A Finished Draft of a New Twenty Palaces Novel, and More

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If you’re a Kickstarter backer for the two new 20P novels, you’ve likely already received the announcement that the zero draft (aka: the vomit draft) of The Flood Circle is done. That means both this new book and The Iron Gate are ready for revisions, and since they sort of tie together, it’ll be good for me to tackle them together. So, Yay for that, and also I wish I wrote cleaner first drafts.

In other pleasant news, my months-long plan to say “Or we could just play Jinkies” every single time my gaming group was about to try a one-shot or switch games has had the desired effect. One of our players is taking a holiday trip, so I get a chance to try out this game I’ve had in my personal, figurative on-deck circle for months. It’s like getting an extra Giftmas present a week before the holiday.

In less happy news, I had to switch to a new doctor this year, and my wife convinced me to make an appointment for a minor health issue that’s been bothering me for (literal) years. Basically, I break out in itchy hives any time I get slightly warm. A hot shower will do it. A walk to the grocery store will do it. A tense conversation with my wife will do it. On the advice of my previous doc, I take an OTC allergy med, but that only eases the itching, it doesn’t eliminate it, and it does nothing for those ugly fucking hives. It’s just so gross and embarrassing, and it’s been getting in the way of my exercise plans for literal years.

So I went to the doc. I told him I’d spent months working hard to lose weight and had dropped 40 lbs. Then I went to my father-in-law’s house to help my wife deal with his estate, and the place was not exactly clean. (Which is not a dig on my f-i-l. He was a good guy, but he was in his eighties and his health had been terrible for years.) It was there, cleaning out that house, when I started breaking out in hives, and it took me weeks to figure out why. (Finally, I googled “I am allergic to my own sweat.” — It turned out I wasn’t actually allergic to my own sweat, although some people can be. It was just body heat.)

That was in January, 2012.  My appointment with the doc was last July, and after I ran through the whole thing, he ordered the usual tests, then said nothing about the hives. When I sent a note asking about it, he told me I’d need to make an appointment for it.

Which I already did. Last July.

I suspect he’s over-focused on my weight, which has indeed gone up now that any sort of exercise makes me look, feel, and act like a leper with fleas.

Eventually, I’ll have to go in for that followup appointment to cover the actual issue I went to see him for in the first place, but the holidays are busy and I have writing to do and whatever. I’d be more willing to go if I thought something good would come of it. Very discouraging.

On the plus side, the internet assures me that this issue usually goes away by itself in three to thirty years, so really, this will might be fixed any day now.

Anyway, that’s it. Take care of yourselves and happy holidays.

Stress, TTRPGs, and Me Getting Evicted

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I’m one of those people who doesn’t recognize his own stress until it erupts at the wrong moment. I feel fine (I’m fine! Really!) for a whole day or week or whatever, no really, I’m okay. Then suddenly a stressful moment hits and I realize I have no reserves left and something inappropriate escapes me.

For example, this past weekend I was playing in my usual every-other-week tabletop role playing game, and one of the other players–who’s been a friend of mine for more than 35 years–made a role-playing choice that was super super annoying.

Normally, we’d handle this in-game, where the characters play out the scene, or I’d meta-game it for a moment first to let the other player know where this was going, to make sure they wanted to play this out. (In fact, if he’d continued to play out the scene that way, it would have meant the end of the party, in a “they go or I do” situation.)

But I didn’t do either of those things. Thoughts swirled around in my head and I had no way to put them into a coherent structure. I looked at my friend’s face in the Zoom window and could not imagine what I should do next. Does it make sense to say I’d gone blank when I had dozens of half-thoughts appearing and vanishing in my head before I could even examine them? I hope so, because that’s what happened.

So, I said I needed to take a break (not in a particularly calm way), hung up my headset and walked away from my computer. It was sort of close to our usual break time anyway, and I refilled my water bottle, had a slice of bread with a fancy Lebanese red pepper spread, and washed my face. And I thought it might be a good idea to step away from the game for a few weeks, when this feeling would (should) have passed.

When I returned to the Zoom meeting, I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be role-playing and I’d fucked up.

The other players understood, because I’d already told them at the start of the session that I was being evicted.

You can tell I never went to Journalism school by the way I bury the lede. Maybe I’ll drop this part in the subject header, so no one misses it.

I moved into my current apartment with my then-girlfriend in Oct 1994. We’ve had our whole relationship here, and in 2019, I bought her a silver necklace to celebrate the 25th anniversary of living together. We raised our son in these rooms, cooked every meal, celebrated every holiday. It’s not, you know, a great apartment by any standard, but it’s where our memories were made.

But I don’t own this space, so when my new (as of the fall of 2019) landlord dropped me a note saying they were going to remodel this whole building–and everyone needed to vacate–it did not come as a shock. It was more of a “Winter is coming” moment. We knew it was possible–maybe even inevitable–and when it finally happened it was like death. I had hoped for more time.

For the record, our landlord has given us a lot of time to find a new place and has offered to pay for a moving company, which is very generous of him.

Me, I’d like a new place in this same neighborhood. I’m about to leave to look at an apartment one block over from my current place, and I’m still put out that the place three doors down from us, which was laid out in the same format as the place we have–our furniture could have gone into the same layout there as here–was snapped up a day before I got that email.

Just got back from the place up the street. This was our third apartment tour, and the first we actually liked. There’s no basement storage, but it’s bright and clean, at least. Also, this was the first landlord/realtor who bothered to wear a face mask. (All we had to hear to cross off one place we looked at was “I think they do more harm that good”.)

To get back to the point: All of my novels have been written, in part, at my local library branch and at the Starbucks down the street from it. I’d hate to spend a whole pandemic year working in an inadequate space at home, checking every other day for news of when the libraries will reopen, only to be forced to work someplace new.

And yeah, it’s stressful. And I’m carrying that stress just under the surface of my day to day, having pleasant conversations with my wife about what we should have for dinner, or what books/clothes we’re going to donate instead of pack, or what we’re going to do with the board games we played when our son was ten but haven’t touched in years.

Until something is suddenly Too Much, and I’m welling up with tears because the Shang-Chi trailer looks so fucking good. Or maybe it’s Harold Finch, injured and stumbling into his library, to ask the machine if it knew his only friend in the world was about to be murdered, but already knowing the answer and also knowing everything is his own fault.

In fact, during the same gaming session, we were chatting about Person of Interest, and I was trying to explain to two of the players why I loved it, and that it started off as a very good show in a specific genre that becomes a great sci fi show as it goes forward, and they kept asking me when it became “good” so they could skip the early stuff. Normally, I would have pushed against that sort of framing, but my thoughts were swirling around and I couldn’t respond. Not the way I wanted to.

Now, a mental state like this might sound like it would mess with my writing and writing progress, but writing is a kind of safe space for me. I’m still making progress. I have less time than I used to, but I’m still hitting my goals.

And this, too, shall pass.

Last thing: When I first received that email, I tweeted about it, then deleted the tweet because I thought people might assume I was asking for financial help. I’m not. This isn’t a financial emergency for us. It’s just going to eat up time that could be better spent and it’s going to add a bunch of bullshit stress. Which is not to say that folks should drop out of my Patreon or whatever. I’m grateful for your support and it definitely helps, but I don’t want folks to think this is a call to action. My family and I are okay for now.

Until someone posts a cute kitten video on Twitter and I just lose it.

Take care of yourselves, get vaccinated when you can, and stay safe.

Quarantine Post 6: Spitfires, Dinosaurs, and Magical London

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Not sure why I get so much pleasure from music with samples, esp audio clips from movies, but I do. I really do.

Over the weekend, we finally got the chance to play the second half of our Escape from Dino Island PbtA game. As an emulation of Jurassic Park, it’s pretty great: fast and deadly. As I mentioned on Twitter, before the game started, I suggested we start with two PCs each, since the game looked like it was designed to kill characters pretty quickly. The others poo-poo-ed that, telling me I could just make up someone new if I had to.

Two die rolls later, I was doing exactly that.

One of the mechanics in the game that I really liked was that the basic moves were broken into categories: Peril Moves and Safety Moves. When you make a Safety Move, you’re supposed to tell a story about your character (each playbook has a number of specific prompts, which you cross off as you go through them). At the end, when the story is wrapped up, either because the living PCs have escaped the island or they’ve all died, you roll for the denouement.

Like all PbtA games, you roll two dice, then add something to it. For this roll, you add the number of stories you’ve told.. 10+ gives you a great result, 6+ is a failure, 7-9 is a modest success. So, the more stories you tell about your character, the more sympathetic they are and the more beloved they are by the audience.

My character had made the Finale move, which was a self-sacrifice play to save everyone and wrapping up the plot. So while the other two players got to roll on the “Safe at Last” table, and both got the result “… describe something (an image or memory) you will carry with you from your time on the island.” which is the modest result, I rolled on the “Never to Return” table.

And I’d told four stories over the course of the game, so my roll was +4. And I had sacrificed myself for the group! And I rolled snake eyes.

That was the only roll I could have made and still failed, and I’d done it. The result I got was “… tell the others why you deserved your fate.”

Is life fair? It is not.

But I laughed my ass off, which I really needed. At this point in my life, I don’t get to laugh all that much. Not that I’m unhappy (I’m not) but I don’t find many things funny. Except when I’m playing in a game with terrific players.

Anyway, next up is a longer game (we hope) and the group has picked Liminal, a contemporary fantasy game set in London. (I’m not doing an accent.) It looks great, and I don’t just mean the art. Seriously, that art is amazing.

But for the meat of this post, and the whole reason I am doing these, let me link to a site I found inside the rulebook:

http://www.guerrillaexploring.com

It’s a site about people getting into places where they’re not supposed to be, and the pictures are cool. I really liked the concrete… rooms? tunnels? in the bowels of the Tower Bridge.

Anyway, worth checking out.

Take care of yourselves.

Randomness for 12/8

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1. Domestic abuse: Killers ‘follow eight-stage pattern’, study says.

2. The real reason hearing your own voice can make you cringe.

3. Water isn’t the most hydrating beverage according to new scientific study

4. Twenty Years Later and the Women of ANGEL Deserve More.

5. The Trajectory of Fear – or How to Use Horror Tropes Effectively in your [TTRPG]

6. What happens when you eat like the Queen of England for a week?

7. People Are Confused About the Usefulness of Buying Fancy Things

For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

Randomness for 5/6

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1) Coming Clean: The Physics of Doing Laundry

2) D&D Creatures Created by a Neural Network are Weird.

3) Ask a Manager: I’m being mentored against my will by a dude who’s my peer.

4) How 50 Female Characters Were Described in their Screenplays.

5) Patterns among profitable moves budgeted between $3 and $10 million.

6) French Museum Discovers Half of its Collection are Fakes.

7) Vaccines Work: Here are the Facts. (a comic)

Randomness for 3/23

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1) What happens when bookstore employees get bored. This is delightful.

2) The literal translation of every country name in the world.

3) Book Towns: small towns filled with bookstores.

4) Why is English such a weird language?

5) Peanut butter and mayo sandwiches were a thing in the ’60s so we tried it.

6) Telltale Games: creative endeavors in a corporate environment.

7) Beautiful murals from the last remaining Prohibition-era speakeasy in Seattle.

Randomness for 2/21

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1) Longest-standing video game record declared ‘impossible,’ thrown out after 35 years (update)

2) “She wrote it but…” Revisiting Joanna Russ 35 Years Later.

3) All 288 reported concussions of the 2017 NFL season in one video clip.

4) Single Mothers Are Not The Problem.

5) Why We Love Tyrants, according to psychoanalysts

6) What’s the longest train route in the world? Video.

7) Criminals impersonate authors on Amazon to launder their money.

Randomness for the Holidays

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1. Interesting etymology of holiday terms. Video.

1a. The classic holiday story “The Little Match Girl” which I’d never read.

2. Feeding the Poop Log: A Catalan Christmas Tradition.

3. The Tiny Desk Holiday Special.

3a. More Music: Christmas carols performed by goats.

4. Nine Holiday-themed D&D enemies to throw at your players.

4a. Holiday beers.

5. Are poinsettias really poisonous, and other Christmas questions, answered by Science.

6. I judge adaptations of A Christmas Carol by the way they depict the ghosts, and this right here is the perennial winner:

7. Last (and you knew this was coming), if you need a last-minute gift, ebooks like my new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, are cheap and easy to deliver.

A Sudden Attack of Common Sense

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Sometimes, common sense sneaks up on me and shakes me out of a stupor. When it does, I tell people.

I’ve just changed the price of The Way into Fate from a set dollar amount to a Pay What You Want system.

What is The Way into Fate? It’s a 50K word-long game supplement that adapts both The Great Way trilogy and A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark into campaign settings for the Fate Core rpg. It includes world building documents, custom rules for adapting non-human species (to make them intelligent and inhuman at the same time) plus scenario ideas and “Invasion at Shadow Hall”, a full-length fantasy adventure set in Kal-Maddum.

If you’re a Fate Core player or GM, the supplement has never been more affordable. If you enjoyed the books and are curious about the nuts and bolts behind them: see previous sentence.

And if you’re gamers who haven’t read the books, maybe the supplements will make them look intriguing.

So, The Way into Fate is Pay What You Want for a not-limited time. Check it out.