is – if you were on the receiving end of these statements (rather than the giving end), would you enjoy it? And if the response is “Well, if that was me, I’d exercise or be less gay or fight my attackers, etc etc”, let’s suppose that the problem didn’t have a solution you could act on. Let’s suppose your weight was metabolic and not dietetic, let’s consider that being less gay is like being less blue-eyed, and let’s consider that your attackers may be larger, stronger, more numerous or done something to reduce your resistance (drugs, emotional manipulation, coercion). What then, troll?

There’s always someone who digs the yellow Starburst, even if that’s not you. There’s plenty of candy for everyone, and everyone can dig what they like.

Dear [Company], What The Hell Are You Doing?

Okay, before I get into this, can I just say that stomach viruses suck? It would be a whole lot easier to be productive if I could keep food in my body.

Today’s blogpost was almost a rant on Twitter, and comes on the heels of conversations yesterday, last night and this morning. I am not going to name-check specific companies I know to have this problem, but I am going to address the problem. I have the permission of people to use what they said or what their experiences were.

First, some setup: Two friends of mine, one man and one woman (Since I’m not always sure of how to parse appropriate terminology, it is my hope they’ll forgive me for glossing over sexual preferences and the fact that she doesn’t identify as white), wanted very badly to pick up some side work in the gaming industry. Nothing big, they just really wanted a chance to help make products, maybe do a little writing or proofreading. Mostly, they just wanted to be able to say they’ve done things.

So I offer to see what work I can find them. I don’t have any immediate urgent knowledge of the companies I prefer to work with needing short blurbs written or things quickly proofed, so I go deeper into my rolodex to smaller companies and people I don’t know as well. I write a few introduction emails, and I don’t hear anything back from either side. I assume it’s out of my hands and whatever happens, I did the best I could to help my friends.

And then yesterday happens, where, in successive order, each one contacts me, both upset, both appalled by their experiences and both swearing to never ever, no matter who offers them whatever work, to never work in gaming.

I naturally ask why. And then I hear things that infuriate me.

I. They were told, “Everyone’s first project is a freebie.” No, no it’s not. My first project (that actually got my name in a book, that actually was enjoyed by consumers) absolutely got me paid. I even photocopied the check, I was so excited to get it. Listen to me, freelancers, YOU DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. Granted, yes, I don’t charge people when they email me a paragraph and say “Hey look this over.” and technically that is work I’m doing, but there’s a difference between reading four lines in an email and writing or editing THOUSANDS of works in a document. You deserve to get paid for whatever your part in the creative process was, whether it’s your first project or your tenth or your sixth billionth.

II. They were told, “Just start writing, we can talk about the contract later.” Okay, confession time – I’ve worked on things without contracts. And for those efforts, I didn’t get paid, even after I was done. It sucked. A lot. Since “later” isn’t something you control, you should NOT write until you have the contract. You want to make some notes, an outline or refine your idea? Go for it. But word one of the draft doesn’t go on paper until you have a contract either in-hand or in-mail.

III. They were asked for writing samples, and got no feedback. For me, the mark of professionalism is communication. Not just “Hello, I’m the guy you answer to, let’s do a good job. Go team!” but a regular and steady path of communication both up and down whatever structure exists. I’m not saying that project managers and administrative people need to hover, but if you know the writer is new or nervous or really wanting to impress you, TALK WITH THEM. COMMUNICATE. ENCOURAGE. INFORM. In this case, they should have at least gotten confirmation that the samples were received and read, and preferably heard if the style works or doesn’t work for the project. I know a lot of project leaders hoard knowledge and don’t praise because it preserves whatever bullshit idea they have about being in charge or respected, but there’s no getting around the fact that without writers, a project doesn’t get off the ground. And being cold to your writers doesn’t reinforce your authority, it makes you a shitty leader.

IV. They would ask questions, and get no answers. They would get responses, but they were placating and brush-off statements designed to stall their curiosity. I ask a lot of questions. I’m a talker. I love knowing how things are going, what the next steps are and what’s going on with parts of what I’m working on, not because I’m being a busybody, but because it makes me feel better to know that I’m part of a team and that the project my name is attached to isn’t languishing in some developmental hell while people bloat their egos, hide the fact that they have no money or generally dick around because they like being seen as being in charge of a project, but not actually do any work.  I am heavily influenced by efforts to be transparent, and to that end I regularly talk about what I do, what projects I’m working on, who I love to work with, and what I’m excited about. It is frustrating to have to be quiet about those things because I’m either forced to “play politics” or there’s some shroud of secrecy because someone at the top of the project is insecure and doesn’t want to share their toys with the rest of the playground. If you’re running a company or are part of team on a project, or hell, are working solo on something, why the fuck are you quiet about it? If it’s not going well, then talking about it might get you ideas and attention that can help turn it around. If it is going well, wouldn’t you want to celebrate it?

**

What this boils down to is this – any company who doesn’t communicate, doesn’t pay, doesn’t contract, doesn’t make an effort to give a damn about their staff is a shitty company to work for, and you should be incredibly careful in your dealings with them. I’ve had far too many projects get almost to the finish line only to have the rug pulled out and all the work lost to buried folders in Dropbox and as the butt of jokes in conversations. I’ve talked to far too many people who thought that creating a company or studio would be a fast-track ticket to some modicum of celebrity, only to hear them get notorious over how they treat people.

If you’re currently a company who isn’t up front with their staff, who obfuscates or doesn’t talk about certain things because they’re tough or scary or because they might upset other people and as a result you might look like a shitty manager of that talent, likely you and I are not going to work together, or if we do, it’s going to be really tough sometimes.

Do you not understand the responsibility you have as a creator of things? As a manager? Talented, amazingly talented people are TRUSTING you to let them be their best within the parameters you’ve agreed on, and they are offering their individual expertise to help you accomplish a collaborative goal. To mismanage them and that trust, to inhibit their abilities and to tie their hands creatively is a travesty, practically a criminal and a waste of everyone’s time. Also, people are depending on the paychecks they’re entitled to so that they can do things like have homes and eat food. (You know, little things like that)

What’s that you say? You brought them on because they’re “names” and you thought having them attached would help your fundraising or your sales or your shot at awards? Maybe it will, but if Great Writer X writes not-their-best work, do you think treading on a name is enough? How far do you expect that to take you? Is that what you’re going to tell your consumers? Tell me again why you’re producing these products. If you wanted an ego stroke or some masturbatory exercise, there’s loads of other places to do that on the internet, and you don’t have to interfere with other peoples’ livelihoods and expectations.

Wait, your concern is that you have no money to afford the best people, so there’s no way you can produce the best thing? Are you seriously telling me, with a straight face that only some small percentage of an industry population is capable of doing great work? What about everyone else? Couldn’t you give a shot to new people? Don’t they have just as much ability to do an awesome job? But you don’t know them, you say. But they’re unproven. Right, and if you give them something to do and encourage them, and foster them to do what they do, they will be proven and likely do a very awesome job.

You don’t have the audience that other companies have, so you have to do these things so that you can compete? Now, likely “these things” refers to a whole stack of awful business practices or a host of -isms (how many people of color, how many women, how many different ethnicities have you put prominently featured on projects?), but you can’t seriously tell me that this is a white man’s industry. Do you know the number of wonderful people I work with who aren’t white and/or male, you ignorant bigot? Are you just discounting their potential because they don’t look like you? Also, do these other companies know you’re competing with them? Like do they know of you? It’s not competition if participants don’t know they’re involved. (PS That still doesn’t give you any right to be an asshole to people when you meet them in person)

If you can’t pay people until your Kickstarter funds, make that known. If you have to pay people in installments, tell them. If you’re afraid to hire people because they’re women or gay or whatever or because they get loud on the internet, OWN UP TO IT. Sure, it’ll get you some immediate heat, but the admission of your fear will mean you can do something about it. If you want the respect of people and want to build an audience, stop hiding.  And if you don’t know how to do something, find people who do and ask them, work with them and help everyone out.

It is hard and scary to change practices, it might be hard to shake people’s assumptions and existing knowledge of you, but bettering your professionalism, improving how you treat people, changing the perception that you’re a fucking asshole, IS WORTH IT.

 

Things You Can Do With A Deck of Fate

This morning, I thought we’d talk some game design.

To best follow along with this post, I recommend you pick up a Deck of Fate.  One deck is $15.00 (at the time I’m writing this), and you can use it in quite a few ways to supplement, replace or deviate from your typical Fate Dice-and-chip experience.

For the curious, no, I had no major role in the Deck’s production other than periodically saying that I really liked the layout and that I really really wanted them. Now I have a few Decks.

This is not an ‘unboxing’ post, and you can find far better written information about what is and isn’t in the Deck elsewhere, but today, we’re going to look at a variety of things you can do with the cards in either the Accelerated Deck or the Dice Deck.

Let’s start with the Dice Deck, because that’s sitting here next to me on the desk.

Things I Have Somewhat Thought About

(I’m going to pretend you’ve got your own stack of cards, shuffled, and in a single stack in front of you)

** Off the top of my head, I can tell you that you can use the Dice Deck in a LARP as a resolution system. I know this, because I wrote a resolution system for the Unofficial Dresden Files LARP with the Deck of Fate in mind. For more details on that though, you should go talk to Shoshana Kessock.

Game I: Dirty Fantasy (4 players, though I might boost it)

1. Use the numeric portion of the Dice Deck. Deal 4 cards to each player (include yourself). The numbers on each card correlate to 4 stats: Power, Speed, Magic, Thought.

Note: Arbitrate ties by choosing which card has cooler Aspect-text on it.

a) The person with the highest Power rating is your Warrior.

b) The person with your highest Speed rating is your Rogue

c) The person with your highest Magic rating is your Spellcaster

d) The person with your highest Thought rating is your Shaman.

The other two stats are variable.

2. Determine the opposition cross (something I just made up, yes, but it’s a way of designating who will sit across from each other around the table)

a) The Warrior’s lowest rated card is her Magic rating. (because brute force lacks the nuance of magic)

b) The Rogue’s lowest rated card is his Thought rating. (because a life outside the law lacks wisdom)

c) The Spellcaster’s lowest rated card is her Power rating (because academia trains brain muscles, not biceps)

d) The Shaman’s lowest rated card is his Speed rating (because careful deliberation trumps haste)

By this point, you should be able to sit players across from each other, like in this hastily made graphic.

UrbanFantasy001

Now for the sake of detail. here are the cards each player has:

Warrior: +3 , +2 , 0 , -2

SpellCaster: +2 ,  +2 , -2 , -3

Rogue: +1 , +1 , 0 , -1

Shaman: +2 , -1 , -2 , -2

3. Deal an additional four Cards. Designate these ‘Story Cards’, but this time you’re going to look at their Aspects AND their numbers.

Our Story Cards: -4 [Horrifying Incompetence / Comedy of Errors] . -2 [Outmaneuvered / Bewildered] . 0 [Keeping an Eye on It / Push and Pull] , +1 [Stumbled into Success / Didn’t See You Coming]

Option A – Assign one Story Card to a Character

Option B – Lay these four cards in the middle of the opposition cross, and collaboratively use them (1 time each) to tell a story of how the Characters met.

Option C – Each character chooses their preferred Card, and can use the Story Card to replace ANY of their existing Cards, changing seats and Roles as needed.

If the table agrees on Option A, the Aspect on the Card refers to a scene where the Character did something prior to coming to meet the rest of the group.

If the table agrees on Option B, the Aspect on the Card refers to an outcome, while the number (either positive or negative) may refer to anything counted: a number of cards, a quantity of gems, how many guards tried to stop them, etc)

If the table agrees on Option C, the number refers to a Character’s Ability.

In Play: The player with the lowest rated card (ties are broken by either whoever is younger or whoever more recently had the worst experience with a dudebro) begins the story. She places card(s) (as many as help tell the story, but once a card is down, you have to use it)  in front of her, making use of either (or both, I suppose) Aspect on it, and begins telling a story, The player in opposition to her can interrupt, provided they can play a card of either higher or contrary (-2 over +2) value, and provided they can take the story over from the POV of their character. Once both players in opposition have gone (or if a player can’t be opposed but has stalled in their storytelling, ANY Character can play ANY card and assume narration.)

A round ends when each player has gone either 3 times or has used all their cards twice.

Example: Play begins with the Shaman, who plays -2 [Offended] and -1 [Unfriendly] and begins telling the story of how she was rebuffed at the castle gate by 1 Unfriendly guard, since she needed to urgently tell the Prince of a terrible Knight coming to destroy the Castle. The Rogue (her opposition) can’t interrupt, since he has no +2 or -3 or -4, so story control can be assumed by anyone. The Warrior jumps in with +2 [In the Groove] and begins telling how he’s in the brothel, enjoying the company of 2 people, and consistently impressing them with tales of who he can beat in a fight. The SpellCaster interrupts, playing -3 [Fumbled It] and begins to describe how, from another room in the brothel, he walks in on the Warrior and challenges the assertion, telling him about this Knight he’s heard about, and how a real Warrior would go out and take him on, but of course, the SpellCaster will have to go with him to verify the outcome. Having been opposed, play is open again and the Rogue jumps in, playing +1 [Smart], and adds to the story that she’s also in the brothel, trying to rob people while they’re busy, and decides that a dead Warrior HAS to have some gold on him, so he’ll join the retinue to take on the Knight. Of course, the Shaman interrupts with -2 [A Costly Error] , since that will require this whole squad to encounter her at the gate, since apparently the Prince isn’t seeing anyone today

Game II: Con Men and Con Ladies (3 – 5 players)

Note: You can use the Accelerated Deck in conjunction with the Dice Deck here, or just shuffle and deal the first six cards into a row at the middle of the table. If you use the Accelerated Deck, the order you arrange the cards doesn’t matter.

Note #2: You’ll want a stack of tokens or pennies, or I guess, to use extra Deck cards, since the reverse side of cards acts as a chip.

1. Deal each player 3 Cards from the Dice Deck. Each player will use these cards in two ways: (a) As Aspects (b) As stats in 3 Skills; Charm, Fists, and Planning. ((If you use the Accelerated Deck, omit this step)).

2. After players receive cards, Deal 3 additional cards in front of each player. These are the Marks. Make sure each Mark gets 3 tokens on it.

3. The goal is to reduce each Mark to 0, that is to say eliminate the tokens on each card. The numeric value on the card dictates how far up or down you have to ‘travel’ to con the mark.

4. Play starts alphabetically, Each player can put one of the their cards on a Mark, and narrate how they’ll use one of the card’s Aspects to con the Mark. There’s simple math after that.

Card’s Value > Mark’s Value, measured in shifts. If shifts > +1, remove one token from Mark, discard spent Card and draw new. If Mark’s Value is > Card’s value, add 1 token to Mark. Narrate accordingly.

5. Play passes to the left.  First player to reduce all Marks to zero wins.

Accelerated Variant: Lay out Approaches in front of all players. Lay out Marks accordingly. Shuffle Dice Deck. On a turn, a player draws a Card, selects an Approach and attempts to con the Mark. Play continues as above. The player who takes the most tokens wins.

System I. Gumshoe Twist

Note: Use this system in place of the standard Gumshoe setup. You’re still going to tell Gumshoe-y stories, just not with a d6.

1. Shuffle Dice Deck. Each player cuts and reshuffles.

2. Each player draws 12 cards, to be played face up in front of them, arranged in 4 groups of 3. Groups: Academic, Technical, Interpersonal, General.

Academic – Things you know.

Technical – Things that require training.

Interpersonal – How you relate to others

General – Any skill that isn’t covered in the other 3.

3. Players may move a number of cards from group to group equal to the number of players in the game (3 players = 3 moves, etc)

4. Total the number of points in each group. Possibly write this down on a note card. I would.

5. Resolution: A player can bid either one entire card, or points from a single card, against a single draw made by the GM. Higher value wins resolution.

5b. Once a card is reduced to zero, discard it. Negative values result in progressive levels of failure and hardship. (-1 might be a flashlight running out of batteries, -4 might be getting your arm stuck in a trap, etc.)

5c. A player can bid a negative card value or concede a negative card for the sake of narration, and receive their choice of two Drawn cards as a replacement, shuffling the Deck before and after choosing.

System II. A LARP something or other

1. Deal out one range of cards to each player (-4 to +4) OR make sure all players have each Approach on notecards or their own Accelerated Decks.

2. Resolution: If using the Dice deck, each player can resolve a skill challenge or conflict with a card. Each card can be used up to three times per session. When a player uses all their cards, they’re inactive until refresh occurs. Refresh at the end of every other scene.

That’s every note from last night. I’m sure, as I think of more, I’ll write more.

Happy gaming.

Run-On Sentences and Passive Voice

I thought today I’d write about two of the greatest obstacles in writing. I can’t say they’re obstacles to quality writing, since like so many other rules of writing, you can break them when you need to, but these two things are barriers to getting your writing off the ground.  Run-on sentences and passive voice are two of the most common things I prune and work on in other people’s writing, regularly calling it out in comments and retooling sentences so that they’re shiny diamonds and not lumps of coal.

Do we need to define things?

A run-on sentence is technically defined as “a sentence containing two or more independent clauses without appropriate punctuation, conjunction or indication of such.”

Passive voice is that part of the sentence where the subject of the sentence (the person or thing that undergoes action) has its state changed.

Let’s look at examples of each, then we’ll talk about why both suck the life out of writing and how you can fix both of them.

Run-on Sentences

Our definition above is really too crunchy for regular use. It requires you to understand what an independent clause is, what punctuation is and isn’t appropriate and what a conjunction is. So let’s amend it.

A run-on sentence is multiple full sentences mashed together for a reason you can’t easily provide other than you really think all these thoughts need to go together.

Here are some examples, fresh from the internet.

* Adam was a sweet boy he really loved animals. 

* He tried medication he did not like the way it made him feel. 

When you read them aloud (as you should any sentence you write), hopefully you notice that these sentences don’t feel right. You want to put a break or at least a pause between parts of them. Maybe you even changed the way you inflect, to raise or lower the pitch of your voice as you speak, so as to convey a complete thought.

When we do a rough conversion of our speech into text, we indicate that pause or shift most often with a comma. Like this: “He paused, thinking.” The comma inserts a little gap between the two verbs, and just like the downbeat in music, puts a little force and weight on the second verb. (Because the first part of the sentence tells us what he did, and the second answers why he did it.)

But, in our examples, if we just drop commas in where we think the pauses are, we get these.

* Adam was a sweet boy, he really loved animals. 

* He tried medication, he did not like the way it made him feel. 

And a lot of people would do that, and say “I fixed it.” but they’d be wrong, and in fact would be Captain Wrong of the Wrong Ship Wrongypants.

Commas alone, a good percentage of the time, DO NOT fix run on sentences. They’re not enough of a break between thoughts. Rather than consider a comma to be an “Um” or an “Uhh” as we do when speaking, consider a comma to be an inhalation of breath through the nose – the sentence doesn’t actually come to a stop, you’re just sucking in more air to keep going, which implies this sentence is long.

The fix? Make them individual sentences or punctuate/weight them to make each part have the appropriate weight for whatever point you’re making.

In the first case, I’d likely make them two sentences –> Adam was a sweet boy. He really loved animals. I did that because there are two separate complete thoughts there: (1) Adam was a sweet boy (2) He really loved animals. If you have complete thoughts that are different from each other, it’s a run-on sentence. Given that each thought isn’t a terribly complicated sentence by itself (we get not further information about Adam’s sweetness or how he loved whatever kind of animals), we can make each thought a sentence and they’ll stand just fine by themselves.

In the second case, there are different ways to repair it. You could use punctuation like an em dash or colon. Or use an “and” between the two parts.

**

Note: Let’s address the em dash / en dash / hyphen here. Each dash is so named because they’re supposed to be the respective length of their characters (an em dash is as long as a typed ‘m’; an en dash an ‘n’) but they have two totally different uses. An em dash is for interrupting or clarifying a thought with more information. (“Government — state and national alike  — needs a reboot.”) Yes, you can use a double-dash “–” as an em dash. You can type an em dash with Ctrl + Alt + – (the key next to the +/= key).

En dashes are used to express ranges of things (New York beat Chicago 5-4 in overtime) or qualifying descriptions of things (See the difference between “four armed bandits” and “four-armed bandits”? The first says there’s a quartet of robbers, and the second suggests that there is some unknown quantity of badguys, each with four arms). You can type an en dash with Ctrl + –

If you just press the – key, that’s a hyphen, and not what we’re talking about here. Hyphens are used to tack on extra sounds or bit of things to other things like pre-existing or post-doctoral or what-the-fuck-did-you-do-itis.

**

Back on point, I prefer a colon or “and” between the two parts of the sentence. To my eye, the colon makes the second part of the sentence (the not liking medication part) the conclusion of the first part’s instigation. Sure, you could use an “and” between the two points, but that lacks the punch of a colon. It makes the two parts more equals than one being the result of the other. Here’s the sentence both ways.

* He tried medication: he did not like the way it made him feel.

* He tried medication and he did not like the way it made him feel.

I would use the colonic sentence if I wanted to create the picture that this guy was going through some illness, that it was difficult, and that he was maybe exhausted looking for treatment. I’d use the second sentence if I wanted to draw less attention to his efforts to take medication, and more about how it made him feel, but still wanted to move the reader onto whatever thought and sentence came next.

Why do run-ons occur? Because people have a lot of thoughts and information to convey, they all consider it to be important, and sometimes they rush to get it all out. Other times, people aren’t sure how to write the idea they have in their head, so they just get it all down on paper, grammar be damned. Still other times, they’re trying to sound smart when instead they should focus on sounding authentic.

Passive Voice

True fact: If I charged a nickel for every bit of passive construction I edit, I’d not only be retired by now, but I’d own a mansion and a yacht. This is without a doubt THE big thing I attack in edits, and remains a regular discussion point in my workshops and conferences.

I’m not saying it’s always bad. Like so many other things, there’s a place and a time to break it out. But it’s not nearly as often as you think.

Our definition above is clear – passive construction occurs when the subject of the sentence (the person or thing interacting with the verb) has its state changed.

Here are some examples.

* I had washed my face that morning.

* All people are created equal.

* The mirror got broken in the fight.

The easy way to spot passive construction is to look for two verbs in the sentence. In these cases, its “had washed” “are created” and “got broken“.  Once you spot the double verb construction, check the second verb. Is it past tense? Then you’re likely passive. If it’s a gerund (a word ending in –ing), then it’s likely but not always active (“He was riding his bicycle when he fell.), but exceptions occur. And we’re not going to get into the discussion of all kinds of passive construction flavors, because it gets masturbatory, and distracts us from the point of fixing the problem. Also, the fact that I can tell you the difference between stative and dynamic passive voice has never gotten me any groupies, affection or phone numbers. I got some drinks from it once, but that’s because I drink with writers and editors.

The fix? Well, it depends on the sentence and its intention.

Sometimes you can eliminate the first verb and possibly adjust the conjugation of the second verb (see below).  But if we do that in our second example sentence (“All men are created equal.”), the sentence doesn’t make sense. In cases like that, you need to rewrite the sentence to account for where the focus should be, or sometimes, eliminate the second verb instead (see below).

* I had washed my face that morning.

* All people are created equal.

* The mirror got broken in the fight.

Where people balk at this is when you change the verbs, you dilate time, which they may say or believe to be critical to whatever they’re writing. This is because passive construction by its very nature delays the verb’s occurrence. We’re not talking about something that just happened, we’re now talking about something that happened some time ago, maybe minutes or hours or days earlier. It’s a stall, and people use it as a crutch to convey a whole host of things from character detail to masking their indecisiveness-slash-insecurity as authors to establishing a lengthy chain of events that would otherwise bore the shit out of a reader.

Yes, exceptions occur, and they are numerous. And yes, you can be as passive as you like sparingly, like croutons in a salad, once you understand how passive construction can convey gaps effectively. But you can’t always be passive. You can’t always hedge your bets with extended verbs like they’re sweet guitar solos and you just want to rock out. You can’t always delay the reader the point, hoping that when it arrives, it’s all the more enjoyed. It isn’t, and that’s not just because people are impatient (though they are). Delaying gratification is a control issue, asserting the author’s ability to make-the-reader-their-bitch, never trusting them to be equal collaborators and conspirators in the act of producing good creative stuff.

I really hope this helps people out, though there is something bittersweet in trying to correct the mistake that helps pay my bills.

Keep writing, keep creating. Happy writing.

UPDATE! I put together a quick and dirty PDF that should help you get some work done. Check it out The John List Of Things To Edit