A World of (Internal) Darkness

What's a tortoise?

Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about your mother…

In the years that I’ve been in the semi-public eye as a game writer, I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I’m in therapy. In fact, I credit my therapy for being in the industry at all. Without my shrink and her withering eye and her sphinx-like demeanor and her habit of giving me just enough rope with which to hang myself, I would not be here today. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s like every joke you’ve ever seen about laying on the couch and talking about your feelings, and sometimes it’s like the goddamned Voight-Kampff Test. Today, I had a pretty harrowing session wherein I talked about writing and about how what a writer writes says a lot about said writer, including many things he may not know or would prefer to keep hidden. So that’s what we’re gonna talk about. (Note: This post is going to take some personal and, perhaps, dark turns. If you’re not interested, and I can’t blame you, please allow me to draw your attention to this hard-hitting expose of Wesley Crusher which is, without a shadow of a doubt, completely unsafe for work.)

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I Want to Play This Game and Never Stop

This eagle is stunned by all the awesome

Like them or not, Muse has an awesome song called Knights of Cydonia, with an equally awesome video that you need to go watch right now. Go. Okay, back with us? Awesome, right? Yes, I know this is old news, just humor me here. I first got hip to this song through Guitar Hero III, and then to this hysterically campy video through some casual YouTube surfing. I watched, mouth agape, and in the silence I looked around at Jacko and Munin and Riff and Shade and everybody else and said, “We need to play this game, right now!” I do that a lot. I’ll see some crazy thing like the Knights of Cydonia video or get really into a book (or series) and decide that I need to do some role-playing in that setting. So, let’s talk about great and/or hilarious settings we want to play in, shall we?
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Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

What the hell is this? Awesome, that’s what.
So, today’s post isn’t going to be very long or insightful, ’cause I’ve got Rogues and Traders to write about. I’ve got something on my mind though, and that’s the time-honored tradition of the mash-up.

I love a good mash-up. I love the juxtaposition of disparate settings or technologies or ideas to make something new. That’s why I made AEGIS vs. SPIDER. It’s why I like the idea of robbing a train with a goddamned spaceship and why I will always love Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. I mean, it’s Cadillacs! And Dinosaurs! That’s an awesome story that writes itself. A well done mash-up, like Firefly, can make you look at some careworn ideas, say space opera and western serials, in a new light. Getting your flavors mixed, as it were, stretches the creative muscles and presents previously unknown questions and answers to game masters and writers alike. So tell me, Gentle Readers, what are your favorite mash-ups? What do you like in a good one, and which ones do you think have failed miserably?

PS: I’ll probably expand on this at a later date, but right now, seriously, I’ve got deadlines to keep.

The Devil is in the Details

Well, yeah. In this case it is.
Confession time. I’m a huge bibliophile, and I’ve got a pretty obsessive personality. This means that every so often I get into an author, really into an author, and then must devour all of their works as fast as I can until my eyes fall out. This happened a couple of years ago when I finally got around to reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book about gay, Jewish comic book artists by Michael Chabon. It was a very good read, so I immediately glommed on to Chabon. This guy is awesome! I must have MORE! So I dug around and found a book called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh which is a book about gay…Jewish…college kids…wait a minute… Anyway, a book about Pittsburgh? A book about a city that may, in fact, be my very favorite city East of the Mississippi ever? Sign me the hell up! So off I went to the library and got big ol’ stack of Chabon’s books and took them eagerly home. The next day I trooped back to the library and, bitterly disappointed, dumped all those books back into the book drop? Why? Well, the reason lies at the heart of today’s post.

I took them all back because I had jumped to the, admittedly unfair, conclusion that Chabon was the most horrible thing I could imagine, a lazy writer. As I was poring through Mysteries, which I enjoyed at first but grew increasingly uncomfortable with as I went along and came to think that the characters here seemed like reskinned characters from Kavalier and Clay dropped into a different setting, I got to a point where I literally yelled out loud and tossed the book across the room. Why? Well, there’s a character in there named Cleveland who rides an old BMW motorcycle. The bike is kind of a big deal with that character, and is his major identifying mark. Cleveland rides the Beemer. Here comes an old Beemer, must be Cleveland. He had me at Beemers because I like bikes and I love Beemers from the 70′s. At some point Chabon makes an off-hand reference to Cleveland’s bike as, and I’m paraphrasing here ’cause it’s been probably six years, the big, 1600 BMW. Then there was a shattering glass noise and the part where the camera zoomed in, I shook my fist, screamed KHAAAAAAAN! and was immediately quit with him as a writer. For those of you not in the know, let me break it down for you. The 1600 in that sentence refers to the displacement of the bike’s engine in cubic centimeters. What’s the big deal you ask? Well, at the time the story took place, BMW had never made a street bike with an engine that big. Never, ever. In fact, it’s been only recently that they’ve started making 1200s. Lazy! Bad! Bad writer! What, I thought in my yammering disgust, he couldn’t be arsed to look it up? He couldn’t have an intern with a phone book and a notepad call around to some Beemer dealers and do a little research? Khan, indeed.
Now, I know that you all are rolling your eyes at me right now, and with good reason. I realize that it’s not a big deal in general. I admit that I’m being reactionary and dramatic. Here’s the thing, though. My reaction, while over the top, isn’t that different from anyone else who sees something they know about misrepresented in media. Most computer guys I know can’t watch wherein computer technology plays a large role. Same thing for gun guys or history guys or military guys and war movies. See, there’s creative license, and then there’s just laziness. Screwing up details, even little ones like the displacement of a motorcycle’s engine (a motorcycle that may as well have been a character, mind you) can break suspension of disbelief. It can absolutely destroy verisimilitude. It also begs the question, for me at least, if this guy can’t be arsed to get a little detail like this right, what else can’t be be bothered to do? It makes me see the writer’s work as, well, a lie. While not as bad as Alice Sebold’s magical sock hat that sat out in a field in November in 1972 and was still able to offer up damning DNA evidence (In ’72? Come on lady), or a dog recovering an “elbow bone” (whatever that is), the fact of the screwed up engine made me doubt everything else Chabon had to say in that book.
What I’m saying here is this: Writers, do you fucking homework. While verisimilitude is more important than hard fact in a work of fiction, those facts and details are still very important. You can get away with fudging details and blurring lines easier in a sci-fi or fantasy story where verisimilitude matters more than full truth. In a modern/historical/real-world story with no fantastical elements though, your shit better be tight. Those little details, while seemingly not important individually, make for an extremely engrossing and engaging story for a reader. If you want a really good example of this, read Master and Commander. If you want a really good example of egregious writer laziness and shoddy research, read The Lovely Bones, which I alluded to earlier. Seriously, writers. If you want to be taken seriously, if you want to be something more than a low-to-middling vanity press writer who sells his books out of his mom’s basement, do your research, be vigilant, tell the truth, hit hard, and you will be greatly rewarded.
PS: Recently, after being an asshole about Chabon’s writing for years, on a lark I picked up his very true Manhood for Amateurs, which is a collection of non-fiction essays about modern life, and discovered a few things. First thing is I’m a reactionary idiot, but we knew that. Then I learned that Chabon is insightful, great with words, and that Pittsburgh was his first novel, written as a 22 year old grad-student. This explains, if not forgives, its multitude of sins. Then I read his wonderful Gentlemen of the Road, and am now reading his work again with new appreciation. I should have done so years ago, but eh, live and learn.
PPS: Hilarious old-school advertisement perversion courtesy of the always awesome Anne Taintor.

A Very Special Episode: Freelancing is for Suckers

Am I doing this right?

Goddamn, it’s been forever since I’ve updated here at the Gamewerks. It’s not like I have a good excuse, ’cause I don’t really. I mean, I’ve been busy with being Nervous McNewdad, my family came on up to visit, I started finishing my basement, and I’m still writing about Space Marines. Also, I need to get this writing sample done for Pinnacle and I should probably, you know, get my games ready for Origins. What I have been doing is doing entirely too much moping about and not enough writing. Remember how I said I was gonna write a novel this year? Yeeaaaaah… It’s June already and I don’t have word one written. Awesome. So, I’m going to start the week with something a little different. Yet again, it’s a very special episode of MCGW.

Now, when I started this project I swore that I wasn’t going to make it into some mewling, navel-gazing, emo-LiveJournal tour de force wherein I talked about my feelings and cried about how hard my life is. While I’m not exactly going to do that here, I do want to just talk about some things that are on my mind.

You know what? Sometimes I just wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life. I’m 34 years old, and I feel like I’ve been pissing my life away since I was twenty. All these years I’ve been wandering around, trying to find something I’m good at. I spent a shitload of money to go to culinary school to find out that I don’t want to chef for a living and can’t stand working in restaurants. I spent seven years pounding my head against a wall as a commercial and editorial photographer, scrambling for smaller and smaller pieces of an ever decreasing pie in an industry that was already dying when I got into it. I didn’t want to quit, though. I wanted to prove I could do it, I was afraid to be labelled a quitter. Something I learned pretty early on was, “If the going gets tough, quit and go do something else. Oh, and make sure you blame someone else for your failure.” Good one, eh? So I kept throwing myself into photography, forcing myself to pick up my camera, and feeling dead inside. I didn’t want to quit and do something else, even though it was painfully obvious to everyone else that I was spinning my wheels. Know what my major problem was? I was never a good photographer. Oh, I could take a good picture, but I didn’t have the personality or the will to be a big-time shooter. I wasn’t in love with the art, and it showed. I spent all that time trying to fit a round peg into a square hole in some kind of bloody-minded show of, I don’t know, stubborn desperation. I may not have been very good, and I may have hated it, but I was not going to be a quitter.
All this time, I was doing something in my spare time that I was good at. I was writing. Mostly game related stuff, specifically stuff for Palladium. I had a bunch of ideas, I was good at it, was collaborating with other writers, and it felt good. I couldn’t make the jump, though. It’s like I’ve got this thing where I have to do shit the hard way, where I ignore what I’m good at so I can suffer through something I’m not good at/don’t like so that, I don’t know, prove something maybe. Anyway, after a few years of therapy and struggling to get my shit together, I finally jumped. I packed up my camera, told all my photo colleagues I was out of the business, and threw myself into words. 
I was off and running with Robotech. I mean, hell, writing primary continuity for a cartoon I watched religiously as a kid and influenced a lot of my creativity? Sign me up. So I wrote Robotech. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I realized, you know what, I’m good at this. I was a staff writer and a lead developer for Robotech for almost three years. I’d finally found it, I was a writer. I could do it, I could write whole books. I could conjure awesome from thin air (and I don’t care what the Robotech nerds say, powered suits in Southern Cross are awesome), and all I wanted to do was write. I collected a bunch of writing books, started to develop my voice, and decided that what I wanted, more than anything else, was to write for a living. Didn’t matter if it was game stuff, although that’s what I really wanted, but I wanted to make a career with words. The more I learned about the trad-games industry in particular and in the writing business in general, the more restless and stressed out I became in my job.
Now, the peculiarities of Kevin Siembieda’s personality and business practices are well known around the business, and I’m not interested in airing dirty laundry, but it quickly became obvious that staying with Palladium was going to get me nowhere. How was I going to get into the industry at large and grow my career working for a company that was proud of the fact that it was “outside” of the industry and was blaming its loss of revenue and market share on everything except decisions made within the company? It smacked of, “everyone’s fault but mine,” and I knew that that way was madness. I chafed, and drank perhaps more than was called for, and decided that something needed done.
So I started looking around, putting a resume and some writing samples together, testing the waters by asking friends I’d made in the industry. It was ugly out there. Writers are a dime a dozen, especially in the trad-games industry where every gamer who’s ever run a game thinks he’s a genius writer just waiting to be discovered. Sales were down all over the industry, the economy was in the shitter, and everyone was scared. I figured I’d bide my time, make some contacts, and keep honing my craft. Then, bang, got a call on a Monday morning in September telling me I was out of a job. Now, I don’t care what anyone says, a lay-off is a lay-off. “Temporary” or not, I was now unemployed. I’m not gonna lie, I was pissed. I’d lost a job, I’d lost Robotech, and honestly, I felt like I’d lost my entire raison d’etre. Even though I’d been quit in my heart for months, and I was already setting the foundation for a change, I was still crushed. Standing there in my hallway, staring at my phone in disbelief, I decided that I couldn’t bank on some vague promise of being rehired “when sales pick up, maybe.” I didn’t have any faith that that day would come, so I jumped. Again. 
Now it’s eight months later. I’ve got a baby, I’m doing work, good work for Fantasy Flight, and things are generally good save for a mountain of debt and a general unease about the future. You know what, though? It’s not easy. Not the writing, although that’s braining and braining is hard work Gentle Readers, what’s hard is the rest of the life. Freelancing, no matter how you dress it up, is being essentially professionally unemployed. Days when I’m hot, when I’m pounding out five-thousand words a day, I feel bullet-proof. Then I lay awake in bed worrying. I worry that I’m not good enough. I worry that I’m not working hard enough. I worry that I’ll let down my wife, my daughter, myself. I worry about how to pay down debt and put a little aside for emergencies. The work I do with FFG is not only challenging and fulfilling, but it’s good for my emotional state, too. My therapist certainly helps as well, very much so. I don’t know what I’d do without her. 
Thing is, it’s not enough. I need more. More work, more exposure, more money, more confidence, more of everything. What I need less of is fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of living my life. So I write, and I write and I write and I write and I send out resumes and I make follow-up calls and send shitloads of emails and swing between feeling awesome and wanting to throw myself off a bridge. I really don’t want to come off like a crybaby, or an entitled little shit, but sometimes I wish I could catch a break. You know? Sometimes I wonder if any of this has been the right decision. I’m a good writer, but is it enough? Should I just forget trad-games and focus on other fiction or non-fiction work? Should I just say fuck it and get a job at Home Depot? Some days the answers to those questions are easier to answer than others, and this is one of those days where the answers are hazy at best.

Mr. Mom

This isn’t fiction, it’s a goddamned documentary

So, last September when I got laid the hell off from Palladium, I’ll admit I felt a little bleak. I hadn’t lost a job since before The Wife and I were married way back in ’02, when I got fired from selling Harleys because I liked motorcycles too much. Anyway, as I stood there in my hallway staring at my phone trying to process what had just happened, my brain shifted on down into survival gear. Well, to be honest, first it shifted into “crawl into a bottle of Wild Turkey and listen to a lot of Hank Williams” mode. Then, as I struggled through the five stages of grief and helped an Austin Nichols exec make a boat payment, and after I dealt with, “Fuck, I’m a freelancer again!”, I had a little epiphany. I had a baby on the way, I was a writer, I work from home, I’m good at multi-tasking and staying work focused, I keep long hours, I’m not necessarily opposed to bodily functions…I was going to be Mr. Mom!

See, what you should know about me gentle readers is that I’m already pretty domesticated. I do the lion’s share of the cooking since I love food and I may as well use that degree for something. As for housekeeping, well, when I can be arsed I scrub a mean counter and polish a mean floor Hell, I’m not sure The Wife even knows where the laundry room is, and our house is all of 1,400 squares, so you know it’s not hard to find. So yeah, I figured that since I’m good at keeping writing and housework balanced, along with keeping the cars and bikes running and maintaining a seventy-year-old house, that I’d be able to just slot babby in there no problem with just a little re-arranging and keep on truckin’.

Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up parents. No, go ahead, get it out, catch your breath. I’ll wait….better? Right, I know. I know now, that it’s easier said than done. In my short, two-month tenure as Nervous McNewdad, I’ve had my eyes opened to just how time consuming and labor intensive new babbies can be. I mean, I knew, right? I’ve got a bunch of nieces and nephews that I’ve watched grow up so I know that they take a lot of work, but I didn’t understand. It’s hard to keep up a steady workflow when you need to feed/change/burp/bounce/sing to/entertain a little, mostly helpless person every three or so hours. Hard to keep that continuity, you know? Combined with other stresses, like work piling up and the constant, steady creep of deadlines, other things that need doing going by the wayside, no sleep (’cause I’m writing at 03:00 instead of sleeping), dealing with the emotional fallout of being new parents, well, lets just say that it makes the atmosphere a little charged at The Ranch.

I will say however, that The Wife and I are handling it better than most. My unique position as professionally unemployed a freelancer/journeyman cum stay-at-home dad allows me to take a more active role in the parenting, which helps take the load off The Wife. Between the two of us, we make up one good parent. My biggest problem right now is trying to balance everything out. I’ve got something like three concurrently running contracts with Fantasy Flight right now for both Rogue Trader and Deathwatch. I’ve got to bone up on Savage Worlds and my old flame Deadlands so I can do a writing sample for Pinnacle. I need to get back into my quickie know-it-all essays for Demand Studios cause that’s easy money right there, and Lord knows with a new babby and a bunch of ancient cars and bikes and a house that was built in the victory garden and commodity rationing era there’s never enough money, easy or otherwise. All of that, combined with trying to, well, grow my brand for lack of a better term by writing and shmoozing and emailing and blogging and tweeting and linking-in and all that other stuff that pretty much equates to me standing on my little corner of the internets holding my poorly written “Will write about spaceships for food” sign, well, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Now, I’m not complaining. Well, I’m sort of complaining, I admit. I’ll tell you what, though. Being a dad suits me. I like it, I like it a lot. Even when she’s being a huge pain in the ass, which thankfully isn’t that often, the kid is still great to have around. I couldn’t be happier with her. Well, maybe if she’d come already potty trained that would have been extra sweet. Anyway, I know it’s only been two months that I’ve been a dad, but I’d like to share some advice with any freelancers or prospective stay-at-home dads out there with babby on the way.

  • Work: If you’re gonna work from home, you need to straighten some things out first. Sit down with your wife/babby-momma/significant other/platonic life partner/co-parent/whatever and have a chat about distribution of responsibilities. Make it clear that your work is every bit as important as theirs is, even though you do it from home in your jammies and they go away to an office. Set down some guidelines about standing watches, as The Wife and I call it. Guidelines that say who gets the babby when, and when one or the other simply needs to be alone in a locked room to get any work done. If this involves making child-care arrangements, so be it. You’re not a bad parent just because you have to clear the decks and get a little peace and quite so that you can get work done.
  • Communicate: Seriously, this should be obvious but you’d be surprised. No matter how strong a marriage/life-commitment is, there is a shit load of emotional fallout that comes with having a babby. Make sure y’all aren’t holding wants, needs, desires, frustration, or any other emotions inside because I guarantee it will completely wreck you. 
  • Get. The Hell. Out: Seriously. This goes for freelancers who don’t have kids and it’s doubly important for journeyman dads. Have a place away from the house where you can go and relax or get a little work done sans kids/partner. I’ve got a couple comfy-ass coffee houses that I go to. They’re staffed by handsome young women, feature excellent coffee, hot and cold running internet, and, if I’m not working too hard, make for some excellent people watching/chatting up the regulars. This is super important for home-bound workers. Remember what happened to Jack Torrance? The last thing you need is to be chasing your partner and kid around the house with a fire ax because you’ve been staring at the same words/monitors/walls for a month straight. The cops frown on that shit. 
  • Communicate: Just sayin’…
  • Nail Down a Schedule/Work Regimen: You’re never going to get anything done if you have to do everything. Prioritize your work. Make sure you’re getting regular meals, regular showers, regular walks, and regular you time. Don’t work all the time, all it does is hurt the quality of your work as you get more and more burned out.
  • Get Thee to a Therapist!: Now, I don’t want to make this into a very special episode of Motor City Gamewerks or anything, but seriously. Know how I mentioned that emotional fallout? Post-partum depression isn’t just for moms anymore! Journeyman parents, depression is no joke. Trust me, I know. Having a babby stirs up all kinds of shit, shit you didn’t even know was in there. If you feel like you need help, get help! My therapist has been an enormous help and comfort during the past two months. I don’t like to be evangelical about getting your head shrunk, but I’d recommend it to anyone. If you’re not into therapy or can’t invest the time or money just remember, you’re not alone. With a little legwork I’m sure you could find some stay-at-home working dad support groups in your metro area. Whether in meatspace or on the internets, just being able to piss and moan about new-dadding over a few beers or a round of Left 4 Dead will do you worlds of good.
  • Stay Gold, Ponyboy: On a related-to-psychological-health topic, journeyman dads, make sure you don’t stop being you! If you gamed or mountain biked or did metal work or baked artisan bread before babby, make damn sure you keep doing so after babby. Hobbies are there for a reason, they keep you sane and act as a pressure valve. Don’t think for a minute that you need to drop everything and seal yourself off from the world just because you drafted a new member on to the team. I’m not saying that your schedule isn’t going to tighten up a little. What I am saying is that it’s important for you to keep involved with your friends and activities after you have the kid. It’s related to getting the hell out. You know what throwing your old life away, not calling your friends, and staying at the side of the bassinet 24/7 leads to? Resentment. Resentment leads to anger, anger leads…well…you know where this is going. Finally…
  • Communicate: Y’all saw this one coming a mile off, didn’t you?

So, there. *gets off soapbox* This is what works for me, and things that I think are important. As with any advice, your mileage may vary. If you want to be there for your kid and your partner, you have to be there for yourself. Don’t feel guilty about working, do stuff you like, make your needs and feelings known, get out in the sunshine now and again, and enjoy being a dad.

PS: Any other journeyman parents out there? I realize that this is a pretty dad-centric point of view and my experiences are, well, unique to me and my worldview. I’d love to hear from other freelance moms and dads here. Leave a comment, tell us a story, let us know how you’re holding up.

Wednesday Bonus Post: Good News, Everyone!

Didn’t see that coming…
Good news, indeed. I got an email from the guys at Pinnacle Entertainment Group this morning. You know, the guys who make Savage Worlds and Deadlands? Anyway, looks like I have maybe an opportunity for some work with them, which’ll be great because I absolutely love Deadlands, and have ever since it came out. All I have to do now is fit research on a new system and setting and an accompanying essay test/writing sample  in with my regular work of Fantasy Flight stuff, changing diapers, and begging for work. As usual, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Better Late than Never, Eh?

It’s ours, Precious!

Today is our birthday, Precious. I know it’s been woefully quiet this week at the Gamewerks, but don’t fret Gentle Readers. The Furnaces are burning and the gears are grinding and the belts are moving in the background as I scramble to finish up a couple Rogue Trader assignments for Fantasy Flight. I’ll make it up to you next week, as I plan to spend the next four days alternating, like Hemingway, between fits of drunken debauchery and furious, inspired writing. Next week we’re going to talk about Dwarves, scale, and my awesome Cthulhu birthday cake. In the meantime, please check out these fine establishments for all of your game blog needs.