Operation Awesome: Revelations on Story

February 23rd, 2015essays, fiction

This is gonna be mostly old hat to most writers, I reckon, but every author goes through their own journey and such so this is new and revelatory to me, at the very least.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the core essence of story lately in light of a) always wanting to get better at my craft and b) having a novel make the agent rounds to some initial interest but not enough to seal a deal.

And that initial interest is a really good data point to have. I managed to move beyond the query stage with a good handful of agents but the manuscript didn’t connect enough for them to say “Yes, I must have this!” What that’s telling me is that I am far enough into my novel-writing ability to have a solid concept and my query was good enough to pique their interest but the work itself wasn’t bulletproof which is where I ultimately want my writing to be.

Turning that over, and working on my 30k word Little Fears novel, The Wolf Pact, has caused a couple thoughts to bubble to the surface.

Thought One: What’s the story about?

More a question that a thought but it’s the first question I need to answer before moving forward. It’s essential.

Now, when most folks ask “What the story about?” they mean (or at least get an answer pertaining to) the genre, details of the world and characters, and cool stuff that happens. But that’s all much lower level than I initially need to be.

For me, the answer to “What’s the story about?” is “This is a story about how [BLANK] learns [BLANK].”

Everything else is details.

In The Wolf Pact, Nate Torrance is a boy who discovers there’s a world of monsters that exists next to ours. Throughout his investigation, he makes friends with a girl named Jennifer Mills who has her own tie to monsters and, together, they uncover the truth about some wolf attacks in the area.

But, really, The Wolf Pact is a story about how Nate Torrance learns about friendship.” As his oldest friendship with his neighbor starts to fall apart, he builds a new friendship with Jennifer. That’s the essence of the story.

Also, that second blank is the story’s theme. “Friendship” is the theme of The Wolf Pact.

Thought Two: What about the protagonist is being challenged?

Okay, so this thought is another question. And it stems from the first.

If this is a story about how Nate Torrance learns about friendship, what about Nate is being challenged that leads to an epiphany? In The Wolf Pact, Nate holds firm that friendships are fixed. They don’t change. They certainly don’t end. It’s one of his principles. That his neighbor, who is older than Nate, is moving on forces Nate to try to reclaim that friendship. Jennifer wants to be friends with Nate but the boy is resistant. Not due to a flaw in Jennifer but a flaw in himself.

Thought Three: How is the theme supported?

Okay, so now we’re onto question three which calls back to question one. How am I supporting the theme? Perhaps a better term is “exploring.”

I’m exploring the theme of friendship by presenting different sides of it: the neighbor is moving on from friendship. Jennifer is trying to build a new friendship with Nate. Nate is trying to learn how friendship works. The antagonists also address this theme of friendship which is tied into the book’s name. The titular wolf pact is a core expression of friendship and how beholden one is to a promise made in youth.

Thought Four: How does the protagonist change?

Hrm. So all these thoughts are questions. Good to know.

Okay, I know the story is about how Nate learns about friendship. I know his idea that friendships don’t change is what will be challenged throughout the story. And I know I’ll explore the theme of “friendship” by showing different perspectives and stages of it. But what will ultimately change about how Nate views friendship? Once he has all this information and has seen the theme of friendship from multiple viewpoints, what does he do about it?

I won’t spoil that in this post (you’ll have to read the book to find out) but the basic options are: he accepts that friendships change or he rejects that friendships change. There are additional levels of complexity to this of course but those are the top levels I’m concerning myself with.

In Sum

With those in mind, I was finally able to approach The Wolf Pact armed with the information I needed to start. Next came outlining, developing subplots (which go through their own version of this but with a mind of supporting the established theme), and then the actual writing.

I’ll be very interested to see how this all comes together in the finished project and how everyone reacts to it. Either way, these kinds of revelations help make my writing stronger which is my ultimate goal. Is it bulletproof yet? No. But it’s another level of armor and that’s good enough for now.

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Hey, Wanna Hear Something Crazy?

July 24th, 2014essays

I don’t remember the exact date that I went crazy, but I remember the weeks preceding it.

In mid-June 2004, I got sick. I didn’t know what it was at first. I worked during the day at a local internet provider. At 5p, I’d come home, and immediately go to bed. I couldn’t stay awake. I would get so tired, I could barely stand. I would pass out at 6p and stay asleep until I had to get up for work the next morning. At first, I figured it was just a bug and I would shake it soon. But it lasted a week. Then another week. So, at the urging of my wife, I went to the doctor. After a comedy of errors, including a completely unnecessary overnight stay in the hospital, I was diagnosed with mono. Which is as awful, soul-sucking, life-draining a disease as I’ve ever gotten.

Great.

Origins 2004 was coming up—a mid-sized gaming convention that was only a couple hours away from my house. I was with an outfit called Key 20 back then—a sideline tabletop publishing and consolidation business I ran with a friend—and had to be there. So I went. Sick. I powered through the first couple days as best I could. On the third day, a Saturday, a miracle happened. I woke up in my hotel room and I felt better. Not just better, I felt good. I was over it. I had survived mono. Naturally, I partied like crazy that night.

The convention was soon over. I’d had a lot of fun hanging with some faraway friends, sold some books, and came home. Whew. I had made it through.

Time passed. And I started to notice something.

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New Year’s Revelation

January 3rd, 2014essays

Obvious revelation that reared its head into my brain a bit ago so I thought I’d share.

Doing nothing leads to doing more nothing. Most folks know that. But the inverse is also true. When you do something, especially if you feel a reward from it, you want to keep doing it. Inertia is the mindkiller. Want to create? Create. Start small if you want but keep doing it.

Want to write? 50 words a day. Anybody can do that. 50 words every day. That’s literally a couple minutes. You have them. Write during lunch. Write while in the bathroom. Write before you go to bed. If you can’t do 50, do 20. Write one sentence. Over time, you put down enough words, you’ll have something. A song, a poem, a story, a novel, a memoir. Something.

Want to draw? One shape a day. A circle, a square, a line. Again: minutes a day. If that. Over time, you’ll have a diagram, an illustration, a comic strip, a drawing of a loved one. Something.

Want to play an instrument? One note or chord a day. Over time, you’ll learn guitar, bass, violin, piano. Something.

Want to learn a language? A word or phrase a day. Over time, you’ll be able to converse with people in their native tongue.

Don’t worry about making any of this good. Or for other people. Do this for you. Don’t sweat whether a phrase is clumsy or a face is lopsided or you press too close to the fret or you might be pronouncing a vowel flatly.

The time is going to pass anyway. I hope you have a bunch of time. Spend it with loved ones, spend it on hobbies, spend it on entertainment. But take a few minutes a day to explore something or create something. You might find you love it and want to dedicate ten minutes a day to doing it. Maybe an hour. Maybe you set aside a couple evenings a week. Maybe not. Maybe you stick to doing 2-3 minutes a day. It doesn’t matter.

Do this for you. Do something new. Learn something new. You may have a lot more to contribute to this world than you realize.

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I Want to Do More. I Want to Do Better.

April 3rd, 2013video games

I spent last week at the largest gathering of video game developers in the world: the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California.

It was amazing. It was five intense days of lectures, networking, and learning. I met a wide array of folks in the business from journalists to fellow game writers. I had a blast, and more than any other time in my life I realized that square in the video games industry is exactly where I want to be.

I was inspired, not only to push my own contribution to games but to push games in general.

I want to do more. I want to do better.

I listened to Walt D. Williams, Lead Writer at 2K Games, talk about constructing Sgt. Walker’s arc in Spec Ops: The Line. He spoke about crafting player dialogue and NPC responses to the place in the story, about the difference between actions justified by circumstance and actions rationalized by characters.

I listened to Jay Posey, from Red Storm, talk about real experiences versus authentic experiences, how perception deceives us and how gamemakers must play toward that, even when it veers away from reality, to deliver a more convincing experience.

I listened to Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio, from the studio behind Dishonored, talk about abstracting causality into interrelated systems rather than scripted events.

I listened to Tom Abernathy from Microsoft talk about wanting games in which his biracial daughter can see herself as the hero of the story.

I listed to Elizabeth Sampat, Brenda Romero, Leigh Alexander, and other women from within and around the games industry talk about their experiences getting into and working in the industry, how women are portrayed in games and the show floor, and what they want for future generations of women at the #1ReasonToBe panel.

I listened to all these amazing people, and more, and came away inspired as never before.

I want to do more. I want to do better.

I want to work on games that have something to say beyond “Press RT to Shoot.”

I want to write for characters other than the blandly handsome 30-year old white guy that marketing approved.

I want to explore motivations beyond revenge.

I want to explore emotions beyond anger.

I want to play AAA video games where more time is spent on creating authentic characters than crafting realistic gun sounds.

I want to spend time exploring the vast array of stories that relate to all of us as well as those that shine light into areas I would have otherwise never seen.

I want to do more than justify murder for a living.

Because, as a game writer, that’s what I do.

“Here’s why it’s okay for you to go here and kill these people.”

“Here’s why it’s okay for you to go here and kill these people.”

“Here’s why it’s okay for you to go here and kill these other people.”

It’s lazy. And it’s shallow.

And, yes, it can be fun. But surely we as an industry have more to say than “Nazis/aliens/robots/zombies/thugs are bad.”

I want to do more. I want to do better.

We will always have our summer blockbusters. But we need games that address more. Backed with solid mechanics, yes. Backed with engaging gameplay, yes. Presenting a challenge for the core gamer, yes. That takes advantage of the current social media paradigm, yes. We can have all those things and still do more than tell Major John Dragonwolf to Press RT to Shoot all the Bad Guys. All of this already exists in the indie scene, in the downloadable scene, in the tablet scene, but the Face of Video Games—the midnight openings, the eight-figure marketing budgets, the exclusive magazine covers—are almost entirely the same old thing.

We are an industry of incredibly smart people, each with a unique history and perspective. We’re puzzlemakers. And this is our challenge: Do more. Do better.

We can. If enough of us want to.

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The Dream Job

April 4th, 2012essays

Last Friday, March 30th, I accepted an offer for the job of my dreams. This past Tuesday, April 3rd, I declined the position.

Forgive me for not naming names, but this isn’t the studio’s story. This is mine. But, really, this is a love story.

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AdventureGamers.com: Top 100

December 19th, 2011news

Top adventure gaming website AdventureGamers.com has launched a thirty-year retrospective of the Top 100 Adventure Games. Jack Allin, the editor, had the enviable* task of compiling feedback from the staff and herding us cats as we wrote up our reasons for including certain games. I was honored to be assigned some of my all-time favorites to praise, and I look forward to reading what other writers had to say about their faves. As with any Top X list, I’m sure it will inspire plenty of debate as to why one game was ranked higher than another, why someone’s favorite wasn’t included, and why another was put on the list at all. For me, that’s part of the fun.

The countdown will be rolled out over the next couple weeks, starting today with the first batch, numbers 100 through 91. I encourage you to check out the list, read up on some classics, and maybe even find a couple (dozen) new games to try. Keep checking back from now until the new year to see more games revealed on our way to the top ten.

*I kid, Jack. I kid.

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Roleplayers Chronicle: Designer’s Diary

June 13th, 2011essays, interviews, rpg

Aaron T. Huss, from Mystical Throne Entertainment, contacted me recently about doing a Designer’s Diary for his Roleplayers Chronicle website and I quickly agreed. The piece went live over the weekend and touches briefly on the work that went into my Little Fears Nightmare Edition project as well as some of the history behind the game.

You can check it out here.

Big thanks to Aaron for the opportunity!

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Operation: Awesome – The 1000-Word Plan

May 5th, 2011essays, operation: awesome

One thousand words. It’s not a lot. But neither is a single grain of sand.

Earlier this year, I hit a hard realization: Writing wasn’t working for me anymore. I was writing in spurts. Some days I’d hit 3000 words but most days I wasn’t writing anything. Operation: Awesome was stalling, and I needed to jumpstart the engine if it was going to survive.

Part of Operation: Awesome was collecting the tools I should’ve gathered a decade ago: the study, the concept of form and genre (Step One), the dedication to a path (Step Two), and reading regularly (Step Three). I was doing well at those. I obsessed over structure and story, knew the type of career I want to have, and have been reading stacks of books in my audience and genre. Operation: Awesome had fixed a lot of my flaws as a writer, or helped me work on fixing them anyway, but I was struggling with one very important thing. I lacked the discipline to write (Step Four) and with every day I became less motivated to work on that discipline.

I don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to writing. Most of my time is spent raising my kids (and my dogs and cat and, well, the chinchilla pretty much takes care of himself). My wife and I don’t have the cash to put my son into daycare so, even though my daughter is at school, my attention is elsewhere throughout the day. When my wife gets home, I want to spend time with her and the kids. By the time bedtime rolls around, I’m out of juice. Sometimes she doesn’t get home until after 8 o’clock at night which leaves me even more exhausted (and is she too). After 13+ hours of always-on fathering, I just don’t have the word count in me. I sit and read or catch up on television or play games. Or, maybe, on rare occasion, hang out with friends.

In recent months, that routine had worn me to a nub. I was stressed to my limit, and I started to resent writing. I felt too much pressure to cram all my week’s writing into two days. Any other time I wasn’t writing, when I was spending time with family or catching up on books/games/shows, I felt like I was wasting time I should be writing. I was stymied.

My work and my life were too muddled and I wasn’t dedicating the time and attention I should to either. I had hit a wall, and I had to make a choice: Write or find something else to do.

In order to make sense of this, I did what my pretentious teenaged self should have done, I turned to the professionals for advice. I read somewhere that Cory Doctorow (of BoingBoing and Little Brother fame) has (or maybe had) a writing goal of 250 words a day. Stephen King, one of the most popular American novelists of all time, writes 2000 words a day.

That blew my mind. These guys weren’t nose-first in their work from dawn to dusk as I imagined. A lot of aspiring authors I know huddle in front of their screens day-in and day-out and, hey, if I could, I would probably do the exact same thing. But I can’t. I have other, bigger responsibilities, but I knew I could find a sweet spot between Doctorow and King, something that worked for me.

I looked at my schedule and contracts and realized to hit my deliverables, I only needed to write 1000 words a day. That’s it. About an hour’s worth of work. While I can’t park my son in front of the television for six hours every day, I can set him in front of Sesame Street or a couple episodes of Dora (or, his favorite, Dino Dan) and crank out 1000 words.

I decided that was my plan. I would write 1000 words a day, every day. But, I added some rules to make that more meaningful:

A Thousand Words of Fiction or Other Paid Work. Not blog posts, Twitter, emails, LittleFears.com updates, or even the work I do for AdventureGamers.com. The thousand words had to be on projects I was selling (or hoping to sell) or paid gigs. All that other stuff had to be done outside the goal, at night or during the extra work hours my wife’s days off allowed me.

No Making Up Missed Days. I couldn’t push one day’s work onto another. Meaning: I couldn’t skip Tuesday but promise myself I’d write 2000 Wednesday. If I didn’t hit my goal on a day, I had to accept that as failure even if I did write 2000 words the next day. (I take this from something attributed to Jerry Seinfeld: When you hit your day’s writing goal, mark it on a calendar. As the chain of marked days grows, you become more motivated not to break the chain.)

I Couldn’t Write Ahead. Same idea as above. I couldn’t buy a half-day Tuesday by writing 1500 words on Monday. Each day’s goal was separate.

I Could Go Over. If I felt inspired, I could do 1500 or 2000 or more. But I didn’t have to. 1000 was the goal.

That was a couple months ago. Overall, I’ve done well. I’ve missed days but not enough to beat myself up. On the positive side, I’ve noticed some big changes beyond the increase in productivity:

I’m Happier. Writing is working for me again. I get my 1000 done and the writing stress is gone. I’m not up late berating myself for watching Supernatural or playing games instead of writing.

I Have Gained Control of My Schedule. Since I know my output, I can better gauge my workload. This means I know at a glance if I can take on other work or if I have to turn something down. This is new to me (and is a big reason I was not good at freelancing for so long). But now I know my schedule and I don’t overload it.

I Jump Into Writing More Easily. Another great piece of writing advice, attributed to multiple sources, is to stop writing in mid-idea so you know where to pick up the next day. Writing only 1000 words puts me mid-idea almost every time so I come back to a project knowing where to start. The words flow from there.

I Have More Writing Energy. Because I’m not squeezing 5000 words out of my day’s imagination reservoir, I come into the daily goal refreshed, with a full day’s creative rest between rather small bursts of output.

So, after a long time struggling with my goals as a writer, I have found a system that is working for me. I’ve already handed in a bunch of contract work and am almost done with a new book for Little Fears Nightmare Edition.

A side effect of the new plan saw my last bit of contract work line up with May 31st, meaning I was free to start new projects on June 1st. After some noodling, I put down designs for the Big Summer Project, which I’ve codenamed Operation: Last Chance. This is something that terrifies and excites me in almost equal measure. See, there’s more to this new phase than I have said, more at stake than simply hitting a daily goal, but I can’t talk about it just now. I’ll leave the details of that for another time.

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Death of a PlayStation

October 13th, 2010essays, video games

I awoke Sunday morning to some terrible news: My PlayStation 2 was dead. Some kids were playing around and one of them, a friend of my daughter, had accidentally stepped on the disc tray, shattering it. As far as I can tell, it’s irreparable or, rather, it would cost more to replace the drive than replace the whole system. The culprit confessed and seemed genuinely sorry (or perhaps just scared of being punished) and, upset though I was, I accepted the apology and sent her off to play.

It wasn’t the loss of the physical product that saddened me. Sure, I still have a stack of unplayed PS2 games but I can buy a replacement PS2 on the cheap. What I mourn is what the PlayStation 2 meant to me.

I bought it at the beginning of Fall 2005. My wife, daughter, and I had moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin for a job with video game developer Human Head Studios the year before. The move was not without considerable expense with us balancing rent here with mortgage there until our house finally sold that August. Moving away from friends and family was also a big deal. The sense of separation and the strained budget took its toll on us but we managed best we could. I was following a dream and that’s not always the easiest thing to do.

I had fallen out of video gaming for a couple years prior to the move. I got into gaming in the mid-80s with the 2600 and continued to game through every generation up to the original PlayStation. I loved video games and was passionate about them through my formative years up until my early twenties. But when the PS2, Dreamcast, and GameCube war began, I mostly sat it out. I picked up a GameCube midway through the generation but only had a handful of games for it. I took on other interests, leaving video gaming mostly on the shelf. But the job at Human Head, being surrounded by video game development and chatter, reignited that passion and I poked my head into the scene once again.

I remember coming into the office one night and sitting down to the office Xbox. I fumbled my way through some Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Destroy All Humans! and managed not to do too horribly for an hour or so. That little taste was enough; I was hooked. I wanted to get back into gaming and that right now. But we didn’t have the money for a new console alone much less the memory card, extra controller, and, y’know, games that come along with it. My wife had already sacrificed enough uprooting her life for my career, much less the strain we were still under, for me to push too hard for one.

That September though, a few weeks after the house sold and nine months into our new lives as Madisonians, I mentioned wanting a game system to my wife over a meal at the local mall food court, a sad attempt at a gambit as ever there was.

“How much do they cost?”

“About $200. Less if you buy it used.”

“Well, let’s take a look.”

I didn’t question it.

We walked over to the GameStop and started piecing and pricing the options. I had spent a lot of time watching G4 and reading online reviews. I knew I wanted a PlayStation 2. I had a mental list of the games I wanted to get along with it. It was late in the current generation so there were a lot of great titles to choose from. The store was running a 2-for-1 used sale and I took advantage of it, amassing a fine starter kit. I added it all up together and it came to about $200. There were probably better ways to spend that money but my wife didn’t flinch. She put her hand on my arm and smiled. “Get it.”

I walked out of that store with the biggest, dumbest grin on my face. I knew it was a sacrifice for me to get this, and I knew this meant my wife supported this new leg of my life’s journey to the fullest. As funny as it may sound, I have never been more grateful for any gift I’ve ever received in my life.

In the years since that purchase, I’ve caught up with the video game scene. I stay current on new titles, what’s in development, what’s happening with studios (especially since I have many good friends spread throughout them), and what trends are shaping the industry. That PlayStation 2, bought used five years ago, was the beginning of a journey that has led down some interesting paths and allowed me to land some great jobs in the video game industry. It’s allowed me to start crafting the life and career I’ve wanted.

It was also a symbol of my wife’s belief in me and investment in my crazy dream. And though that belief and investment are still there, more now than ever, the symbol is gone. And that’s what I mourn.

Goodbye, PlayStation 2. You weren’t always mine but you treated me like I was the only one in the world. You were always there for me, ready to do battle against overwhelming odds, topple screen-filling giants, belt out bar standards, jam on a plastic guitar, or just relax with some falling blocks and rolling balls. Thank you for the good times then and even better times to come.

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The Write Identity

September 21st, 2010essays, fiction, operation: awesome

See, I lost focus.

And that happens. I’m fallible and I know it. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have initiated Operation: Awesome. I would have just sat around wondering why no one recognized my genius.

A couple weeks ago, I talked about how I had some connections to a potential publisher and how I was looking at novel options suited for that. I let those connections overshadow something very crucial: the identity I want as a writer. Instead of thinking “What type of career do I want?” I thought “What’s my best chance of getting published?”

Now that’s not a bad question to ask. If you have an opportunity, hey, take it. I will never fault a creative for taking the money. In this case, the opportunity was something I’d like to have, yes, but not what I really truly want. My passion lies somewhere else. When I walk into a bookstore, I know the section that feels like home. I know where I want my books to be stocked. When I look at the list of authors I’m studying, they’re in that section. And while I read books in a variety of genres and markets, I have a clear vision of who I am as an author right now and where I want my career to start.

So I’m not writing one of the novels I talked about in that post. I’m still writing a novel. I’m just not writing the novel that makes sense for that connection. I’m writing the novel I want to write. The novel that makes me smile and makes me want to keep writing.

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