Help Me Level Up

Hey everyone, it’s a beautiful evening, and I’m writing this with the windows open and the blades of sunlight streaming through the edges of the Venetian blinds.

My worry is that this post will be a little rambly, but let’s promise each other to do our best and get through all the stuff, shall we?

First, a medical update! I’m still upright and kicking, and I know that my flippant answers make it sound like I’m not serious about the issues of my health, but I do so love to cage and dodge my feelings sometimes in humor. The fact is that nothing has changed in a while. I’ve got some new meds to start in two weeks, the diet plan is actually not too awful (did you know mexican food that you don’t buy via drive-thru is actually pretty smart for your heart? I didn’t), and I’ve wrangled some very lovely arrangements with insurers and doctors alike so that I won’t have to sell unborn children to too many cults or crossroads specters in order to make it through the autumn months. Yes, it’ll be expensive. Yes, that will make things tough. No, that’s not the end of the world. I made it work once, I can damned sure do it again.

Second, I want to write in more than 140 characters that I am sorry if my continued chatter about my health verges on the maudlin or complaint side of things. I know that it gets tiring quickly to hear people complain of dwindling finances and stressful situations, and I continue to appreciate the patience of everyone who has stayed along for the ride. I don’t write these things idly or just to sour other peoples’ parades, and I promise you to do a better job (starting right the hell now) in keeping the negative in check.

Yes, my health is a scary issue for me. It’s a nebula of confusion and fear and anger and sadness and acceptance all swirling around the ideas that I may or may not be deserving this fate or good enough to deserve coming through this in one piece. But that is likely material for not only a wealth of blogposts, but also therapy appointments.

Moving onward, we should talk a little about some of the things I want to do, given my promise two paragraphs ago.

I want to attend more writing-based conferences, conventions, and retreat-things. I know “retreat-things” isn’t a word, but I was looking for sort of a catch-all to describe the events where lots of people congregate to discuss and learn about writing. I’d like to sit in more audiences. I’d like to be surrounded by those creative energies again. I miss them.

I want to speak at writing-based conferences, conventions and retreat-things. Here’s a slightly tricky prospect: I’m not an agent. I’m not employed by a traditional publisher. I’m not a professor of English at an educational institution. I’m a professional editor with over a decade of experience helping people turn ideas into stories, games and media. I’ve got a small twitter following. I say some things that people favorite and retweet, but I’m not exactly a Kardashian (that’s the metric for quality social media, right? Kardashian Units? Or have we switched to the Kanye or Trump? I can never tell.) What I’m saying is that I don’t know how to get my name on the radar of these things, but I’m willing to try all that I can to do so.

I am going to continue to work. Work is an invaluable resource for me, and not just financially. Because I get tired and do a lot of sitting or reclining, I find myself in need of things to do. Heart issues may tax the body, but the mind just sort of sits there and spins. Having work, the challenge of creation, the challenge of bringing other peoples’ stuff to its best light, all that fire and passion is tremendous for me. I want to help. I love to create. I love to see things transmogrify from idea to product. Don’t let the daily pills and frequent naps fool you, beneath this cane-walking facade churns the creative engine waiting to be let loose again. I’ve still got good days and good work ahead of me.

I want to Guest of Honor at a convention or event. Here I stroke my ego, some would say, but I think this is more a goal than an abject recognition of some obvious premise … because I don’t think I always deserve the ranking, even though I claw at my world to bring me validation (Again, more therapy topics, I think) This isn’t a case of “if person X can be a Guest of Honor, why can’t I?”, this is more a case of “John, will you please stop being afraid and take the chance?” Again, I’m not always sure how to do that, but I’m wanting to do more.

If you’ve asked, “How can I help?” let me thank you and then thank you again. Here’s how you can help:

(if you’re wondering why this gap is here, imagine I’ve been interrupted five times by a really needy dog)

  1. Continue this ride with me. Keep doing what you’re doing
  2. If you have conventions, writing conferences, groups or other word things that you’d like to see me at, tell me about them.
  3. If you want to take your idea and get it out of your head, and onto paper or a page or anywhere where it can be seen or experienced by others, let’s work together. Write me an email. Write me a tweet. Let’s talk about making your stuff happen.

We’ll talk more soon. Like next week soon.

Happy writing.

Wants, Risk, Drive, and Fears – Character Motivators

So while I’m laying here recuperating today, and in anticipation of my birthday tomorrow, I wanted to talk a little about character development.

When you’re writing a character, whether that’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a character you’re about to portray in a game, or some side character with a few lines, it’s helpful to frame them in your mind so you can deliver what you think the best performance is, situationally speaking.

To find that character, here are five questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • What is this character willing to risk to get what they want?
  • What drives this character forward to whatever comes next?
  • What is this character afraid to lose?
  • What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss?

And here’s the breakdown:

What does this character want? What are the character’s goals, both the short and long terms? Do they just want to rob this one bank, or are they going to spend their whole life getting rich? Do they just want to stop this badguy, or does the whole city need protecting?

Goals are tricky to identify. Yes, they can change, and one goal can masquerade as an other, but there’s no denying that everyone has goals. And those goals are getting pursued in nearly every action they take. Yes, a character can have more than one goal, but when lots of little goals tie together into a larger goal, those little goals are just steps towards the bigger achievement. Stealing the chemicals + kidnapping the scientist + testing chemicals on civilian hostages  are all individual goals sure, but they all combine as steps in the antagonist’s plan to hold the city hostage and threaten chemical warfare.

What is this character willing to risk to get what they want? Risk is a “conflict motivator” because there’s danger present in whether or not loss will happen. And since you can’t lose what you’ve never had, whatever’s being risked is something the character already has at the time they make the decision to be risky. Yes, there are circumstances where some risks are dependent on other risks – robbing the bank risks capture or death in a shoot-out, and gambling with that stolen money won’t be possible unless you rob the bank successfully – but on an individual basis, risk is put into the story to change the status quo.

A character willing to risk something means they want to change that status quo. It also means that the thing being risked is either of sufficient value that you’re willing to use it as collateral to change the status quo or it’s of such little value that any risk is negligible. The valuable stuff getting risked must mean the challenge seems sufficient to warrant it, right? Why would you risk your life over something tiny? There are side questions here to explore as well, about how the character will change with either the success from the risk or the loss because of it.

What drives this character forward to whatever comes next? Usually this is concept or a core part of the character’s moral code. (Shameless plug – I wrote a great article on character development that talks about moral codes, it’s on Smashwords). Superheroes are driven by a need for justice or redemption or vengeance or something broad but universal. (The more universal the concept, the more the audience can project onto the character and escape into their adventures.). More grounded stories often personify this driving force – a child, a wife – to show a broad category of “reasons to do the right thing.” This can too easily become obvious, dull, and expected though if every hero is driven by the exact same thing(s) as the hero on their right. But there does need to be a reason for the hero to move forward, and it should be bigger than the plot.

Yes, the plot will give them a reason to go forward – the hero has to defuse the bomb after defeating the villain, the lady has to lead her people into battle after accepting the mantle of authority – but consider what the character would do if there wasn’t a plot. Is your character sufficiently realized and developed that you could think of them as something more than a plot-solver?

What is this character afraid to lose? What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss? Loss and risk aren’t the same thing. Risk requires a choice to be made, loss can happen outside of a person’s control. You risk money when you gamble, you lose something when the house burns down. It’s entirely normal to be afraid to lose things. And those “things” don’t even need to be objects. Yes, I’m afraid of losing my glasses or my pills or my dog, but I’m also afraid of losing control over my anxiety. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of discovering that no one cares about me or my work, and that I don’t matter.

Because we can quantify and qualify our fears, we can act in ways to prevent them from coming true. We can earn income so we don’t have to fear poverty. We can make friends or learn to like ourselves so we don’t have to fear being alone. The same is true for characters. We don’t need to reduce them down to some infantile idea of them just afraid and lashing out, but understanding the reaction between being afraid and taking steps to avoid that loss can give a character a dimension that can help explain everything from anger they feel to decision making.

Don’t think though that a character has to exist only in the space between fear and acting to avoid that fear. You can stack the protections and the actions into an interesting chain. For instance:

A character is afraid of getting sick -> So they avoid sick people -> But they keep finding sick people -> So they discover a chemical to boost their immune system -> But it’s expensive and only in one place -> So they decide to steal it

You could have easily clipped this chain of ideas off at “avoiding sick people”, but by giving more context, by adding in more story elements, you’re creating opportunities, risk, and a plot.

These five questions can give flat characters some extra nuance and facets. I hope they serve you well.

Happy writing.

A Whole Mess of GenCon Thoughts

I’ve been home now about two hours, which for me is just enough time to really begin the deeper marination process of feelings and memories. I’ve put some of my thoughts already up on Facebook, but those are the first blush at these ideas. I’ve had delicious lasagna and a pint of iced tea, so I think there’s more to say.

I want to start by saying this was a good convention for me. I came home with far fewer business cards than I left the house with, and I’m hopeful that with all the people I’ve met, the horizon will have some good work ahead. While I didn’t walk the convention floor nearly enough for my liking, I have to recognize that lengthy periods of walking, even with a cane, aren’t easy for me anymore. I had quite a few moments of exhaustion and “Let’s just sit down/lean right here” and I am sure that I should have done it more than I did.

This was the first year I didn’t have some rushed sense that I was running out of time or that I should have been doing something else (more on that in the next paragraph), and this was the first year I didn’t have something looming over my head while I was there. There wasn’t a big spectacle at an awards show this year, I didn’t have to spill too many guts out for the first time at panels, I didn’t have to worry about staying high or drunk or anything like that. I just got to be me, and I liked that.

A funny thing happened when I stopped living and acting for other people and made myself a priority – I started having a lot of fun. I started laughing at jokes again. I started making jokes again. I started liking things that I somehow convinced myself were “beneath me”. Like peach cobbler. Like pickled jalapeños. Like 90s music. And all this liking gave me a renewed sense of purpose towards what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I don’t think I lost sight of that entirely, but I know it got obfuscated by a lot of people and paranoia and pettiness. Without a feeling like I should be doing something else because it would have been boring for other people to stand around and watch me hand people business cards or chat with people I see once or twice a year, I let myself enjoy things. And that’s … good. It felt good. Also, it saved me a ton of money in bar tabs and loads more in frustration.

I’ve never had a good sense that my panels help people. Sure, I get a few people who follow me on twitter after a panel. I get maybe some passing bit of information that so-and-so did something, but more or less, I leave a seminar thinking I’ve reached no one and left no evidence of an impression. It can be tiring to think about the days of prep and the hours of rehearsal all amounting to nothing, so I try to make sure that I did do something that helped, even if asking or thanking people grows annoying. This year though, I am confident, so absolutely confident that I helped people. Not just because I gave them a place to sit for an hour, but because they got answers to questions, or they made new friends or they got to put a voice to something they had been sitting on for a while. I watched people get hugs (seriously, hugs happened). I watched people do a lot of nodding to the people seated next to them. I attribute this to two things – I stopped making panels about me and how great I am, and I didn’t overload the panels with information.

See, I used to think that my panels were boring, so I’d jam them with material, far too much material, and leave people in an overwhelming cloud of “what do I take away from this”. Partnered with a sense of “Yeah I just spent sixty minutes talking about how cool I am, this is sure to bring me work”, I am pretty sure this often made me an asshole, and as I step away from that now (somewhat, I mean, leopards and spots, guys), I realize that the panels are there to help people. And I like helping people. So I did.

Oh! That brings me to the awards portion of the blogpost. Something I worked on, the Designers and Dragons industry encyclopedias, was up for a few awards. I was very eager to win one, as I was closer to this project than many of the other things I’ve done. And I’m happy to say, the book won an award.

It's a pretty sweet certificate. It comes with a medal too.

It’s a pretty sweet certificate. It comes with a medal too.

I could not have won this award without the hard work of so many amazing people at Evil Hat Productions, but I would be lying if I said this award didn’t also feel like some personal recognition too. These books had A LOT of words in them, and they took time to edit. No, don’t take that to mean the words all sucked, just that there was a lot of reading and checking and little corrections like commas or unclear sentences to trim up. And yes, I did ask for my own copy of the certificate and medal. Call it an early birthday gift to myself.

((At this point in the writing, I’ve written and deleted a few paragraphs about something that happened about the awards show (didn’t involve me), and I’ve decided that warrants its own post, probably later in the week. So instead of paragraphs of words, look at these doughnuts))

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I miss my friends. I miss the family I left back there. I miss being woken up early. I miss the way the shower I used all week creaked underfoot. I miss the stink of sewage that seems to drape over downtown Indianapolis but no one ever seems to be talking about it. I miss the sight of 61,000-something (!!) people milling around a few blocks in a city I’ve come to really like (except for the smell).

But, I am glad to be home in Jersey. I missed my dog. I missed my garden. I missed my iced tea and my video games and my music.

The inbox is crowded and dense, and there are many thank-yous and replies to messages to write. Better get to it.

Be good to each other, and make awesome things.