The Great Metatopia 2016 Recap Post

(originally this went up on Facebook, but it got long and I thought it deserved wider distribution)

Metatopia is the single greatest convention I attend every year. Period. There is no better professional setting I’m aware of, and this is absolutely the best place for designers new and old to congregate and flourish. That is 1000% due to the tireless work of the Double Exposure staff, and even with everyone heaping deserved praise at them, it’s not enough. This convention is the place to go if you want to create games or learn about the business of telling stories and engaging with people.

If there is a downside to convention culture, it’s that a lot of it orbits bars and a drinking culture. For the majority of people, this isn’t a problem – you have a drink or two, you laugh with your friends, you gossip and chatter, then haul off to bed. But for those of us working sober, for those of us who don’t have as easy a time in that atmosphere, the fact that each night (or frankly any time of day with downtime) brings everyone to a central alcohol dispensing locale is a challenge. The call to have a drink after a tough conversation or a shaky panel is a siren’s song, and I am so proud not only of myself, but my recently sober friends for working their programs and getting through. Good job us.

This year was honestly a departure from my usual routine of panel after panel, because this year I added co-panelists when I had the opportunity. Here’s why that’s flat-out not what I normally do – I love to hear myself talk, and I worry that sharing the stage is going to prove to people just how negligible my contributions to any discussion are.

But there I was, having conversations about everything from narrative structure to marketing strategies to the Oxford comma with other people at the table. And it didn’t suck. The panels weren’t all dumpster fires and CGI-less explosions. Sure, I had a few moments of “What the holy monkeyshit am I doing here?” but those were fleeting, and I was able to slip past those and get back to the task of informing people about things while making pop culture references and garnering laughs.

While it didn’t suck, it wasn’t easy, and I suppose that’s lesson #1 I learned – other people in your sandbox doesn’t totally prove that you shouldn’t be in the sandbox in the first place. I am supremely worried that because of other people my visibility got diluted, but if it is, then that’s due to me being all up in my head and forgetting to promote myself, it is not the fault of there being a second person on the stage with me.

That said, those other people were amazing. Like staggeringly smart, and I think our conversations and concept coverage was delivered better because there was a breadth of angles to address. From therapists to podcasters to legal editors to actors to people who tell stories about pole-dancing merfolk sex workers, they’re not stupid, and I won’t stand for anyone disparaging any of them just because you may have heard of me but not them.

There are few personal things to talk about in some detail for the remainder of this post. So yes, there’s gonna be a tonal shift, but I urge you to stick with me on this ride, please. Here we go.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t go get high. Holy sweet things was I ever tempted, but I picked up the phone and got the help I needed even if it was hard to hear and tough to bear. I needed that salvation, I needed that rescue, and without out, there wouldn’t be anything else in this post, or anything else to talk about. I had my life saved, and I am so thankful to know amazing people and count them as a true family.  Onward.

In the last year, I’ve had some serious professional setbacks. I’ll own them, I’ll point out that my lack of communication prompted many of them, and those setbacks were scorched earth to my pride, ego, and how I feel about what I do. I can’t say it’s been a tailspin, but I’ve certainly more time this year questioning what I’m doing and where I’m going forward than any other year, including two years ago when I first got clean and sober.

But there are the nagging ideas that some of these setbacks are due to factors out of my control – that the climate of where I work has changed due to people making different elements a priority. This is not to say that these social conversations shouldn’t be happening (they should and must), but I think too there needs to be an awareness of the people who aren’t “toxic” or “problematic” being swept up and affected in the purgative efforts to bring in new voices and new creatives. What I’m saying is this, I believe that as we have more conversations about inclusivity and equality, it’s worth monitoring who gets pressed to the margins by those efforts in secondary or unintentional ways. The notion that you can just invert the dynamic between superior and subordinate as though you’re going to “teach people in power what it’s like to be powerless” is a dangerous one, and suggests that people lack a certain degree of self-awareness that going from bullied to bully doesn’t do much to stop the practice. A rising tide lifts ALL the ships, not just the ones you handpick.

Politicking aside, it was good and vital and helpful to me to get a bit of closure on some the setbacks that prompted the crisis I’m still experiencing. I got a chance to apologize, to own my shit, and I got a response that comforted me. I needed that. And that’s lesson #2 – owning your shit, owning who you are, what you do, how you sound, what you want to do, what you did, owning the mistakes, owning the willingness to admit those mistakes and try again helps you, even if you think it’s not dissimilar from dry-humping a hot cheese grater while you’re doing it.

This came up in a marketing on Sunday and blew my mind when it clicked into place – I have defined myself professionally and personally as this one sort of person who isn’t actually as bad a human or professional as I feared I was. I am by zero means perfect, and I certainly not everyone’s first choice or cup of tea, but I’m also not the leper at the city walls forever looking in and lost amid the masses. That’s a big deal for a guy who thinks of himself as the small kid who was sick all the time and driven to be smart so that people would want to hang out with him.

I have many people I hold as heroes and role models, and I am lucky to be able to spend time with them at this convention. We go eat sushi together, we sit on couches and talk not of work but of families and things we’ve done. New people come around and they’re not excluded. I like that. And this was the year I found out that I hold that hero/role model role for other people. Shocking, I know, because I’m just me, and I just do this stuff, and sort of get all long-winded about it, but it felt good to hear that I said or did things to help people. Which takes me to lesson #3 – you can have a positive impact on people without intentionally masterminding it. Being yourself, and being yourself passionately is visible and that’s totally fucking cool to do because people see that and it leads them to doing it to, in this positive domino chain of people being awesome.

I’m still working on how to process that one though. It’s one of those I-know-it-intellectually-but-emotionally-it-makes-as-much-sense-as-snakes-thumbwrestling things.

Speaking of heroes, there are those I have but have never interacted with directly, just been out on the edges near. They produce content where I’m an audience member, one of the many who say, “One day I’ll work with them. One day I’ll perform the right ritual and sign the Faustian deal and I’ll be lucky enough to work with them.”

I guess that ritual was the one where you walk over to a person and say hello and then ask them if they want to do a thing together, because that’s what I did, and I did get a chance to be a part of something huge and splendid and amazing. You’ll hear more about in the coming weeks and months, but if you jump on Twitter later today I’ll be talking about it somewhat.

And that’s lesson #4 the final lesson today – If you want to go do the thing, you have to go do something about it, and it’s not going to be handed to you. Want to be a _______? Then you need to go do that _________ so that people can see it and experience it. Want to have a chance to tick an item off your bucket list? Go have the scary conversation and be nervous and puke up eggs in a hotel garbage can then go do thing where people who you are 10000000000% sure have more talent in their toenails than you could muster over a thousand lifetimes work with you then shockingly spend the time telling you it was amazing. Yeah, that happened. It was awesome.

Stick around for more sweet blog action later this week. I’ll see you then. Happy writing.

 

The Sisters of Crime Discussion

Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.

The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.

Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.

Now add a 48-star flag:

Yes, 48 stars. I counted.

 

And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:

The dust on this thing was incredible.

If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.

Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.

Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.

A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.

Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.

Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations

Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:

The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.

That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:

A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.

B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery.  The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.

C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.

It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.

But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.

Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.

And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.

This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.

Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.

Happy writing.

My 2015 GenCon schedule (updated!)

Today’s a good day. The air is warm and humid, I took a nap, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Seems like the perfect time to write up my GenCon schedule.

It’s worth pointing out that Gencon is a little earlier this year, from July 30 to August 2. I’m totally okay with the change, since it gives me a chance to stay in town a little longer and doubles up my conventions in July, which is a nice bonus.

So here’s what I’m doing. It just the right amount of busy and relaxed and very very full of awesome things.

THURSDAY

SEM1569497     Making Your First Game: From Idea to In Print     Thu @ 10:00 AM
Location: Crowne Plaza :: Pennsylvania Station C

Mark Richardson and I are going to talk at you for an hour about what it’s been like to take our games from some abstract ideas that we make jokes about to things we’ve playtested and have actual spent money on. We’ll cover the scary stuff and the fun stuff and lay out a lot of the problems we faced along the way. Also, I’ll give him grief for being Canadian.

RPG1569129     Noir World: A Crime To Kill     Thu @ 3:00 PM
Location: Marriott :: Marriott Ballroom 8  SOLD OUT!!

Noir World is back at GenCon, and this time, I actually know what I’m doing! This is really exciting for me, because the game in some ways doesn’t resemble what people last year got to see. The game has grown and matured and it’s in excellent shape. I’m really proud to show it off.

FRIDAY
SEM1569493     Mental Health 2015: How Are You?     Fri @ 10:00 AM
Location: Crowne Plaza :: Pennsylvania Stn C

I’m back to do another mental health panel, sharing my story (a lot has happened since last year), with a not-entirely finalized guest hanging out with me, and I/we’ll talk about our experiences with mental illness while be in the industry as well as being avid gamers ourselves. It’s a candid discussion of scary things to make them less scary. And it’s a chance to not feel alone.

RPG1569128     Noir World: One Day At A Crime     Fri @ 1:00 PM
Location: Marriott :: Marriott Blrm 9 :: 7 SOLD OUT!!

More Noir World goodness. You’ll want a seat at this table.

SEM1569494     Getting Started In The Industry: How Do I Do This?     Fri @ 3:00 PM
Location: Crowne Plaza :: Victoria Stn C/D

I love helping people get started in this industry, demystifying it, given people good answers to tough questions and helping them figure out how to do what they want. Friday afternoon, me and my dear friend Matt Jackson (who you probably aren’t following on Twitter, but seriously need to be) are going to talk about how to get into this industry and what strategies we use to stay in it and even more than occasionally pay our bills because of it. Also, this is a great chance to get questions answered if you’re just not sure what to do. Bonus points if you come to hear Matt and I laugh for an hour.

SATURDAY

SEM1569495     Getting Your Game Out The Door     Sat @ 10:00 AM
Location: Crowne Plaza :: Victoria Stn A/B

I have terrible luck picking co-panelists. We figure out what panel we’re going to do, then they go and get themselves voted GenCon Guest of Honor (really you guys, vote me in for 2016). So, I don’t know who’s on this panel with me, but someone will be. And we’ll be talking about how to make a thing and finish a thing and then make that thing available for other people to play and purchase.

SEM1569496     Publishing Your Fiction: Getting Yourself Out There     Sat @ 11:00 Location: Crowne Plaza :: Victoria Stn A/B

This is the companion panel to “Getting your Game out the door”, only this time I’m/we’re focused on working with fiction, no matter if that’s game fiction, your fiction, anthologies or whatever kind of word-awesome you’re working with. And just like the above panel, I have no idea who my co-panelist is, but it will be awesome all the same.

RPG1569130     Noir World: Crime Is On Your Side     Sat @ 3:00  Location: Marriott :: Marriott Blrm 8 :: 7  SOLD OUT!!

The final installment of Noir World at Gencon 2015 is Saturday afternoon. If you haven’t played yet, and you want to, this is a great chance to do that. (The next time Noir World will see players, it’ll be Metatopia 2015)

Of course, as this schedule gets more clarified (if I find co-panelists or if they change rooms or whatever), this will get updated.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled May evening.

My GenCon 2014 Schedule

August 14-17 fast approaches, which means that it’s time to put my GenCon schedule for 2014. It’s a great schedule this year, I’m doing a lot of stuff, and thankfully do most of it in the same room, so there’s little risk of me getting totally lost (as I did last year and was late to my own panel). I should point out that this is the first year my panels are listed under “Indie Game Developers Network” (of which I am a member) as part of the over 100 events the Network is running this year. So let’s get into it.

Thursday

WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR READERS? ( Thursday 3p-4p Crowne Plaza: Hay Market B)

I’m spending 60 minutes explaining what it means to hate your reader (read: make it hard for people to read/understand/like/follow what you’ve written), and how to fix it. Examples will be provided, both good and bad. (Hint: I’m citing myself as a bad example)

UPDATE! I’m also going to be at BOTH Evil Hat Panels (State of the Hat and Look Under The Hat). Maybe I’ll be in the audience, maybe I’ll be at the table, who knows! (No seriously, I don’t know, you should come and find out along with me).

Friday

GETTING STARTED AS AN EDITOR (Friday 11a-12p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

Do you want to be an editor? Not just “do you want to be able to edit your own work”, I mean do you want to be an editor for other people and companies? How does someone get started doing this? Is there anything special they need? Is it difficult? And what’s the big deal? I will explain what I do, how I started doing it and why I love it.

FREELANCING FOR FUN AND PROFIT (Friday 1p-2:30p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

I make my living freelancing. It’s a good life: no cubicle, minimal dress code, high intensity, inconsistent paychecks, high stress, short deadlines. Learn about all the pros and cons about being a pro who goes to cons to talk about making game design and game writing more than something that just happens random on some Sunday afternoon.

 

SO YOU’RE MAKING YOUR FIRST GAME (Friday 3p to 4p Crowne Plaza : Grand Central C)

I’m getting together with Mark Richardson (and possibly others) to talk about how you produce your first (or fiftieth) game. You can come to this panel and learn how we got off the ground and have a good time doing this, also, this will be a great panel to attend if you want to watch me bait a Canadian into a playful argument and/or watch a man admit he’s really nervous giving a panel. (Hint: that’s not going to be me)

Saturday

WRITING WORKSHOP Q&A (Saturday 10a-11:30a Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

It’s Saturday morning, so let’s talk writing. This panel is driven by your questions, so bring them. Ask questions, get answers. This is one of my favorite panels to do, and I love the questions people offer. I make an effort to answer every question, though I cannot guarantee you’ll like my answers. The questions don’t have to be limited to gaming, we can talk fiction, or screenplays or anything with words in it.

WRITER EDITOR RELATIONSHIP (Saturday 1p-2p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

Join me after lunch for a panel where I hang out with a writer friend of mine (might be Brian Engard, might be someone else, or multiple someones else) where we’ll talk about what it’s like to work together, why it’s important to have a good relationship with your editor and why editors don’t actually want to ruin writers’ lives, just … fix them. Or something. This is a great panel if you’re looking to see what it’s like behind the scenes of a game company.

MENTAL HEALTH AND GAMING 2014 (Saturday 2p-4p Crowne Plaza: Grand Central C)

Here it is, the crown jewel of all my panels. My absolute favorite panel to give ever ever. Come spend 2 hours (!!) with me as I spill my guts out and share my story of anxiety, depression, self-destruction and my rebuilding myself over the last few years. Learn some strategies to help deal with whatever issues you’ve face (NOTE- I’m not a doctor, this is NOT medical advice), and in a safe environment, let’s talk about our lying brains, our feelings and our fears. Also, super bonus points if you ask me to tell the ‘crystal’ story. And triple super bonus points if you ask me to tell the ‘Ericka’ story’.

Just when you thought that was enough John for one convention, here’s more … I am running 2 games ON THE BOOKS this year as well!

Sunday

A DRINK BEFORE DYING (NOIR WORLD) (Sunday 10a-12p Marriott Blrm 7)

Powered by the Apocalypse (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Headspace, and others), Noir World is my first game I’m actually producing myself, and this 2-hour session on Sunday will be the first public reveal/test of it. The year is 1944, and a wealthy woman gets killed at her own party. Anyone can be a suspect, anyone has a motive, who killed her, and why? Will they get away with it?

THE TROUBLE WITH 1908 (Sunday 1pm – 3pm Marriott Blrm 7)

Timewatch isn’t my game, it’s Kevin Kulp’s game, but it’s amazing, and I want to play it with you. Think Bill and Ted meet Doctor Who meet Quantum Leap meet Night’s Black Agents meet Terminator 2. I’m not sure the pitch needs any more than that sentence.

I love GenCon and look forward to seeing you there.

 

Come hang out with me, come play games with me, and let’s have a great time together.

You’re Not Seriously Going to Publish That, Are You?

Good morning. I know I said there’d only be one post between now and Tuesday, but this isn’t it. Call this post bonus content.

What’s it a bonus of? How about a faceful of publishing and writing info?

See, the other day I sort of fell into a Google+ community and did my absolute best to be polite and straightforward in my post, and overall found the experience a little like trying to fish in the middle of a hurricane and wondering why you’re having such a hard time. It wasn’t a bad group of people, I didn’t encounter hatespeech or anything, but what I did encounter didn’t really sit all that well with me. And when things don’t sit well with me, I jump on a form of social media to talk about them.

What follows are a few things I’d like to clarify, debunk, rebut and otherwise wave a big giant neon sign at.

1. Apparently, quite a few people think that editing boils down to just applying grammar rules and some red pen corrections to manuscripts. Yes, they’re right. Grammar is a part of what an editor does, but saying that grammar is the bulk of editing is saying that the bread is the bulk of a roast beef sandwich. Grammar is one part. And to think that you can “just learn grammar and then edit on your own” tells me that you’re not only incredibly near-sighted about what editing entails, but that you’re either and-or both afraid to have your precious snowflakes shattered or you’re just cheap (we’ll talk more about cheap in a second).

Yes, it’s important to know the rules of grammar, so that you can break them in the course of writing, and so that you can abide by them when you need to. My understanding grammar helps me help a writer navigate the language to tell the best story. But if Writer X thinks that when I’m flagging sentences left and right, I’m only flagging the dangling participles or the need for a semicolon, Writer X might need to take a deep breath and realize that just like their story isn’t only a string of words in a sensible order, it’s also an idea trying to be expressed. Grammar helps, but what about story construction? Character development? Pacing? Tension? Readability? Minding your grammar isn’t going to fix those elements. Other tools of editing can.

2. People are incredibly cheap and quite happy to skip things that might be difficult or cause them to spend money or change whatever they’re doing. The question arose as to the cost of editing. Someone mentioned a book being a certain length (the number escapes me, but it was over 100K), and it wasn’t very difficult to multiply it by a rate of a few pennies to determine the cost to the writer as being somewhere in the neighborhood of around $4500 (I think). This number stopped a lot of people and rather than say, “Oh, I’m paying for a service.” they said, “That’s ridiculous, I’ll just get some readers to do my editing.”

Let’s put the publishing aside for a minute. Let’s say your sink stops working, or that it shoots water all over the place. You probably would call a plumber for that, because they’re an expert with pipes and sinks. The plumber comes in, assesses the problem and quotes you a price. Now how is it that you’ll nod your head and cut that guy a check, but when someone gives you a price on something that can help your manuscript, you go the other way and hand the errors to your friends? Would you do the same thing with your sink? (I wouldn’t. I’ve seen my friends.)

Sure, your friends can bang around your kitchen with a wrench or three, or tap pipes and look sagely. Maybe even one would get lucky and twist the right thing into place and fix it – maybe. It probably wouldn’t cost you much, maybe lunch or something. But it also might not work. Had you gone with the plumber, it would cost you more, but it would work, assuming your plumber wasn’t awful. So why aren’t you saying yes to an editor?

Don’t you believe in your work? Don’t you want it to be in the best shape it can be? Don’t you want it to be well received and well reviewed? Editing can improve the structure, tone and contents of a manuscript into something that will do better than a manuscript that hasn’t been edited as thoroughly or by someone without the experience.

Because that’s what you’re paying for when you write the editor that check. You’re getting their experience, their eye for detail and information, their ability to put things together and not just tell you what’s wrong but hopefully why it is and how to fix it. And just like plumbers, good service is going to cost you.

Okay, that’s the money. But maybe it’s not the money. Maybe you’re afraid of what editing will find. That your story has some holes. That you’ve got some weak areas in your writing. That you make the same mistake over and over again. It can be really easy to get back a page with the text all marked up with cross-outs and comments and notes and say, “Look at all this, I must be such a failure if the editor is writing this much in response.”

Yeah, you MIGHT suck at writing. I don’t know why no one’s told you that’s possible, maybe they did and you ran from them like your hair was on fire. And yeah, if what you’ve written has problems, an editor’s going to find them: it’s their job. But it’s also possible that what you wrote wasn’t awful, just incomplete or poorly fleshed out. Ideas that are somewhere on the page, somewhere in the text, can be salvaged and patched up and polished, but in order to excavate and discover them, the manuscript needs to be marked up. And you’re not going to be able to know whether it’s a total wreck or if there’s treasure hidden within until you read those comments.

And seriously, you’re getting into publishing a book. Thick skin is necessary.

3. “Fantasy Heartbreakers” don’t just exist in gaming. A ‘Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is a game that’s grown swollen and immobile due to clutter and bloat and the writer(s) trying to do too much with it. The project doesn’t feel focused, it’s trying to serve too many masters and be all things to all people. It’s like offering a Swiss Army knife when all someone asked for is a pair of tweezers. Sure, it has tweezers, but it’s also got these 690 other functions that get in the way. Heartbreakers happen, and they can be demoralizing. I wrote a heartbreaker game once. Got no credit. No paycheck. Just ridicule. Chased me away from all of gaming for years.

I’ve written some heartbreaker fiction too. I got it in my head I could write a thriller-cyber-dark comedy-horror story once. I wrote screenplays for things I wouldn’t show store mannequins. I wrote short stories I wouldn’t even use for scrap paper. The stories lacked focus, they were just files with words in them, and I’d stoke them like maniac fires but adding whatever new fuel I was consuming at the time. Read Irish fiction? Start writing punchy dialogue. Watch old movies? Draw out some scenes. Watch a British comedy? I’m scribbling nonsense into exposition to see if anyone’s reading.

When people tell me how big their book/game/script is, I’m willing to say about 85 – 90% of them are WAY too long. 150k isn’t a “short story”. It’s not a short anything. A single poem likely doesn’t need to be 20k. That great fantasy novel? No, really, there’s no reason it has to be 790k.

Pay attention to my next sentence. Stop what you’re doing, focus your efforts and be willing to admit you need help. Yeah, that’s not an easy sentence, because we don’t like talking about what we might have done wrong or what we’re not good at. It can be embarrassing, it can be shameful. Look, I’ve tried to die. I’ve ruined cars and relationships and homes and families and opportunities. All of that is embarrassing. The fact that you might need to split that monster book into two? Less so.

You know how you can tell you’re writing a heartbreaker? When the feedback you get stops being objective. Because as something inflates and takes on a shape of its own and you’re worried it might grow to consume a city, it’s hard to be able to spot the comparatively “little” things at its heart that cause the problems. If you’ve got 50-something chapters, it’s going to be really tough at a glance to point out that in chapter 3, you’ve got some run-on sentences. And what’s worse, when you’ve got something so engorged and bloated, YOU‘ve lost objectivity.

4. No, you can’t be objective about your own stuff, I don’t care what it is or who you are. Recently, I cleaned out a closet in my house. I filled bags with my old clothes. Old shirts, old pants. Some stuff I never wore, it still had tags on it. Some stuff I wore constantly. And for those worn items, each had a memory. I wore that shirt when I went on a date. I wore those pants when I was in this school concert. I bought that jacket so I could go to that wedding. Cramming those things into bags was meant to be cathartic, a release of old life and leaving my closet open to have new stuff put in. But you know what happened? As I went through the closet, it got harder and harder, as though the clothes were filled with cement, to part with things. I can’t get rid of that shirt, ex-girlfriend #4 said I had really nice eyes that one time when I wore that shirt. If I get rid of it, am I saying I don’t have nice eyes? Nope, can’t get rid of that pair of black pants, because that’s the pair I wore on that job interview, and those are my interview pants, even though I haven’t been on a “corporate” interview in 8 years. What this grew into was a closet half full of old stuff and a pile of laundry baskets on my floor that I live out of.

The solution? Bring in other people. People who don’t have any attachment to the project and who can stop you from listing off some sad rationalization as to why you really need all eleven black leather belts. The same is true with whatever it is you’re making. You’re not objective about it, not without a great deal (I’d go so far as to say 3+ years) of time between viewings. But you can bring people in who are objective. As an editor, I love my clients, they’re some of the greatest, kindest and most creative people I’ll ever meet, but they’re not objective about their work. They crab at me about why I cut this or trimmed that, but they aren’t paying me to agree with them – they’re paying me to help them get their words into the best shape, so they can stop living out of metaphorical laundry baskets with a cramped closet of memories and justifications.

5. Publishing shitty things isn’t proof of talent. Yes, in this great age of technological wonder, anyone can publish anything. You can write anything and get it up on Amazon. Here now is an actual conversation I have overheard at that bastion of writers, my local Starbucks:

Lady 1: I’ve just published my 30th book.

Lady 2: You did? You’ve been at it, what, like 3 months? Congratulations.

Lady 1: You know that Harry Potter lady, she only published like 10.

Lady 2: I’m sure your stuff is way better, you’ve got three times as many credits to your name in like half the time it took her to write one. You’re so talented!

This is why I stopped going to Starbucks for tea. Just because anyone with a bank account and internet access can mash their fingers and genitals and face against a keyboard (isn’t that how you’re writing? I learned it from a book!), doesn’t mean they should. This doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person, it means that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done poorly or half-assed or done just because you’ll get money. That’s … well, to me, that’s kinda shitty.

Look at your reasons for writing. Why are you doing it?

  • For money? There are easier ways to earn money, especially more stable ways to produce a living income that can support more than yourself at a minimal level.
  • For praise? There are easier ways to get smiles and congratulations for your efforts. Feed the homeless. Donate blood. Help someone load groceries into their car.
  • For validation? Writing is a tough route if you’re trying to patch a hole in your sense of self-worth. There are too many critics, too many dissenting voices, all of whom get louder thanks to immediate gratification on the internet.
  • For fame? There’s a difference between being famous for something ephemeral like tabloid headlines or a sex tape and being famous for a big production of work. Guess which one takes longer.

It seems to me that we love to trash things, that it is easier to destroy than build, and we revel in something’s collapse far more than stand in awe of its creation. We pass judgment on TV shows, movies, books, actors, actresses, commercials, sports teams, clothes, sexuality, and a bajillion other things so quickly, and even when we build someone up, we love knocking them down later. Nothing seems safe from that intense spotlight and our vicious snark.

That is, except for our art. We mystify art, and nod our heads staring at gallery walls like we have any idea how the splotches of blue on a canvas are somehow representative of President Millard Fillmore’s sex life. We cheer on self-published authors like they’re striking great blows in a grand revolution. But it’s not a revolution. It’s evolution. It’s not that we’re going to self-publishing because trad-pub is our hated foe, and soon we’ll all have a catchy revolution musical to celebrate, except for that annoying Cockney kid you only like once he gets shot, it’s that we have more options available to accomplish a task.

So why not be critical? Why not call authors out for poor writing? Why not tell the book charlatans and conference predators to go fuck off? Sure, yes, it’s easier to point fingers away from ourselves and say that we’re surrounded in garbage, but we can also and must also take a look at ourselves as well.

What can we do to improve ourselves and our work so that we’re not adding more crap to the mountains? (Here’s where I like to point out that just like you might feel that Writer Z is dogshit in a snow hat, they might feel the same way about you) Here are some ideas.

  1. Get over yourself. You are not a special snowflake. You’re a writer, a creator, and a producer of art, motherfucker.
  2. You’re human. You will suck at things until you learn to get better.
  3. You do not exist nor create in a vacuum. Thinking and acting so reinforces item #1 on this list.
  4. In order to get better, you should solicit help from people who are not biased towards you. Seek help from your friends, your enemies, experts and random people. Weigh all the data, make informed choices.
  5. It’s easy to get comfortable and surround yourself with material and people who like you, love you, accept you and enjoy you, but not necessarily challenge you. Challenge is an important part of love and life, because people who can call you on your shit and hold you accountable are the people who you likely don’t want to let down and are the people who you know absolutely care about you and what you do.
  6. If you’re not being challenged, find people, places and things that will. I’m not saying you need to leave Comfort Village forever, I’m saying it’s time to explore past those mountains. Or die trying.
  7. Thick skin is a good thing. Being unable to accept critique, comments, or feedback isn’t. If you’re wondering why people are telling you bad things along with the good, see item #1 on this list.
  8. However you get your art into the hands of an audience, someone else is doing it differently. Neither of you are wrong.
  9. It’s not about us-versus-them, this way over that way. You’re either going to challenge yourself to make something the best it can be, or you’re going to dick around and half-ass something that doesn’t really challenge you and lets you lie to yourself about what you’re doing and how good you are it. Chances are your greatest enemy in this effort isn’t the faceless corporation sending out rejection letters, but whatever crap you’ve stuffed into your head along the way. Brain enemas are tough, but worthwhile.
  10. How long will it take to produce your thing in the best shape it can be? As long as it needs to take. How large should your book/game/art/thing be when it’s in that best shape? As large as it needs to be.
  11. How will you know when you’re done creating something? When you’ve satisfied all the questions you asked at the start. Did the plot resolve? Did the character(s) change? Is this action over?
  12. What do you do after you’re done creating something, and you’ve let it sit untouched for a while? Give it to someone else, give it to professionals, give it to people who will challenge and encourage and teach and help you and see what comes next. Apply items #1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #7 and #10 as needed.
  13. Most of the questions you have can be solved by you working on whatever it is you’re making.
  14. Most of the questions that aren’t solved by #13 can likely be solved WITHOUT running to extremes or extremists or yes-men/women or the internet community of your choice. Likely your answers will be found in returning to the core concepts of why you want to write, what you’re trying to say and how best to say it.
  15. Work is improved through critique, revision and development. If you fear them, production is almost futile. Revision and critique are scary and overwhelming, but time in the crucible forges better material by burning away impurities.

I’ll close with this last item.

6. If you’re worried about theft, predators, wasting your time or wasting your money, you’re looking at this the wrong way. Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of new authors and creators. And when I ask them, casually, usually after we’ve exchanged a few messages, if they want me to take a look at what they’re doing, they retreat into a shell. Usually this is a fear-shell, that I’m going to burst their balloon or find fault and shame them. Sometimes though it’s because they’re afraid I’m going to steal their work.

Okay, I make a pretty decent living doing this. I edit things, and do a little writing on the side. I have a group of friends who I regularly hang out with and play games with. I watch a lot of TV. I read a lot. I’m writing my own game. I’ve got manuscripts squirreled away all over the place. When do I have time to go around stealing? And what makes you so special (snowflake) that I’m going to steal YOUR stuff?

Right, yeah, it’s kinda weak to say “trust me I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me, or when you’ve heard that before from people who said it and then ran off with your stuff. So instead of me saying it and gesturing around like I’m directing invisible air traffic, how about you check out my work, or ask about me (Twitter is a great place for immediate feedback)? Do your research. Price shop. Don’t rush into anything. Interview. Ask questions. Go to workshops. Ask more questions. Be an informed consumer.

Just stop assuming that you’re under constant threat of theft or ruination. There are horror stories out there, some legit, some conflated for pity or attention, and there are really some shitty people (writers, agents, editors, publishers, game companies, etc etc) out there, but thinking entirely about the number of people producing things and the number of people receiving accolades for producing things, do you think the bad really outweigh the good?

I don’t concern myself with the watchlists of bad editors and bad publishers and awful whatevers. I know a lot of nervous writers put a lot of stock in it, because it’s a list, and it’s on the internet, but I know just as many professionals who aren’t on that list who wouldn’t take a napkin without asking, let alone steal your work.

Bad analogy time: With all the hysteria around assholes in this industry, I liken it to those old films they used to show in school about the dangers of marijuana or rock music. Remember those old beeping filmstrips with scratchy audio that used to talk about how Betty went to a party where Tommy had a mary-jew-onna cigarette and Betty took a puff and now Betty is banging sailors down on the docks after school? Or the one where Susie went out with Janie and they encountered “that negro classmate Tyrone” and they listened to some swell new tunes, and now they’re all pulling jewelry heists? Yes, smoke a joint, you might run into some trouble. Listen to Nickelback, you’re going to want those three minutes back. But those scare tactics are the extremes of the spectrum, meant to enforce a behavior that isn’t too rowdy, not too ambitious and pretty tame.

So what do you do when you find a predator? You get out of whatever arrangement you’ve set up (if any) and then you go tell everyone who will listen about the jerk you just encountered. De-fang that snake. Scare away the wolf. But then, get back out there. How else is your art going to be produced?

I’m at Dreamation over the weekend. I’m giving a Writing Workshop on Sunday (12-3pm), so if you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there, otherwise, I’ll catch you next week.

Happy writing

Things I Am Doing At GenCon, UPDATED

So GenCon is August 15-18th. It’s a big deal in the gaming community, a chance for relatively disparate elements and people to convene for a week in the middle of the US and hang out, reconnect, connect for the first time and play great games together.

My first GenCon was last year. And OH WOW was it amazing. All my friends were there, I got to see my friends’ successes, I got to share some of my own successes with others.

Of interest to me were the panels, where loads of people would come hang out and talk about whatever the topic was for an hour or two. I went to some great ones (Phil Menard’s panel on depression was intense, but wonderful), I went to some not-great ones (there was a panel that was so disorganized I can’t even recall what it was about for the whole hour I sat in the room), and I thought to myself “I’m going to run a panel at GenCon some year.”

“Some year” is THIS year.

SEM1345150 Depression, Anxiety, Treatment and the Gamer

Thursday  4pm – 5pm
Crowne Plaza : Victoria Stn C/D

This seminar is more a conversation between people who are struggling with mental illness (and are now in various stages of treatment), yet don’t let their illness(es) define them or stop them from producing the material they love. Come hang out with us and let’s talk openly about how not to let the monsters win while we make awesome games.

SEM1341483 Writing Effective Scenarios & Settings 
Friday 11am – 1pm
Crowne Plaza Grand Ballroom D

Learn what it takes to write the best scenarios and settings you can, regardless of the system used or your experience level.
This seminar will be universal in scope – not focusing on solely one system over others, but looking rather at successful components found in MANY systems that you can take advantage of when writing your own.

SEM1345042 The Writer/Editor Relationship **
Friday 2pm – 3pm
Embassy Suites : Coronation 1

Learn from Brian Engard (writer, Bulldogs! Fate Core) and John Adamus, (editor Evil Hat Productions, Margaret Weis Productions) about the relationship between writer and editor.

** aka John and Brian Talk About Shit 

SEM1341489 Writing Q&A
Saturday 11am – 1pm
UPDATE! Crowne Plaza : Hay Market B
No matter what you’re writing (a game, a novel, a movie, etc) you’ve no doubt got questions. This seminar is the place to get answers to whatever writing-related quandaries you have.
This seminar is driven by your questions, whether they’re questions about writing a good sentence, a good story, getting an agent, getting published, editing your RPG, tweaking your LARP or whatever — if you have questions about something you’re writing, this is the place to get answers and help. If you’re familiar with Dreamation, Metatopia and DexCon, this is a Gen Con-sized version of the Writing Workshop held there.
Wow. Just, wow, this is amazing, and I want to just encourage everyone to drop in, say hi, hang out and have some great discussions.

I am incredibly grateful, humbled and excited to have the chance to present not only a new workshop on scenarios and settings, but also do my more traditional Q&A on a much bigger scale.

See you in Indianapolis.