Maybe Next Year

Last Wednesday’s IWSG post got me to thinking.  Which, I suppose, is what those topics are intended to do…

I wrote in that post about 2017 in a pretty general way. Looking back, of course, tends to do that: other than the truly exceptional — good or bad — things tend to blur together.  As the distance from them grows, the individual points lose their granularity and blend into a broader picture.

And, yeah, I’m using Pointillist painting for that analogy…because who doesn’t like a cool painting?

Anyway, the thinking…

We tend to forget the details, tend to forget the honesty and the emotion — the raw urgency — when we look back.  We tend to remember the past, and to come across when we write about it, very differently than we lived it at the time. Sometimes that distance is good, but often it is bad…occasionally very bad.

When I reread my IWSG post, I found a hint of phlegmatic acceptance that is most decidedly NOT who I am.  I wanted to drill a bit into that, wanted to make a point that I did not in that post: life is a fight, and you better damned well fight to win.

Three of the worst words in my little corner of the universe: maybe next year.

Maybe next year will be better.

Maybe next year I’ll get it together.

Maybe next year the words will come easier.

Maybe next year…

Not to sound like a heartless asshole, but maybe next year you, or I, will be dead.

I lost one sister when she was far too young…I’m worried about losing another…I lost one of my best friends when I was seventeen…I’ve lost too many more in the years since…

It’s a trite and overused old thought that I have to add (overused precisely because it’s true): you are not promised tomorrow.

Now, I’m gonna leave aside the more irresponsible parts of my life in this post: shit like the (arguably) crazy hiking I do, or the (arguably) reckless personal risks I am willing to take.

Nope, I want to focus on who I am, not on what I do.

And, as I’ve said before, who I am is a writer.

Yes, the money sucks for a freelancer.  Yes, the money sucks even worse for a writer new to the fiction industry.  Yes, there is far more frustration and challenge than celebration sometimes…err, often times.

“Go back to marketing and sales.  Be responsible.  Maybe next year you’ll be in a better place.”

“Maybe next year the money will be better.”

“Maybe next year you’ll have more time.”

I hear this from others — from friends and family — fairly often.  I hear this from the little demon on my shoulder all the time.  Hell, I hear this from myself.

Maybe next year…

No.

The words are who I am.  If I give in, if I say “Maybe next year I can be who I really am…” all I’m doing is surrendering.  All I’m doing is denying who I am by pretending to be who others want me to be.

Remember what I said above: life is a fight, and you have to fight to win.  At least I do.

I might very well die tomorrow…or next week…or next summer…or in thirty years.  But, no matter what, I refuse to have my last thought be that stupidest of regrets: if only I had one more year

No.

I’d much rather die reaching for a pen.  I’d much rather have my last thought be one of hope: shit, this would make a great scene…

Maybe next year isn’t an option. It isn’t encouragement, isn’t acceptance. It isn’t even regret.  No, maybe next year is a curse and a trap.

For me, at least, there is no alternative — I have to live, and write, like this is it…like there is no next year.

What is your next year?  What are you putting off?

What value, what meaning, are you deferring because, well, maybe next year...?

Put Down The News, And Step Away From Reality…

I spent some time looking at the “real world” over the last couple of weeks.  At the culture, and the politics, and the general insanity of it all.  I thought I wanted to do a post today on something current, something topical.

Let’s see what we have to choose from: Trump and Russia, Clinton and Russia, everyone else and Russia, sexual harassment and rape in the halls of the rich, powerful and unaccountable, lunatic dictators and terrorism and frosty international relations…

Umm, this ain’t goin’ too well.

Okay…deep breath…deep breath…

So much for current events.  While some (or all) of the above would make good fodder for a story, I’m not sure I want to want to focus their reality.  Plus, I’m just not in the mood — I’m in the mood to write, not just to write.

So, well, I’m gonna write — but I have to put up a post, too.  Below is a snippet that I posted (in an earlier version) over a year ago, when I was still technically working on the first story.  I mentioned several months ago that I wanted to be more intentional about posting snippets, and this is the result: if and when I post such little bits of Silence, I am going to do so in (current) story order.

And, yes, that means the scene below is (currently) the opening scene — and no bitching about an opening scene in bed!  That beginning has a purpose (for the moment)!

As ever, keep in mind all the caveats: this is early version stuff, before I do the heavy lifting on editing and rewrites.  Anything and everything is subject to change…

The whirring of yet another lock in yet another cell door.  Connor would never get used to that.  It was just as bad now, two months after his eighteenth birthday, as it had been at twelve.  Shit, in some ways it was worse.  The years of freedom between cells had taught him about suffering, yes, and about the price always waiting to be paid, but also about friendship and love.  And about loss.

A gulp, then, at the thought of friendship.  Of absent friends.  Of Oz.

Blood on the floor…blood on the knife…blood on Oz’s wrists.  And Connor too late to do anything other than hold his friend — his brother — as the last of a too-short, too-painful life dripped away.

At least Oz hadn’t been alone.  Only one thing had ever scared Oz: alone.  Being alone and, especially, dying alone.  Alone was worse.  That was lesson number one, a lesson Connor would never forget.

But Connor was alone now.

Oz was dead.  Marie and Vin were dead.  Fadi had crawled into a bottle and disappeared.  And Nat?  A second gulp, almost as big for her as for Oz.  Nat had washed her hands of him.  Takie princess that she was, pretty and rich, she had had enough of her foray into rebellion and danger.  She had cleaned away the dirt and grime of dockside, and Connor with it.

“Move your ass,” a voice barked from the small intercom by the door.  “Work details leave in ten minutes.”

Connor didn’t want to crawl out of bed.  For all its many faults, the bed was warm.  The floor was cold.  The cell was cold.  Hell, the whole fucking place was cold.  Less than a year into his five year sentence and Connor was already very, very tired of the cold.

At least it wasn’t dockside.

If they’d put him into the much smaller jail out there, he would have died months ago. Of that he was very, very certain; too many out there knew just who Connor Spogelse was.  Too many blamed him for the violent gang war now ripping that space station apart.  And far, far too many were ready to make him pay for his role in it all.  The cops almost as much as the remnants of the crime family he had betrayed.

Grim humor, and the memory of his sarcastic friend, were more than enough to find the absurdity in his life, however.  How many could say they’d betrayed a major crime family, brought down a powerful politician, and earned a price on their head, all before their eighteenth birthday?

He could all-but hear Oz’s laughing voice in his head, Fuckin’ overachiever.

Out of bed he did get, in spite of the cold, and down to the entrance of the pod of cells.  Even after many months, the dirtside ground still felt strange to Connor.  Most of his life had been spent in the artificial gravity of a space station, and the regular, real gravity of a planet was just different enough to be disconcerting.  With every step he felt like he was about to fall over.  And that was without going outside to see all that emptiness hanging over his head.

As stupid as it sounded, even to him, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around concepts like sky and horizon.  And God help him with the truly crazy shit like scenery and weather.  He knew he’d never get used to any of it.

The pod’s lights were still dimmed for the night, and just eight prisoners waited by the exit.  The only inmates of the fifty in the pod with the privilege — and the drive — to get out of bed hours before the rest and go to work.

A brief stare from Connor, unintentionally baleful in the early hours, and the others gave him a respectful bit of space while they waited for the door to open.  With little to do but work, read and exercise, Connor had finally started to fill out his height.  He would never be considered big or bulky, but he was no longer the rail-thin teenager he had been just a year ago.

It was more than just size, however.  What Connor had done to the last aho who had thought to take advantage of the youngest kid in the entire prison brought its own respect, as well.  Dirtside criminals and thugs were little prepared for the sheer violence any dockside ikiryo could bring to bear with little hesitation and less warning.

The heavy door clanked open and the watch sergeant stuck his greying head inside.  “Alright, let’s go.”

The prisoners filed out, moved automatically to walk in single file against the corridor’s right hand wall.  You didn’t have to be in Chapman Penitentiary very long before the rules became automatic.  Fucking with the guards could offer momentary entertainment, true, but that most definitely did not make getting through your sentence any easier.  And Connor wanted very much to get through his sentence; wanted to get through with as little trouble as possible.

Down the long hall they marched, whispered jokes and comments the only sound.  It was early enough that not even the staff were moving around if they didn’t have to.  Later, when the day shift started, the halls would be full of guards and workers walking in packs alongside the ever-present movement of prisoners.

The small group reached an intersection and paused to wait while the sergeant called Central Control to open the heavy security door sealing the end of their corridor.  It was a major crossroads, this, and as the group of prisoners finally entered the intersection, all of the corridors leading out were similarly sealed.

A wave and an incomprehensible mutter from the sergeant sent Connor over to the one door painted a different color from the others.  Sky blue this one was, indicating its access to an area that led outside the prison.  The others, connecting only to internal areas of the facility, were a dull, earthen red.

A few steps and Connor pressed the small button on the door’s heavy metal frame, stared up into the holo-camera.  The door would not open until the operators in Central Control had verified his identity, and his permission to use this particular door.  No smile showed — could never show, not for this — but access to this door was his greatest accomplishment to date.

Quite how the prison officials had overlooked Connor’s past as a criminal specializing in cracking computer security and networks he didn’t know, but his first job in the prison library had offered just enough ‘net access to arrange this even-better opportunity.

“C’mon you little fucker,” the sergeant yelled, “hurry up!”

Until that blue door had closed safely behind Connor, no other one in the intersection would open.  Connor almost laughed at the grumbling from those behind.  The others were all headed to jobs in the prison’s kitchen and storage areas, and he would never understand how anyone could be eager to start burning fake-eggs and slopping out pseudo-oatmeal.

Finally, a buzzer sounded and Connor was through the door.  Barely a second later it slid shut behind him.  Those steps, as small as they were, took him into a completely different world.  Even the air smelled different.  Instead of the stale, chemical air of the prison, there was a taste of…something very different.

A few steps down the short corridor and he was into the big, busy room beyond.  A wave of sound washed over him as he entered, and a sense of activity.  Two steps inside and he was almost run over by a rushing prison guard.  Short and pretty this one was, with brown hair and bright blue eyes.

A distracted smile and a half-hearted wave from her, then.  “Sorry, no time to get things set up right now.  Just hit the basic stuff.  By the time you’re done with that, the rush should be over.”

Her accent was strange, vastly different from the hint of dockside that still clung stubbornly to Connor’s tongue.

A glance at the far end and Connor saw thirty new prisoners standing in a line, wrists and ankles shackled and their orange jumpsuits rumpled and dirty.  Four guards stood near that group, talking amongst themselves as much as watching the inmates in their charge.  Seated nearby, behind a high counter, several guards were checking ‘screens and preparing to call out names.

It was the prison’s Admissions and Processing Center, its link to the outside world.  Work in that area was one of the better jobs a prisoner could get…and was far and away the best job for a data-thief like Connor.

A brief smile, then, and a hint of self-satisfaction, as he moved to a small closet by the holding area.  A pull on the unlocked door and he was soon filling a mop bucket and readying his supplies.  A few hours of cleaning in exchange for several hours of datanet access every day?  Yes, please.

Maybe he’d arrange a little ‘donation’ to his commissary account today; why eat prison food when he could just buy his own on the prison’s penny?

The work — and the guards’ processing — took more than a few hours, but the end result was the same.  The floors were cleaned, the bathrooms were cleaned, and the guards entertained with jokes and stories.

Connor was well-known as one of the few docksiders in Chapman Penitentiary, and very few people on Redux — the capital of the entire damned star system — understood even a tenth of the reality of life out there at the very edge of the star system.  Dockside was nothing more real than the wild and lawless jungle of various holo-dramas to them.  Of course, it was wild and lawless, Connor reflected; the corporations who had colonized this system hadn’t cared enough to make it anything else.

The stories and jokes he told were just enough to hint to the guards that he was something special, something different.  Stories and jokes were powerful tools for confirming prejudices…and for gaining advantages.  And Connor — innocent, earnest Connor who the guards all liked — had lots of stories.  A few of them were even true.

It was the same guard — the pretty one — who brought Connor his breakfast.  Not for him a plate of food made from substances that almost, but not quite, resembled eggs and sausage.  No, sir, you couldn’t have the poor, abused kid who cleaned your toilets eat that shit.

A smile from her — one that offered questions, and hints of more — and she offered a small tray holding a pair of sausages and a strange, sour salad.  What docksider had ever tried fucking sauerkraut?  Connor wanted to find insult in the food; wanted to, but could not.  It was good.  It was also a hell of a lot better than anything those inside that sky-blue door were eating, that was certain.

That food came with a second benefit: after the guard had left to return to her duties, Connor was left alone at a desk-mounted ‘screen.  Antiquated that system may have been, and all-but useless compared to those he had used a year ago, but it did have one key feature that more than made up for its faults: a connection to Redux’s very modern, and very fast, datanet.

Connor’s life as a dockside ikiryo had given him many skills.  First and foremost among those: Connor could crack any security the ‘net could throw at him.  A smile, and a bite of food, and he began to navigate again through the prison’s security system.

Off-Topic Ramblings … Way, Way, Waaaay Off-Topic

I’ve spent some time thinking about whether or not I wanted to throw myself into one particular briar patch, but in the end that long bit of thinking that did convince me.  The briar patch in question?  The “Masterpiece Cake Shop” case before the Supreme Court.

This post is, by the way, going to be a long one…and far drier, not to mention less snarky, than I usually shoot for.

Now, first off, a few pieces of backstory and exposition:

A) I live in Colorado, and have for fifteen years.  This case received a great deal of local coverage here, so it is not something new to me.  Hell, there are details and specifics to it that seldom, if ever, get mentioned by the national media.   Most of that coverage, in fact, is pretty damned shallow and simplistic…not to mention designed to reinforce whatever preconceived conclusions a particular reporter/outfit is carrying into the fray.

B) I’m a straight, white guy, with all of the life experience that entails.  It also means I don’t really have a personal dog in the fight…just a socio-cultural one.

C) I am also, as I’ve mentioned before, pretty damned libertarian.  Now, part of that is my own Golden Rule of “leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone”, but another part is a belief — within limits — in the philosophy of “that government is best which governs least”.

I am not, but the way, going to list here the specifics here of the case itself.  Anyone interested already knows, and anyone not interested has probably stopped reading by now…

No, what I want to get to is my take on the whole thing…and that take is: it’s complicated.

Really, the whole thing is fucking complicated…far more so than the “easy answers” on both sides like to pretend.  There is right and wrong aplenty in this case, and in the situation that gave rise to it. And the outcomes?  Yeah, that gets even more complicated…and even more “right and wrong”.

My thinking on this whole thing has also evolved over time. Several years ago, when it first arose as a simple story in the Denver Post, I was one of those “easy answer” folks.  I thought I knew the whole story, so I made my “decision” and ignored everything else about the issue.

But the case got bigger, and I learned more facts.

And I thought more.

You know what?  That changed things for me…and changed my opinion.

This case really is bigger than a simple dispute between a baker and his (potential) customers.  There is more than enough legitimate fear — and threat — on both sides to warrant a case before the Supreme Court.

By the way, it is NOT a case about the legality of the baker’s refusal: his actions were in clear violation of state law.  What it IS a case about is whether or not that particular law is constitutional.

In one sense, it is also a case about compelled speech: the plaintiffs argue that the baker has a legal duty to fulfill their order, regardless of his personal beliefs and convictions.  The defense, on the other hand, contends that such compulsion uses the power of the State to force a man to violate his conscience, and his deeply held beliefs.

From that particular (limited) perspective, it is pretty easy to pick a winner…and this is where my initial opinion on the whole thing started years ago.

But it ain’t that easy.

When I write freelance, I get to pick and choose my clients as well as the work I create.  I don’t write for Penthouse Forum, nor for the Aryan Nation, nor the Socialist Worker…not, in fact, for anything or anyone that I find repugnant and antithetical to my own beliefs and views.*

*So says the guy whose current protagonist is an alcoholic thief…and whose other main character is a teen-aged, gay prostitute.  I think we can safely say that puritanical morality ain’t exactly my thing…

What about my photography? Should I have to accept a client that wants me to shoot porn?  Or BDSM?  Or cats?  Shouldn’t someone else, I’ve asked myself, have the same freedom as I do?  Especially another artist?

Again, that was where my thinking started…and where my opinion stood for a long time.

But it still ain’t that easy.

First of all, I don’t have a store.  I don’t operate any form of public, physical location where I am open and available for folks to simply walk in and hire me. Not even a link on the web.  I initiate any and all work I perform, either by working purely on spec, or by prior personal agreement with a client to whom I have been referred (or has been referred to me).

Having a store changes things.  It’s called “public accommodation”, and it does in fact come with obligations and requirements.  One of those is that you have to accept your customers as they are…you cannot pick and choose based on who you want them to be.

Let me use a case from a few years ago to illustrate: a group of friends went out drinking, then stopped at a liquor store so they could continue the party at home.  No problem, so far — they were all of legal age, and were well within their rights.  The cab driver they hailed, however, did not approve of alcohol.  More than that, he was devout in his religion and was opposed to alcohol in all forms.  He refused to allow the group into the cab that he owned…and was fined heavily by the regulatory agency because of the incident.

Was he within his rights to refuse service? Again, the customers broke no law…they were simply “immoral” according to the driver’s beliefs.

Although he did appeal, there was no outcry, and certainly no Supreme Court case…

The two cases are not so far apart. There are differences, yes: the driver was neither “speaking”, nor artistically creating…but he was offering a service to the public.  In the case of the cake maker, he also was offering a service to the public: his talents as a baker and designer.

Could he — can he — selectively withhold his publicly available services simply because he finds a potential client to be immoral?  Not illegal, mind you, just immoral according to his religion.

If he can withhold his services, why could not the cab driver?  Does it change things if you learn the cabbie was a devout Muslim, rather than a fundamentalist Christian (as was the baker)?  Can one’s beliefs and views on morality be held more, or less, acceptable simply because of the religion one chooses to follow?

Again, remember the concept of “public accommodation”: when you offer your services openly to the public, you do surrender some freedom.  But does that apply to your freedom of conscience?  What if matters of conscience differ, as they often do? Whose is of more value?

Is your right to avoid alcohol more important than my right to stumble drunkenly into your cab?

Is one man’s right to reject homosexuality more important than another man’s right (in this case, a couple’s right) to avail himself of a public service?

The simple fact of the matter is, as I’ve said before, your morality is none of my business…and mine is none of yours.  When the question is one simply of morality, you have no right to decide for someone else.  In our private lives that is easy an thing to decide: I can’t tell you to go get drunk, and you can’t tell me to stop with the one-night stands.  Live and let live.

Even in business, that “easiness” can apply: if you are a private entity who offers services solely on a private basis — a consultant, say, or a writer — you can pick and choose your clients and partners based on whatever criteria floats your boat.  Even on the basis of morality…or beer preference…or hair style…

But…but…BUT….

But, if you choose to publicly offer your skills and services as a business, it is no longer a question of private, personal choice.  Yes, that means you do surrender some of your freedom.  You made the choice to do so when you decided to open a public business — that partial-surrender of freedom came in exchange for the privilege of operating an open, established business.

That does not mean you surrender your private, personal freedom of conscience.  That personal freedom is pretty damned simple: if you don’t approve of homosexuals, don’t befriend or become one.  If you don’t approve of alcohol, don’t drink or allow others to drink in your home. If you don’t like (evil, evil) cats, don’t get one.  You can, quite simply, be just as committed and devout in your personal life as you ever were.

But your private morality has no place in your public business.  You cannot pick and choose your public clients based on private beliefs and morality.

And now even I can come up with all the questions and unintended consequences and what about-isms…

But what about a graphic artist asked to make a flyer for a neo-nazi rally?

But what about a liberal architect asked to design the Trump Presidential Library?

But what about a conservative sculptor asked to make a bust of Hillary Clinton?

But what about…

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I’m really really glad I’m not a Supreme Court justice.

2017: More Right Than Wrong

IMG_0163“Regret is a part of life.  But keep it a small part.”

Blakes 7, 1980, BBC

Regrets…

Specifically, anything I regret from 2017?  The actual question was: is there anything I would do over, do differently?

I try to avoid things like that, if only because…well…where do you stop?  There are always regrets, always things you would rather have done differently.  But, really, would you?  Should you?  As trite as it is, we really are made from our experiences.  Do things over, do things differently, and you start changing just who you are today.

Besides…as not-good as parts of 2017 were for me, there were others that were very, very good.  Those good things are what color the entire year as I look back. Let’s be honest: it’s hard to be too full of regrets when you’ve spent half the year living in the middle of Yellowstone.

No, I didn’t write as much as I should.  No, I didn’t break any new creative ground.  And, no, I definitely didn’t make shit for money (or did make shit for money, as the case may be!).  But what I did do was renew myself, and rediscover certain parts of me that I thought I had lost.

If February and March were low points, well…they were that bleak moment, that point of despair, in the story before the protagonist starts to pull it together.  They made the next bits all that much better.

Now, if I leave aside my life and just focus on the writing…

Well, there are always things to change, things that could and should have been done differently.  I could have played with the tone of Silence earlier.  I could have thought more about the fragile mental state of my protagonist.  I could have planned and anticipated better the swings and changes, and the evolution, of the story I wanted to tell.

Most of all, I guess, I damned well should have changed back from writing sequentially to writing the scenes in the order I chose.  My outline is there to serve and help my writing, not the other way around!

But all of that is ancillary.  All is merely detail.  If I were the hero of my own story, as the old writing exercise goes, the choices I made may not have been optimal, but damn if I didn’t advance the plot!

So, instead of looking back, I have to look forward.  And, looking forward, I have to, above all, write more.  I have to be more intentional about the work, and about the goals and milestones I set for myself.  I also have to rediscover that voice, and that focus, that is so important to making my (current) stories work.

Writers write, as the old saying goes, and in the end I need to remember that.  I used to have a daily goal that I stole from a Chuck Palahniuk piece: put on a good album, and write for the length of it.  If things are working, just put on more music and keep writing.  If things aren’t working…hey, you got in an hour of writing!  It has proven, for me, a better “win-win” system than trying to produce X words per day.  Now, I just need to remember that…

As a last thought on the regrets thing: I want to shout out my thanks to IWSG and the folks I have met, and am meeting, through that group. Y’all are awesome, and joining has been one of those “very, very good things” I mentioned above. Writing is inherently a solitary activity (even when you write in taprooms!), so it’s good to know I’m not doing it alone!

Cheap Wine

*Note — I’ve been helping someone move for the last couple of days. Coherence and writing are not, umm, my strong suits at the moment!

Discount wine.

Oh, for the love of God, discount wine.

There’s a reason that shit was on sale in the first place…

I’m pretty sure my recent foray away from the comfortable and familiar (beer & whiskey) may be one of the larger mistakes of my life. Right up there with being the “other man” in a neat little love triangle (hey, I was young — cut me some slack!).

Ahem.

Now, that intro got me to thinking about regrets, and about “do overs”, but that is the one topic I am going to leave (have to leave?) for Wednesday’s post.

Great, now I have to connect that thought to…err…something. Preferably something writing-oriented. Umm, okay, so it’s not like I haven’t violated that particular little blog-goal a million times lately…

Still, I claim this to be a writing blog — and writing is, in fact, my life — soooo…screw you, Roy Moore, I’m not talking about you this week! You and the rest of the creepy assholes can burn quietly in Hell for the moment. And I really do mean that: QUIETLY!!

I’m gonna talk about discount wine, and how that relates to character building! Or something!IMG_4598

Err, insert Emily Litella quote here.

Look, I had every intention of writing a serious entry today. Even if I decide to **gasp!** stray from the writing-blog thing, there is a ton of stuff out there to work with: Michael Flynn and the FBI…a tax cut package that doesn’t actually cut taxes…Angela Merkel finally showing that she is human…the joke that is the NFL…

To quote Maverick, “Sorry, Goose, but it’s time to buzz the tower.”

Wait, that ain’t it…let’s try this: “It’s a target-rich environment!”

Yeah, THAT’s the one.

So, what does discount wine REALLY tell me about life and the universe?

Well, first off, it tells me that Douglas Adams was right…about pretty much everything. Especially cricket.

No politics or society, not today.  Nope, today it’s (still) writing!

So, after all that…bad wine ties back to something I have mentioned before: letting your characters make mistakes. Especially, allowing your protagonist to make mistakes.

Outside of the plot — where we all (hopefully) know his/her decisions and choices have to drive things — there is too much of a tendency to have protagonists know and do all the the right things.

Don’t fall into that trap.

Flaws, mistakes, even the occasional bout with stupidity, all serve to make your character more human, and more relatable. More real.

Don’t tell those mistakes, take a few minutes — and a few hundred words — and show your characters’ lack of perfection. What if James Bond occasionally spilled his drink on the women he was picking up? What is Aragorn dropped his sword from time to time? What if Captain Kirk got an interstellar STD?

Shit happens, and no one is perfect: neither should your characters be.

 

Let Go Your Inner Snob — You Can Learn From Anything

I’ve mentioned before my love of video games. I have also mentioned, of course, my particular conflict-of-interest when I talk about video games: I have, in the past, made money writing for them. Beyond those, however, I’ve written about the fact that, from time to time, some games have risen above the medium itself, have shown themselves to have things to say that are both legitimate and powerful (read here and here).

That Dragon Cancer. This War of Mine. The Last of Us. Life is Strange.

Play ‘em, they are gaming at its best. They are, honestly, more than games.

The first will reduce you to an incoherent, sobbing mess, then rebuild you with the realization that we are all better for the hero’s having lived. The second will give you insight into the reality of war that no shooter or adventure game ever will…insights from those who actually lived it. The other two? Reality, and growing up. Themes very important to the majority of those who play video games.

Every teacher and writer out there — including me! — will tell you that one of the keys to becoming a better writer is to read. Well…you can learn from other mediums, too. The games I list above, as well as a handful of others, can teach you a ton about writing — about characters, and agency, and even plot — even as you enjoy the hell out of the experience.

Then you have the rest of that particular universe…and, yes, it goes downhill pretty quickly.

*sigh*

Look, I’m proud of the projects on which I worked. But nothing in which I was involved rises above the level of game, let alone reaches the level of art that are those I list above.

But…

But!

But, you can learn from the shitty, just as effectively as you can from the awe-inspiring. Learning what not to do — what to avoid — has a great deal of value in and of itself…trust me on that one!

I use MST3K and RiffTrax to learn those lessons from movies (and laugh my ass off), but I have yet to find a group of intelligent, educated comedians who will similarly pick apart games…

That means I gotta do it myself.

Dammit — and I thought my days of homework were done after my second round of college!

Apparently not.

Now, what got me thinking about this? Sadly, I took the time to study the plots and stories of a particular not-to-be-named game series…a series, I should add, that I have played.

Egads…

Keep in mind, I am usually one of those who will tell you to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  The folks who wrote this series, on the other hand, decided not let the good be the enemy of the random, insane and completely unintelligible. Their attempts at clever plot twists, and ever-increasing stakes, made for an overall story that — drunk or sober (and I’ve tried both ways, believe me!) — makes absolutely zero sense.

I wish I could say that particular sin was a rarity, but it ain’t. Not in games, not in comics/manga, and not even in books.

So, the point of all of the above? Well, it’s kinda the same point behind all of the background work I do when I’m prepping for a story: have a damned plan!

To quote The Hunt For Red October, “…Russians don’t take a dump without a plan, son!”

Channel your inner Russian. Have a plan.

No, really — spend a few days and come up with a stinkin’ plan.* And I don’t mean one just for the story currently under your pen (or your keyboard, as the case may be). Nope…try to give yourself some leeway by thinking about life, and events, both before and after your story. Give yourself a couple of avenues to explore if and when you decide to write a sequel…or even just another story in the same “universe”.

The lack of such a plan is what led to the crazy, semi-random insanity of that game series. Honestly, the lack of a plan is what led to stuff like the senseless insanity of the Star Wars “Expanded Universe” — you know, the stuff (comics and books and games) that Disney mercifully took out back and Old Yellered into the grave of “non-canon”.

*I did not, by the way, have such a plan for anything after Wrath & Tears.  When I decided there were two more stories for Connor…well, I had to do me some fast damned tap-dancing to get things set up correctly.