Bad Habits

PANICYep, that’s about right (credit Allie Bosh/Hyperbole and a Half)

So, in last week’s missive I talked about developing some really bad work habits last year, habits born of “hubris, aggressive indolence, a sad tendency toward procrastination, and my well honed ability to justify anything led me into all manner of poor work and bad decisions”. This is a situation that, I believe, most if not all freelancers fall into from time to time. The cry of, “I’ve got plenty of time before this is due!” has rung from many a home-office or co-working space, typically right before Facebook is opened for the eightieth time in two hours, or the newest DLC for Borderlands 2 is launched. So you upload some pictures of cats, like some pictures of somebody elses’ lunch, and kill a few Drifters, when suddenly it’s three days before your deadline and you’ve got maybe seventy words of a thirty-thousand word assignment written. And you have no idea what you’re writing about, because you’ve been busy with cat pictures and Drifters. And it’s not your only deadline. And you’ve got other, non-work responsibilities to take care of. And…and…and… And, well, it becomes a vicious cycle like in that picture up there. Now, there are some guys, like Scalzi and Chuck Wendig and Matt Forbeck who don’t suffer from this affliction, but I’m convinced that those dudes are robots or aliens or alien robots. I, however, am neither a robot nor an alien more’s the pity, and let me assure you children that I suffer from this affliction in spades.

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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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A Problem of Perception

The Pros from Dover

We’re the Pros from Dover.

Once upon a time when I was just starting out, a document came across my desk that I was asked to edit. I was the second set of eyes on the document, the first being the company’s “Head Editor”. I’m not gonna mince words here kids, it was a fucking disaster. It was still full of misspelled words and crimes against grammar. I brought this up to the boss, who immediately jumped to the Head Editor’s defense with the statement, “You have to remember, he’s not a professional editor.” Excuse me? This is a man who, for twenty years, worked as “Head Editor” for this company, a position he still holds today. His name is in countless gaming supplements as “editor”. He gets paid to do the job of an editor. That’s the fucking definition of a professional! So, what is this? I’ll tell you what it is, it’s a problem of perception, of ourselves and our industry, that absolutely pervades this business.

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Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus

It rises from the ashes…

Welcome to Amalgamated Fiction – Detroit, Gentle Readers. What’s all this crap you ask? Well, let me lay it out for you. Motor City Gamewerks is gone. Like the grim, deadly foundries and factories from which I took my imagery for that site, it’s been torn down and replaced by a cleaner, more efficient, forward-looking site! Why did I do it? Well, read on.

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Getting a Fresh Eye On It.

Ugh, what year is it again?

Well, well, well. It’s 2011! Did Santa bring you everything you wanted this year? New dice? Pathfinder books? A trip to the Mojave Wasteland, perhaps? It was a very nerdy Christmas at our house, with a lot of Ugly Dolls and plush Companion Cubes and giant squishy dice under the tree for The Kid, and new games and hardware for The Wife and I. There was a lot of eating and drinking between Christmas and New Years, including a White Elephant party we threw wherein I got a bacon scented car air freshener that smells like bac-os that were stored in an old boot for a year. Now it’s the first day of the first week of the new year and, well, it’s time to get a fresh eye on things.

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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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Slow Burn

Welp, looks like my Saturdays are free again…

There is a very interesting conversation going on over at Penny-Arcade regarding the relationship between players and game masters. Specifically, how the vagaries of herding cats managing players while they run roughshod over your carefully crafted world can burn a GM out quicker than a dollar store light bulb. They pay too much time obsessing on red herrings, they don’t take things seriously enough, they take things too seriously, they ignore plot, they don’t respect the setting, they don’t get it man, they, as Tycho puts it, dick around and eat pizza, and eventually the whole gaming experience for the game master can be summed up with this wisdom. It’s true, players can shit up a game quicker than anything, and will do so at their earliest convenience. You know what though, that’s their job.

On the other hand, it gets wearing after a while. Every GM who has ever sat behind the screen knows the feeling Gabe is talking about there in the first comic. The sinking feeling that comes to every GM at some point where it’s like pulling teeth to get up the energy to run the game and you feel like everything that was good and bright and hopeful at the beginning of the campaign is gone and there’s nothing left but aggravation and the feeling that not only are you bad at this, but you were never any good at it. I’ve never actually quit in a huff, or sent a hilariously damning letter to my players, but I’ve put more campaigns on “indefinite hiatus” than I care to think about. Sometimes I even pretend like I’ll go back to them some day, but we all know that I never will.

I don’t know how Munin does it. We’ve been playing Harn for what feels like twenty years now with precious little in the way of interruptions or problems. My campaigns typically collapse under the weight of my own bullshit and general player malaise. I have had one or two gloriously self-destruct due to some ugly player-vs.-player action, but those have been thankfully rare. The sad fact of the matter is that, for the most part, more campaigns fail than succeed. No matter how promising and shiny a campaign is at the beginning, no matter how fired up people are, every one is subject to the same kinds of outside pressures that destroy everything from friendships to new businesses. 
Running a game is like a second (or third, or fourth) job that you pay for the privilege of having. Not to say that it’s not worth it, ’cause it is. When you’re on and the ideas are coming and the players are into it and everyone is having a good time there are few greater feelings. Those days when you’re slow and thick and everyone has had a bad day and you see more laptops than smiling faces, those are the days when you just want to throw up your hands, say fuck this, and take up stamp collecting or something. The best thing you can do is not let it get to you. Remember, it could be worse. You could have no group at all.
*PS: Since I know a few of my Rogue Trader players are regular readers, don’t worry. Nothing in this post has anything to do with you.

NaNoWriMo

Indeed

Hello Gentle Readers. It’s been a while. As usual, I don’t really have a good excuse for my long absence, so I’ll just jump right into it. Today we’re going to play a little catch-up, and I’m going to get back on the horse Monday with some honest to God ‘blogging. So, what’s been going on at Journeyman HQ you ask? A fair amount, actually. I’m still working on AEGIS vs. SPIDER, for which I’ve found the perfect musical accompaniment, but slowly as that project has taken a back seat to some other, more pressing projects. 

For one, I’ve started writing for National Novel Writing Month. On a lark, and after a not so subtle hint from The Wife, I’ve decided to jump headlong into this thirty-day orgy of words, headaches, coffee, bourbon, breast beating, teeth gnashing, procrastination, and aggressive indolence. Honestly, it’s not that much different than any other writing assignment I get, and like usual I’ll probably do nothing more than poke at it and fret about it until a week before it’s due and then dash off all fifty-thousand words in a caffeine and alcohol fueled haze in which I snap at everyone around me, wonder if I shouldn’t have just taken to driving a truck for a living, and sleep an hour or two in every twenty-four.
See, obviously I’ve read a lot of novels, but I’ve never had the temerity to actually write one. Writing novels is for really real writers, adults with educations, not hacks like me. Short fiction sure. I’ve done that. The shorter the better, actually. My very first published story, based on an illustration by Ramon Perez, wasn’t more than fifteen hundred words. I tend to write short fiction in a style similar to Lydia Davis, painfully short, to the point narratives of no more than a few thousand words. Now though, now that I’ve gone to the trouble of signing up on the NaNoWriMo website and Tweeting about it and making Facebook posts about it and bragging to my friends about it and attending a painfully awkward “write-in” at a place called Black Lotus  (which has bad beer, lousy service, and even worse ambience mind you), I’ve got to spin fifty-thousand words into a cohesive narrative by the end of the month. That’s some scary shit right there.
I’m not sure why, though. Over the past year I’ve written probably 200,000 words for Fantasy Flight. Before that, I wrote probably three times that for Palladium. Hell, I put down nearly eighty-thousand words for Macross, and that’s half again as many as I need for my NaNoWriMo book. It feels different, though. I have a hard time with what The Wife calls the “magic pencil” theory (which she stole from her late father). This is a theory where you put the pencil on the page (or start typing in the document) and don’t quit ’til you’re done. As far as I’m concerned, that’s crazy talk. Terrifying crazy talk. Probably because I don’t trust myself to even speak without doing heavy editing in my head before I say anything (a truly horrifying revelation for those who know me and have actually heard the things that come out of my mouth from time to time). I need to suck it up, though. I need to quit with the incessant fiddling and editing and fretting over just the right word or I’m never going to get through this. 
So, what’s it about you ask? Um…good question. I’ve been tossing this idea around as both a novel and a game setting for a couple of years now. It’s a hard (or as hard as I can make it) science sci-fi setting that takes place in our Solar System a few hundred years from now. Mankind has left the cradle of Earth and colonized the rest of the system. It’s not post-apocalyptic or anything, we didn’t leave the planet because of a war or plague or any of the numerous other cliche reasons, mainly it was a case of too many people and not enough resources. There’s a handful of countries (The US/Canada, Russia, China, India, the EU) who are dominant in space. There are massive industrial and shipping concerns that raise private navies for protection. There are pirates in the asteroid belt. There’s an underfunded, inglorious, lackluster United Terran Navy that’s essentially the system’s Coast Guard and has serious beef with the Company Men/system wide private military contractors. No aliens, no FTL travel, little in the way of the kind of whiz-bang technology you see in Star Wars or, God forbid, Star Trek. Certainly none of that Honor Harrington Mary-sue, age of sail, broadsides and board ‘em in the smoke bullshit. 
I’m basically trying to re-tell Jack Aubrey’s story from Master and Commander in space with lasers against a backdrop of a spacegoing corporatocracy held up by its own personal military forces who are answerable only to CEOs and shareholders. A modern military drama that deals with the issues of leadership, a military force stretched to its limit, the antagonism between PMCs and actual active-duty military members, and, well, duty. Because seriously, it’s all about duty. That’s pretty goddamned ambitious for a first-time novel writer, and probably not doable withiin the NaNoWriMo rubric. I’m going to damn well try, though. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s gotten off to a good start at least. Here’s a taste of the opening for your reading pleasure:
With the ink on his commission still wet, Wes Maucher stepped from the bustling clamor of Gagarin Station’s main concourse into the close, comfortable dimness of Mir’s, directly into a fistfight.

Not bad, eh? Even though Lieutenant Commander Maucher is my thinly veiled analog for Jack Aubrey (he’s also named after my very favorite navy man, my granddad), I’m obviously not going to be able to do Master and Commander scene for scene and just replace H.M. Sloop Sophie with the currently unnamed ancient, clapped out destroyer that Maucher will command. For starters, that’s lazy bullshit and probably plagiaristic  right there. It’s also not doable in the sense that a lot of what O’Brian does in the Aubrey-Maturin books is so dependent on the place and time of its setting that it would be impossible to recreate totally in space. The themes, strong, living characters, action, humanity, and humor sure, that’s doable. That’s just good wordcraft, that’s what makes a story and I should be doing that anyway. I’ll just have to find some other device to replace violent storms and the horror of a lee shore if I want or need a little extra drama.

Other than that, which is going to chew up a good amount of my time, I just landed yet another big-ass assignment from Fantasy flight, I’ve got a super-hero thing simmering for a little company called Melior Via, I’m still trying to land more work, I’ve got resumes in to WotC, Blizzard, and Stardock, and that doesn’t even cover all the mundane workaday stuff like taking care of The Kid and keeping The Wife happy and making sure the house doesn’t fall down around our ears. So, you know, no rest for the wicked.

Tuesday Filler: GTFO

Thanks for all your hard work! By the way, get the hell out…

So, a year ago today, I got laid the fuck off from Palladium Books. With one little phone call on a Monday Morning, I lost everything I’d wanted. I’d lost a job, I’d lost Robotech, and I’d lost my rudder. After a bit of heavy drinking and some beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth, I said “Fuck this” and set about forging a new direction for myself as a freelancer in the contracting and increasingly niche Trad Games industry. It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t always been fun. It’s been slower than I’d like. I’ve made some progress, though. Shall we see what the passing of a year has brought us Gentle Readers?

Bulleted list time. Goddamn I love bulleted lists! Let’s you and me have a look at the things I’ve accomplished in the past year, shall we?

  • Fantasy Flight: So far, I’ve worked on every Rogue Trader title so far. For those keeping score, that’s six books and close to 150,000 words. Plus I did some work for a Deathwatch supplement, which was pretty cool. Cultivating a creative professional relationship with FFG was one of the smartest, and luckiest, things I’ve done over the past year.
  • Other Companies: Weeeeeeelll…not as such. This is the part I really wish I’d done better at. Having said that, after a kind of disastrous Origins and a great GenCon, I at least now have some leads and face time that I hope to parley into more work.
  • Other Projects: Uh, yeah. So, well, not so much this either. I had all these harebrained schemes, novels, PDFs, schooling, becoming a media darling, but haven’t had the stones or gumption to bring any of it to fruition yet. This is something I want to work harder at in the coming year.
  • Became a Dad: I believe I mentioned this. Did I mention this? Yeah, I totally became a father in 2010, which is quite possibly the best thing that I’ve ever done. The Kid is one of the few things that’s kept me sane over the past months.
  • Enlarged my Online Presence: So, this here internet weblog thingy, my Twitters, the MCGW Facebook page, an Amazon Partnership…I’ve done all these things in an attempt to grow my brand and make a name for myself via social media. The results are debatable, but I’ve met some great fellow writers and game designers via the intertubes over the past year, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
  • Paid my Shrink a Ton of Money: Worth every goddamned penny, too.
  • Worried a Lot: I don’t think I can describe how stressful and worrying being a freelancer with a mountain of debt and a new baby is. Seriously, there are days it’s hard getting out of bed in the morning.
  • Serious Home Projects: I don’t really talk about this here, but in the past year I’ve refinished all the hardwood floors on our second floor, renovated the bedroom, built the nursery, and framed my basement for a finished room. In all, the house shaped up nicely.
  • Made a Bunch of New Friends and Contacts: Always a good thing, especially when they’re nice enough to give me advice even though they don’t know me from Adam.
  • Other Stuff: Surely there’s some other stuff that I can’t think of right now. Just use your imaginations.

So, yeah. Not a bad year but not a great one either. If I were being graded, I’d probably get a strong C+, which is better than I ever did in school, but not as good as I’d like. I’ve got a ton of work to do. Work to improve my craft, work to improve my career, and work to improve me. There you go, here’s hoping for a better year going forward.