I Know What A Combine Does!

I can give you all kinds of reasons why I don’t like to write at home.  I can talk about the stillness and the quiet, and how those (usually welcome) qualities result in prose that is too introspective and contemplative.  I can talk about the distractions and having the cleanest kitchen in the entire town.  I can talk, even, about how this blog got started one quiet afternoon at home.

Err, that last one would be a lie.  This blog did indeed get started at home, but it did so after a (mostly) drunken conversation with a friend/colleague.  We were both lamenting the lack of a very specific type of writing blog that night.

Wait, that’s not quite it, either.  We were actually lamenting the end of the bottle of scotch, and then just went on to lament everything else from there…

In spite of a raging hangover the next day, I pulled up my seat at the bar and have been blogging random, off-topic stuff ever since.  My colleague, on the other hand, decided writing was a bad bet and went back to work as a sales-weasel.  He still likes to tell me how he envies me and my persistence…right after telling me, of course, all about his new house.

Ahem.

Never mind.

Believe it or not, there is (was?) a point to today’s post: this plague sucks donkey balls.  Oh, sure, I can go out to my local coffee shop…on their very limited hours.  Just like I can go to my local dive bar…and listen to the, uhh, rather unique regulars who dominate the place when the tourists aren’t around.  I can even — *GASP* — stay at home and work.

I tried that today, in fact.  The staying home thing, not the dealing with the “local culture” thing.  It…

Well…

Err…

It didn’t go well.

Now look, you all know by now that I love video games.  Hell, I still make freelance money in that industry (although I refuse to dive too deeply, nor am I interested in making it a professional focus).  Work and cash aside, I also like to play the damned games.  Mostly the more complicated, steep-learning-curve simulator and historical games, so when a special sale item comes up on Steam in those categories, I usually jump on it.

Seldom do games overwhelm my urge for writing and reading, however, for more than a day or two.  Seldom do I get so caught up that I not only lose focus on my work, I lose all track of time, too.  It just takes so much more to immerse me, now, than it did when I was seventeen or eighteen.  Back then, I could lose myself in an RPG for days on end…and don’t even get me started on shit live the Civilization series.

Nowadays, however…

Nowadays, it takes a great deal more.  Nowdays, games are a distraction for an hour or two — as they should be, mind you — not a sink in which I can lose myself like I can in a good book.CB3AD4DD-9CFF-44F8-A4A5-FFF267798D0B

Then along comes a spider…

Or, in this case, the freaking nerdiest and most inane of games: Farming Simulator.

3E9EFC63-AED1-4776-8607-EBEF4D3E3F92Shit, I grew up in LA, ferchrissake!  The closest I’ve ever come to a real-life tractor was on a date with a local Montana girl and a combine harvester…

Err…let’s just gloss over that one, shall we?  Yet another reason why wine is…well…what it is.

At any rate, I got sucked into this game.  In stupid, overwhelming ways did I get sucked in.  Crap, I drive up the highway, now, and I recognize the difference between silage and hay…

“Hey, look, that’s an old Challenger tractor!6004E79C-EE33-4A68-BC15-331EA97E6881

Ooh, they’re baling with a Krone!”

*Please insert your own series of swear words now.*

At any rate, since I have to get back to harvesting my largest field of canola, I figured I would dodge out of writing a real blog post today by posting something here I wrote for another audience entirely.  Below is a bit I threw together on a whim, after a long session playing FS:

787089A4-8FEF-4D36-82D9-5BFA9D5D310FMarwell Manor

Chapter 1 — Uncle Vic, Is That You?

Do you remember that one relative?  You know the one I’m talking about, the one who scared the hell out of you as a kid?

For me, that was my great-uncle.  I met the man once, when I was nine.  We went to his farm in England to pay our respects, as my father put it, to our family, and to the old family home.  My great-uncle — Uncle Vic, to my Dad — met us at Heathrow.  He smelled like pipes and old socks…and that is, honestly, pretty much the high point of what I remember.  Well, that and the fact that he looked a lot like Freddie Krueger.  Thank God for my GameBoy.

Fast forward, then, twenty years.

I’m still as single as I was when I was nine, but the money is a hell of a lot better.  I build bridges, you see.  Well, I don’t “build” them, I just design them.  It ain’t glamorous, no sir, but it does garner enough to pay for a nice condo, a nicer car, and the odd bit of travel to far-more-interesting places.

The bell ringing at the door, then.  Me, still in bed and without my first of cup of coffee.  It took a few minutes to figure out how to work the deadbolt…

“Sign here,” the man ordered, proffering a fancy clipboard.  His voice was serious.  His suit was serious.  Crap, he was serious.

What the hell?

I signed, of course.

A huge file he handed me, all wrapped up in a heavy envelope.  I’m not sure what was worse: my confusion, or my need for coffee.  Screw it, when you can’t decide, you work on both at the same time.

A deep gulp, finally, of that lifesaving brew and I opened the envelope to pour its contents onto the counter.

Papers.  Certificates.  Bills.  Deeds.  Even some heavy, weird thing I could barely read…Letters Patent, it called itself.

Wait…

What the hell?

A letter I found, finally, under all that other detritus I couldn’t understand.  A note from a law firm in London.  Lawyer, solicitor, bloodsucker, whatever you choose to call them, they’re the same everywhere in the world.  You always read their stuff — carefully — but you never, ever trust them.

Blah…blah…Hampshire, UK…blah…blah…Marwell…even more blah, blah…wait, go back a bit.  Skip the lawyerly blah-blah crap, what the hell did that one paragraph say?

Baron Marwell.  Of Marwell Manor.

Huh?

I build bridges, for Pete’s sake!

I read the letter again.  And again.  And yet again.  Then I checked the deeds.  Then I read it all again.  There was a note, even, from Uncle Vic, in a spidery, struggling hand that was all-but impossible to read.

“…resuscitate the manor…succeed where I could not…better at selling the manor than working it…  Congratulations, Baron Marwell.  Now get to work.”

I don’t remember a damned thing from the next couple of weeks.  A leave-of-absence from my job.  A renter for my condo.  Some stupid rom-com on the flight.  A big Land Rover to pick me up from the airport, and a man who took the “serious” thing and turned it up to eleven.  More papers to sign, more people to see.  A flurry of names and faces, of facts and figures, and not a single bit of made it through my skull.

No, I can’t remember a damned thing from that frantic, hectic period.  All I can remember is waking up in bed to the ringing doorbell, and then…

And then…

Here I stand, in this muddy, wet yard, surrounded by rusting sheds and looming machinery.  The lowing cattle and the cry of hungry sheep.  The smell of diesel and machine oil, of must and loam, of seed and grain.  Hulking marching with logos that said Massey-Ferguson and New Holland, washed almost clean of mud in the rain starting to pour on my head.

What the hell do I know about farming?  I build freaking bridges!

Chapter 2 — Wait, What The Hell is A Combine?!

*pending*

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.