Avoiding Success

I have this pattern. If you’ve known me long enough, you’ve seen it. I’ll religiously submit stories and collect rejection slips, until I get an acceptance. At which point, I stop submitting stories. For a year.

I’ll get an exciting project I really want to do (develop the history of a dark fantasy video game world) and freeze. I’ll have a gig I love, and not be able to focus and get my writing done until the very last minute. I’ll be writing a bi-monthly serial that gets strong responses and an excited fan base, and I’ll come down with writer’s block. I’ll blog about health tracking (years before it hits mainstream), until I start getting 100+ hits a day, and I’ll suddenly have nothing more to say.

This sucks.

Therapy also sucks, in that painful oh-god-I-don’t-want-to-think-about-this-shit kind of way. But it’s useful.

Imagine you’re me. You grow up the child of a pediatrician and a stay-at-home mom. Both of whom have their own baggage. Your main model of professional success is your dad. Let’s look at his life, shall we?

He spends long days at the office, often 12 hours, and comes home exhausted. He has no free time. He’s a perfectionist and insists he has to get everything right and do it all on his own (by the way, you’re going to grow up to be a lot like him). But the business side of it escapes him. He loves the patients and being a good doctor. But he’s not so good at figuring out money. He has no free time to spend with his family or to even develop friendships with people who aren’t either colleagues or related to him. And he’s angry all the time. Who wouldn’t be, living like that?

This, you think, is success.

You look around for other adults who’ve been successful. There’s your mom. Stay-at-home mom isn’t quite what you were looking for, and honestly you’re kinda terrified at the thought of being someone’s parent, but on the whole, she seems a lot happier. She plays with you. She has friends she goes to Dim Sum with. She reads science fiction books, which she then lends you. She does have to put up with dad’s anger outbursts, and those suck. But her life seems richer. Of course, she also tells you never to be like her and be dependent on a man for your living.

So that’s not going to work.

The other examples you have are a professors (who is bitter about, well… everything) or a writer (who is also bitter and has retired at 40 to get away from Hollywood).

Looks like the only option is following in dad’s footsteps. Being miserable and lonely and angry. At which point you conclude you never want to be a grown up, because it clearly sucks.

So success… it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, you *want* to succeed. Your parents want you to succeed and are proud of you when you do. You like selling stories and making a living with your writing. But, but, but… The specter of your father is shaking his head at you. Then, just to put the icing on the cake, he tosses in his oft stated opinion that geniuses die young and are often poorly adjusted (and he tells you the story of a genius he knew who committed suicide).

To sum up: You are required to succeed, but don’t succeed too much because if you’re too good you’ll be miserable and die young, plus succeeding in general means you’re going to be lonely and miserable, so maybe succeeding isn’t such a good idea. But being dependent on someone else is a bad idea, and you’ve kinda been there, done that during a span of unemployment while you were with your ex, and yes, that sucked.

So, go. Figure out your life.


You Were Obviously Never a Geek: Sexism in the Game Industry

That expression just about covers it.

Can I tell you how furious that phrase makes me?

The last day or more, #1reasonwhy has been trending on twitter. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a discussion of why there aren’t more women in the game industry. It’s fascinating, revealing, disturbing, infuriating, motivating–all of these things–to see what other women have gone through.

This was my contribution: sharing how some few male co-workers & supervisors had told me I obviously wasn’t a geek. At the time, I got defensive. I tried to prove that no, I am a geek! See? I have the social scars from high school to prove it. I know the Konami code. I have Star Trek earrings… I’ve played video games since I was a kid, I’ve read adult science fiction since 4th grade (almost exclusively, to my parents’ dismay), and, for fuck’s sake, I’ve published science fiction. Professionally.

But here’s the thing–I never should have been put in that position. Because it’s an ad hominem attack as well as a red herring. It’s a fucking logical fallacy, but it worked on me and that’s what makes me angry.

The only reason you say this to someone in the gaming industry is to discredit them and put them off balance. It isn’t useful information. It isn’t helpful feedback. It isn’t affectionate ribbing. This is what someone says to a woman, in front of others, to discredit her ideas and put her on the defensive. When it happened to me, I shifted from arguing my point to defending my honor as a geek. Say it often enough, and loudly enough, and other people start believing it. It’s a great way to undermine someone without them even realizing it.

I’ve had it said to me in private to justify treating me like crap. Passing me over for promotion. I’ve even had one dude tell me I was right about a particular story design problem, but I obviously had never been a geek. Unspoken, the other dude–the one who was wrong–had been a geek. Geek solidarity. No icky girls allowed in this clubhouse.

I wish I could go back and have that conversation again. Except this time, I wouldn’t go on the defensive. I wouldn’t back down. I wouldn’t be polite and try to make nice. And I wouldn’t let the fear of it costing me my job keep me silent, because a job working with people like that isn’t worth having.

Right now, I’m lucky. I’m working with a team of guys who believe in the rather shocking concept that women are people, too. And yeah, I am the only woman on the narrative team, which says something about our industry. But I am on the team and I am treated with respect. It’s the right direction.

Copywriting as Porn

It’s been long enough that I can talk about this safely.

I was doing copywriting for a company in the game industry (which is pretty much every company I’ve ever worked for, so not much of an identifier–I hope). My exciting challenge was to get lapsed users to come back to us, just for a trial run. We promised it would be better this time around. Really.

But. What I was originally writing never made it into the email blast. I was being honest, you see. “We messed up this thing, and we know it, but we listened and we think you’ll like this new thing a lot better,” was the gist of it.

This was not sexy enough for the Creative Director.

He kept giving me feedback like, “It needs more pizazz,” or “Make it more zippy.” This isn’t useful feedback. At all. Define for me pizazz. Or zip. Or spark. Or half a dozen similarly vague terms.

After a few rounds of this, in desperation, I went back to the skills from a prior writing gig I’d had (this was when I was writing articles for the Penthouse Media Group/Aka Friendfinder). I wrote the email copy as if I were writing porn.

Slip into something more comfortable, I told users. Give it a try and turn us on. You won’t regret it.

Not sure what made me gutsy enough to send that off for approval. Desperation, perhaps. Annoyance. Yeah, annoyance. That one is a BIG motivator for me. But guess what happened next.

Immediate approval.

That went out to users same day, no edits requested. Surely, though, this would never happen a second time, I thought. And yet…

When I wrote ad copy as if I were writing porn, the Creative Director loved it. Every time.


If it works…

It Takes a Villain

I’ve worked on a couple games now that were fairly late stage and required complete rewrites; repurposing pre-existing events or assets. The major thing these games had in common was the lack of a clear villain.

There are a lot of ways games differ from books or movies, but one of the most significant (for a writer) is that you’re not in control of the main character. You can’t control how the player feels, you can’t guarantee the player will notice a specific detail (unless you use a cutscene, which can be problematic in itself).

Usually the main character drives a story. When you can’t use that main character that way… Well, it’s pretty easy to lose direction. The story is directing itself according to the needs of the developers, not the needs of the main character. Which means it won’t feel compelling.

A villain, however, focuses a story admirably. Or it can, if you introduce the villain early enough, establish his villainy, and give him something to want. He can force the player’s hand, to some extent. He can set up ambushes, he can spy on you, he can hire someone to poison you, he can mind control the King… He can have a story. His actions can follow an internal logic and that, in turn, can make a story feel real.

Often newer writers try to be too coy with their villains. They try to hide them until the end, so it’s a surprise. Problem is that you have no reason to hate the villain if you didn’t realize he was the one causing your problems. You need to show him, or someone directly connected to him, kicking puppies pretty early on.

Ernst Blofeld, Bond Supervillain

It’s easy to hate someone who kicks puppies. It’s easy to believe the corrupt sheriff is working for a shadowy crime boss. You may not actually *see* that crime boss until late in the game, but so long as you know he exists and you can connect horrific acts with him, it works. Think of the tiers of villains in a James Bond movie. Minor guy leads to major guy.

It’s worth noting here that not all stories require a villain. However, epic adventure games? They do.

I may try starting with the villain for the next story I write. It would be different.

Sketching to Short Circuit Perfectionism

I’m stalling out on the story I’ve been working on (the Troy story, for Swan_Tower). Not because I don’t know what happens next, I do. It’s that whole “It must be perfect, oh my god, it isn’t perfect, I must waste away of consumption and die now!” thing. You know, that thing.

So I’m sketching. To give my brain a break. To let my subconscious run the show for a while. To do something creative in which I have a lot less invested so if the end result sucks, it’s completely okay. And if it doesn’t work, well. It will have been more fun than putting in commas and taking them out again.

So, look! Sketches!

The Perception of Writer’s Block

Up until, oh, this week, I would have said I’ve had writer’s block for five years. And then I put together my portfolio and realized that I was actually writing a lot.

Somewhere I have a book on hypergraphia, the compulsion to write. Not the passion or the inspiration, but the compulsion. I never did finish reading it. The most memorable  idea from what I read was that writer’s block is a matter of perception.  Here I am, definitely suffering from writer’s block; I’ve got all the neurotic worry and self recrimination going at full bore, even though I was churning out thousands of words every week.

(Let’s pretend this is a bulleted list of everything I’d been writing during that time, which is of interest only to me. You should pretend to be suitably impressed.)

The satisfying and redemptive way to frame this would be by saying the block was all in my head. And all in your head, by extension, since the redemptive way to frame this would also attempt to generalize this to everyone. Writer’s block isn’t real and all you have to do is just believe in yourself, and another fairy gets it wings, clap-clap!

I’ve got this sneaking suspicion it doesn’t work that way.

Perception does not mean it’s all in your head. Perception is about context: how you understand the situation. The situation exists. I’m certain there was something I should have been writing that I wasn’t, and I knew it. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of words you churn out if they’re not the words you need.

There are more than two types of fiction writers, but I’m simplifying down to the extremes here for proof of concept.

1. Emotional

We’re not talking angst and mood swings. The fiction comes from an emotional place. Is driven and controlled by it. For most folks, it’s subconscious. These are the writers who will say, “I was trying to get my character to train with communist monks, but instead she decided she wanted to go wine tasting.” The stories are in charge. The subconscious is in charge.

Emotional writers don’t outline. Emotional writers have conversations with their characters in their heads. When they successfully tap into a vein, their stories have powerful emotional resonance with their readers.

In some ways, this is great. Writing can become this almost trance state. It can flow and feel good and when you’re done you’re surprised at all of the things you put in here, Hey, neat foreshadowing the wine tasting in Chapter 1! However, it’s really easy to write yourself into a corner when you haven’t planned ahead.


2. Deliberate

Deliberate writers plan. They know where they’re going. Their characters show up for work on time. They can write intricate concept driven stories. They know exactly why they mentioned the character prefers chardonnay to beer in Chapter 1, and she goes wine tasting because that was always the plan.

Deliberate writers still use emotion in their fiction, but it isn’t the driving force.


Most writers are not purely emotional nor purely deliberate. Most are combinations. I am primarily an emotional writer. I can be deliberate, but that’s not where my stories come from.

I can’t say what writer’s block is like for a deliberate writer; I have no idea. But for me, for an emotional writer, it means there’s something wrong. Inside. Maybe it’s a truth you can’t let yourself face, a hurt you’re not willing to tap into. Maybe those stories that you think of but then can’t write for years, until suddenly one day you can – maybe that’s because you hadn’t experienced what you needed to in order to write that story.

That’s why I’ve felt like I had writer’s block. Have writer’s block. Even though I’ve been writing. I haven’t been tapping into my subconscious. I’ve been trying to drown it out. Actually, no, I have it tied up in a closet with a sock stuffed in its mouth, and still I can’t get the damn thing to be quiet. And you know, when it eventually gets out, it’s totally going to kick my ass.




Why I love Cons

I can say things like “I need to save up for laser eye surgery because, when the zombie apocalypse happens, I don’t want to be like Burgess Meredith in that one Twilight Zone episode,” and the people around me will get it.

Which is to say that FogCon was marvelous. The people there, on average, get my humor. I think at work, half the time people think I’m serious when I’m not. I’m just not sure which half the time…

I finally, after nine years, understood something Gardner Dozois said to me during Clarion (and yes, I understand why you wanted it to be a happy ending, Gardner. I just wasn’t there yet, myself). I’ve also found some other Zombie Apocalypse trainees who are interested in joining me (woo! I will begin a cult movement, yes I will). I also figured out my way into the dungeon1 story I’ve been wanting to write for years. Cassie Alexander and Daniel may recall my first few attempts. I realized tonight I had the wrong main character. Indeed, the main character is the one character I intended not to be in the story at all. Of course.


1 I realize here that many folks will, understandably, assume the wrong kind of dungeon.

Crunch Time

I’ve never been in crunch before.

It’s not that different from grading marathons back at USC for final portfolios. The department would gather us up, stick six to ten of us in each room in the building, and make us grade all day. Each student portfolio needed to be graded by two teachers. So we spent something like 8 or 9 straight hours grading and eating donuts. Because if you’re going to stick people in a room all day and make them read frosh papers, you need to drug them somehow, and sugar is the most popular of the legal drugs.

I can’t speak for other gaming companies, but at Cryptic it feels a lot like that. Sometimes even with the donuts. We’ve been crunching for the last week and a half in anticipation of a visit from WoTC (the folks who own the Forgotten Realms/D&D IP we’re licensing). I have no idea what’s actually riding on this, but I know that our EP wants to show them something awesome. Which we can probably do. There’s lots of awesome stuff in the game, it’s just making it all run together smoothly.

So a lot of us came in last Saturday (which was actually kind of fun – I realize this is probably just the novelty of it, and that it will wear off soon). Most of us are staying late working to get things in game. I’ve been doing text passes on the tutorial and the subsequent four miniquests and one mainquest (mainquest is about 3 or 4 times as big as the minis, on average).

The crazy making part, for me, is that I never get to finish a zone. I’ll be working on the tutorial, say, and the designer will need it back to fix something (an FSM – which is what directs the complicated movements of the NPCs, or a cutscene, or what-have-you) and I’ll have to check the tutorial back in half done. I’ll start working on the first miniquest and be 3/4 of the way through that, and then the tutorial will be available. And the tutorial is higher priority, right? So I’ll go back to that, and check in the miniquest only partially finished. Rinse, repeat.

At the moment, I still have to edit a cutscene in the tutorial, and then finish one last miniquest and the mainquest. And it’s Thursday.

And the WoTC visit is Monday.

And FogCon is this weekend.