Terrible Person/Better Person
OK. I’ve started to see some of the sadly inevitable smug pushback on various things related to 2016 and the horrorshow it has been for so many people out there, so let me break down what not to say as people express their grief. I like to call this game Terrible Person/Better Person. Here goes:
Terrible Person: “Oh sure, everyone was sad about David Bowie, but what about Person X? Huh?”
Better Person: “I’m sorry that losing Bowie hurt so much; I felt the same way when Person X died. What made Bowie so special to you?”
Terrible Person: “Oh sure, everyone’s upset about George Michael, but nobody cared about an earthquake that just killed 1500 people in Country X! Talk about privilege!”
Better Person: “I know a lot of people are still reeling about George Michael’s death, but if you want to to channel some of that grief into action that will do some good and might make you feel a little better about the world after the shitshow that was 2016, here are some charities that are helping in the wake of the terrible earthquake in Country X.”
Terrible Person: “People are getting so upset about a bunch of celebrities dying, but they didn’t even know these people!”
Better Person: “It really seems like a lot of people lost their artistic/personal heroes this year. That’s rough, and honestly I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the families of those people to mourn a loved one they share with the world.”
Terrible Person: “Well you know Celebrity X did terrible things when they were younger, and therefore you are a terrible person and condone all the things they did by liking them or expressing any feelings of loss regarding their passing, right?”
Better Person: “So Celebrity X did some terrible things when they was younger, yes, and it’s important to remember the whole person. That said, someone who was problematic, even harmful, can have had a positive impact on your life, and it’s OK to grieve that.”
(Thanks to Matt McFarland for this one.)
Terrible Person: “You should be glad for all you have! I’ve had X, Y, and Z horrible things happen to me this year, but I’m not bitching!”
Better Person: “I didn’t realize this year had been so hard for you. I’ve had a pretty rough one myself – want to talk about it?”
Terrible Person: “You know 2016 is just a year, right? A period of time? It doesn’t have motives and it can’t kill anyone. Stop acting like it’s a hitman or something, that’s just stupid.”
Better Person: “I know there have been rough years before, but it seriously seems like we’ve had a bigger than average run of deaths, tragedies, and disasters in this one. We’d better come together so we make sure 2017 isn’t more of the same.”
The Ghosts of New Year’s Eve
I see more ghosts
on New Year’s Eve
all of Halloween.
All Hallow’s Eve
is like a tourist town,
one the living
invade once a year.
The dead enjoy
the attention, sure,
but soon they wish
we’d go away.
No, New Year’s Eve
is far worse haunted,
because they gather
around the lights
and across the gap
of tears and sighs
they watch us plan,
and vow, and live.
You can feel them
best at midnight,
if you try, if you listen –
mouthing our promises,
sad and hungry eyes
reflecting the cycle
of hopes and regrets,
seeing all the mistakes
they would gladly make
again, if only.
Yes, the dead are close
on New Year’s Eve.
So as you toast, count
the faces in the glass,
and if you see
some you’ve lost,
don’t be sad, or afraid –
just raise your glass
I feel like a fraud. Always have, and sometimes I suspect I always will.
Nobody likes to hear artists complain, but I’m sorry folks, this one won’t stay caged. I’ve wanted to be a writer almost as far back as I can remember, ever since my family praised a ghost story I wrote when I was little, ever since a friend of mine almost offhandedly said “This is good, you should write more” and unknowingly gave me permission to share my stuff with my friends. To step up and be that artistic writer guy, which is not an inconsiderable risk in the wolf-haunted woods known as middle school, especially for a chubby gamer kid.
So with family and friends behind me, I wrote, pretty much all the time. With the boundless optimism and heedless ambition of the very young I decided I wanted to write games, I wanted to write stories, I wanted to write novels, I wanted to write articles in the paper, I wanted to be able to reach up on a shelf and pull down paper with my words on it and share it with anyone who’d stand still long enough.
I have done all of these things, some of them several times over, even won a few awards here and there in the process, and yet the vast majority of the time it still feels like I haven’t done anything at all. And I’m far from alone in this. A lot of the other artists I know feel the same way, even if they can’t quite put it in words. Hell, I know it’s not just artists that feel this way, really. I know it can strike anyone, so please don’t take this as a dismissal of anyone who feels these same feelings about their own field – business, athletics, academics, parenthood, you name it. I sympathize, I truly do. If I focus on artists it’s because that’s how I relate to these feelings, not because I don’t think anyone else falls prey to them.
So what does it feel like? It’s like running a race and watching the finish line creep along ahead of you, always out of reach, but also looking over your shoulder and seeing nothing of the race you’ve run so far. Which leaves you running in limbo, neither capable of reaching the satisfaction of finishing nor able to at least look back and be proud of how far you’ve come. I know that might sound a bit like ambition, and I think they can certainly have some things in common, perhaps even spur each other on at times, but in the end they’re not at all the same. At the core of ambition is inspiration, a dream of what you can accomplish, can become, but at the core of impostor feelings there’s only a frustrating desolation. Because any time you try to look over what you’ve done, a conversation remarkably like this one plays out in your head:
I wrote a story!
It’s not published, though, is it?
I’m going to be in an anthology!
Yeah, well, how’s that unfinished novel?
I wrote a novel!
Fine, but it was work for hire, not your own original work.
I wrote my own novel from scratch!
Oh, and look how all those agents are just dying to represent you.
I’m going to self-publish!
Have fun getting lost in the crush on Amazon. By the way, ever finish that original game you wanted to write?
I … I don’t feel so good.
There you go.
And so on. Sometimes, just for variety, that mocking voice will take a different tactic, just so you can’t ever be prepared for it. All those accomplishments you stubbornly insist on claiming become dumb luck, favors from friends, cynical maneuvering that happens to favor you for the moment, even a sort of conspiracy if the voice really feels like running wild that night. Anything but something you deserve, something you worked for, and just as quickly dismissed as soon as possible.
Allow me to give another example of the kind of tricks impostor feelings can play on your mind. Not that long ago, I was talking about game writing with some folks at a convention, and somebody said rather wistfully that they hoped to see something of theirs in print some day. I agreed, and another person in the conversation looked at me funny and said, “Haven’t you already been published?” I hesitated, embarrassed, and finally said something to the effect that I hadn’t published a game entirely of my own design. The others looked at me like I was being a bit of a bastard, and I can imagine why – that must have sounded like the worst sort of patronizing false modesty. A “humblebrag” to use the very apt new term, designed to call attention to my publishing resume by pretending to forget about it.
But the thing was, when I answered, I wasn’t pretending. I really, sincerely didn’t feel like I’d written anything that qualified. Hell, at that instant I didn’t feel like I’d written anything at all. I was being absolutely genuine in my sympathy with the person who wished they could be published, because all the game books I’d worked on in the past didn’t count, because nothing I’ve done in the past counts, not for long. I answered honestly in that moment, because that voice in my brain says those books are old and irrelevant, and so I don’t even add them in my tally unless I stop and think about it.
That’s what it’s like to feel like an impostor at what you do. Not only can it poison your own sense of accomplishment, it can also make you seem like a jerk to others, which of course only makes you feel worse about yourself, and even less deserving of any sense of accomplishment. I don’t know why the human mind loves vicious cycles so much, but sometimes it seems like it was designed for little else, I have to admit.
Let me be clear, though – I’m not asking for sympathy here, exactly. And I’m definitely not asking for people to prop me up, sing my praises, or anything like that. Most of the time I get through these feelings on my own, and when I can’t, I am lucky enough to have a wife, family, and friends who know how to pick me up and shout down that voice for a good long while. And that’s a kind of luck I’ll happily own up to, nagging whispers be damned. I’m not always OK, but I’m always alright, and for that I count my blessings most every day.
No, the reason I’m writing this is for anyone out there who knows that voice, who feels like a fraud sometimes, and thinks it might just be them. That those feelings of being a fraud, being forever unable to cherish accomplishments or just take credit for your own well-earned competence in your field, are unique to you. They’re not. Don’t let them drag you down, don’t listen to the doubt and uncertainty – and if you can’t handle them on your own, that’s OK too. Nobody can do it all the time. Reach out and find some help, because trust me, you can do it. Because you deserve it. Because you’re not an impostor.
The Domino Drops!
It’s been a long wait, I know, but Domino – the second book in the Dead Heroes series – is finally out, and I can’t wait to see what people think of it when they dive on in. Rockaway and Jimmy Three Ex are back, coming ashore in glitzy Aysea after narrowly escaping being ambushed and killed in Old York. On the surface the place seems like a peaceful paradise compared to the bombed-out ruins of their hometown, but there are sinister things lurking in the shadows of the neon lights, and if the two gang members want to survive to make their delivery, they’re going to have to put their cards on the table. Because in the big Aysea the difference between a life of luxury and a life in chains is always just a deal away, and it’s time to ante up.
Haven’t started the Dead Heroes series yet? No worries! The first book, Runner, is available from Amazon too!
My Very Own Date at the Modern Moulin Rouge, Minus the Absinthe but Featuring A Very Charming Fox Trot with Boba Fett, As Told In Three Parts
I – Wherein I Explain the Title, Or Die Trying
Welcome, Ministry fans! Thanks for visiting! I have a pair of lovely little giveaways for you, but before I share those details, let me tell you a little story about what I love about steampunk.
I didn’t intend to become a writer of steampunk stories. I really didn’t. I knew the term, sure, but it was just another literary sub-genre to me … until a gentleman named Mister Lapin wandered along and changed everything. One morning I was driving to work, listening to the Dr. Horrible soundtrack, and as the mad, bombastic closing credits music played I was suddenly struck by an idea: What if I wrote a story about a man who turns himself into a half-man, half-rabbit? And what if he used alchemy to solve mysteries? It was so crazy I just had to do it, and when I sat down later that evening, I found the voice naturally became an excitable British man straight out of the Victorian era. The Impossible Mister Lapin, my novel of weird science and occult investigations in a Britain that never was, had begun. It quickly took on a life of its own, growing from a short story to a serial novella to my first ever full-fledged novel, adding gadgets and alchemy and evil spirits as it went, often with me feeling as though I was trailing slightly behind, trying frantically to keep up.
What was even more amazing, though, was the scene that surrounded this new world I’d chanced into. My wife, the costumer, had started attending Dorian’s Parlor, a lovely steampunk gathering in Philadelphia, and as the story of Mister Lapin took on life she brought me along with her. I was stunned and enchanted by the creativity and vibrancy of the community – there were people faithfully recreating exquisite Victorian and Edwardian dress down to the smallest detail, while others blasted off into the far realms of steam-powered fantasy as airship pirates and eccentric inventors, and everything inbetween. There was music, art, fashion, gadgetry, literature (always a relief for a writer looking to sell a tale), academic discussion … there was a community. And even though some of them liked to quarrel about what did or didn’t suit the scene, or even how to define the term “steampunk” itself, in the end the movement always seemed to celebrate a diversity of inspiration that was positively breathtaking.
In many ways, meeting the steampunk community – at Dorian’s, at New York Comic Con, at Steampunk World’s Faire and many other places besides – reminded me of Christian’s first experience with the Moulin Rouge in the film of the same name – a whirl of sounds and sights, faces and delights. And that’s without any absinthe to help the experience along!
Now that steampunk has crossed well into the mainstream, of course there are any number of naysayers who claim it’s over, it’s done, it’s been co-opted will never be the same. But with respect, I rather think those folks are missing the point. Movements rise and fall in popularity, naturally, but the very diversity of the community and the experiences and inspirations it draws on makes it far hardier than one might expect. Because it’s not purely history, and it’s not purely fiction, it’s a lovely expanse of middle ground between the two. Besides, there are other factors that also play a role, which might be even more unexpected than airship captains, safari enthusiasts with rayguns and the inimitable Steampunk Boba Fett. (As if such a thing were possible, I know.)
But here’s what comes to mind whenever someone tells me that steampunk’s already on its way out. When I was in college, the neo-swing revival was in full, well, swing, and an interviewer asked Royal Crown Revue lead singer Eddie Nichols if he thought the music would be a fad, or if it had staying power. He replied, “Will it be huge like it is now? Nah. ‘Course not. It’ll level off soon enough. But you see those cats out there on the dance floor? They paid a lotta money on those dance lessons, not to mention the outfits. This music didn’t really die before, and it’s not going to now either. Besides, it doesn’t age like the punk rock or metal bands wil. You can grow old with this, you know? It’s classy. You won’t be moshing at your daughter’s wedding, but you will definitely fox trot.”
I look around at all the passion and energy and innovation being poured into the fashion and music and writing and crafting, the humor and style and class that inform and support this scene, and I don’t hear metal.
I hear swing.
II – Rally Behind the Ministry!
While many of you probably reached this post as part of the blog hop, I suppose it’s possible that some of you haven’t heard of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, and are wondering exactly where that lovely graphic came from and what exactly is going on. Well, wonder no further! Allow the creators themselves to explain:
“Galileo Games and Imagine That! Studios have teamed up to bring you an ambitious steampunk project! The Ministry Initiative is a two-part creative endeavor that will not only premiere new fiction from the steampunk world of the Ministry but also present a brand new role playing game from the makers of Bulldogs! and the ENnie Award winning game Shelter in Place. Thrill to the tales in Ministry Protocol anthology, or join in as an Agent in The Ministry Initiative RPG.
“Find out more about this endeavor by checking out my giveaway contest at the end of this entry, then hopping to all the blogs listed below – many of them sponsoring wonderful contests and giveaways of their own, I might add, for all you lovers of free things! – and of course supporting the Kickstarter here: http://bit.ly/ministry-initiative
III – Last But Not Least: How to Win Free Stuff!
As part of the Ministry Initiative Kickstarter, I’m proud to announce my own giveaway for those dogged Ministry agents willing to put in a little legwork. Here’s the skinny:
THE “FIENDISH MENAGERIE FILES” CONTEST!
I want you to create the most devious, most devilish steampunk villain you can imagine, and tell me about it!
1) Craft A Villain!
Here’s what I need from you:
Name: Your villain’s name. It can be as simple or elaborate as you like. Don’t forget titles – they didn’t spend all those years in Evil Medical School to be called mister, after all!
Signature Villainy: What is your villain’s “signature” knavery? Killer gorillas? Freeze rays? Radioactive dinosaurs? Fell sorcery? Knives in the dark? A poisoned kiss? Unexpected cats?
Most Infamous Crime: Give the title or description of their most notorious bit of malfeasance: “The Terrible Affair of the Lemon”, “The Archduke’s Sinister Disappearance”. “The Time That Gravity was Most Unceremoniously Stolen”, you name it. You don’t need to elaborate too much – in fact, it’s usually better if you leave it to our imaginations a bit.
Here’s a sample contest entry – yours can be more elaborate, but this should give you the idea:
Name: The Ghost Emperor!
Signature Villainy: Poisonous alchemical fog!
Most Infamous Crime: “The Usurpation of the Imperial Throne, By Means Most Underhanded and Occult”
2) Post Your Villain!
* Post your entry here at this blog, as a response to this very post.
* You may enter more than once, but please, no more than once per day.
* The contest is open from the time this post goes live on May 22nd to 6 PM EST on May 29th.
3) Check Back for Prizes!
At the end of the contest, a winner will be decided by an esteemed panel of judges (read: as many Ministry writers as I can collect). This winner will receive a free electronic copy of my story from the Ministry Initiative anthology, currently titled “New London Calling.” Information will be collected and arrangements will be made to deliver this story in electronic format as soon as the Ministry’s esteemed editorial staff deem it ready for public release, which is likely to be a little ahead of its release to the general public. Tease your friends with knowledge of the exploits that only you are privy to as they gnash their teeth in envy!
In addition, the winner and one runner-up will also receive electronic copies of Runner, my post-zombie-apocalypse, action-adventure novel. Because after some dashing steampunk exploits, nothing cleanses the palate for another course like a serving of gritty survival horror. And, having just referred to zombies as the literary equivalent of sorbet, I’m going to stop talking now.
“WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?”
OK, so I’m no quite finished. I’d encourage you to check back as the contest goes forward, because you never know what other wrinkles and new developments might pop up. Don’t forget to head on over to the Kickstarter to donate to this very awesome game/anthology combo, but while you’re here, steampunk fans should really take a moment to drop in and make the acquaintance of one Mister Lapin. If that amuses you, I also like to write about LARP, writing theory. geek culture, and most anything else that comes to mind, really. It’s been a pleasure having you here – thanks for stopping by, and I hope to see some of your villains soon!
It’s a strange world out there, agents.
Let’s keep it that way!
No Pressure: 5 Tiny Tips for Writing Without a Deadline
A very talented writing student of mine wrote to me over the weekend, and brought up a difficult subject for a lot of authors – how to stay focused when there’s no looming deadline to act as an incentive. Personally, I know I often have a hell of a time working when I don’t have a particular time it needs to be finished, and I still haven’t perfected a way to really guarantee work gets done. After all, not writing is the easiest thing in the world, as the saying goes. However, I do have a few pointers that I’ve found helpful in the past:
Outline. A lot of writing projects stall out because a writer just sits down at the computer and kinda hopes that magic will happen. That’s risky, to put it politely, and can lead to some pretty disorganized stories. You don’t need much of an outline to get started, and it can certainly change over time, but you do need one.
Routine. Write 5 days a week, without fail. You pick the five, but try to be consistent. Routine is important. I like Sunday through Thursday, but choose whatever suits you.
Goals. Start off by setting a small writing goal for each day, like 250 words. If you go over, fine – but it doesn’t carry over. In other words, writing 750 words doesn’t mean you get the next two days off. That just invites disruption to your writing routine. It just means you did really well that day.
Just Write. Resist the temptation to edit as you write. Sure, you can fix a glaring mistake if you notice one, but don’t try to seriously edit and write simultaneously. They’re very different operations with very different mindsets, and you’ll wind up seriously slowing down your progress, if not stalling out entirely.
Relax. If you miss a goal or a day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Life is a decidedly chaotic experience, and inevitably things will happen that disrupt your routine. Just shrug, stick to your outline, and get back to work the next day.
“The Lost” Launches – Support A Charity Fiction Anthology!
“Santa, will you help me get my virginity back?” – from “The End of Hungry Santa”, a brand new story featured in The Lost
Do you like helping worthy charities? Do you like awesome short fiction? Did you ever wish you could support both AT THE SAME TIME? Then look no further! Check out the The Lost, an anthology of short stories about people who have fallen through the cracks and into the strange and terrifying world that exists just beneath our notice. Some tales are full of urban fantasy, some much closer to reality, but all of them will grab you.
Proceeds will benefit City Harvest, a charity doing genuine good work in NYC. From the great minds at Galileo Games, Brennan Taylor and J.R. Blackwell, and based on Jeff Himmelman’s fantastic Kingdom of Nothing RPG (though you’ll enjoy it just fine even if you haven’t played that), The Lost features nine stories of this other world by the likes of Shoshana Kessock, Sarah Newton, Meg Jayanth, Stephen D Rogers and yours truly.
For my part, writing “The End of Hungry Santa” was a surprisingly moving experience. I’ve long been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, not to mention I really enjoyed playing Kingdom of Nothing, so I jumped at a chance to work this anthology. I started off with kind of a funny concept – “What if there was this skinny old dude with a big bushy beard called Hungry Santa?” – and began working from there, adding all sorts of strange characters to his world as he muddled about on his questionable quest to find Saint Alice’s missing virginity. I didn’t intend it to be a farce, exactly, but there was definitely a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in the early going. A funny thing happened as I went on, however. I really began to care about Hungry Santa and his world, and the more I cared, the more real it became, the more I really wanted this poor screwed-up guy to finally do the right thing and maybe find some peace along the way. It’s not that it became humorless – far from it – but the humor changed as I came to sympathize with him more and more. When I was writing the final scenes, my wife looked over and was surprised to see me getting really choked up – I was genuinely proud of the man, doomed as he was, and the choices he made. And I hope you find him just as compelling.
So check it out, folks, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll help do some real good in this hungry season.
Here’s the link for the IndieGoGo drive itself: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/272507/
Here’s the link for City Harvest, if you want to check them out: http://www.cityharvest.org/
Here’s the link for Kingdom of Nothing: http://galileogames.com/kingdom-of-nothing/
And check out the gorgeous cover, the art graciously donated by Jeff Himmelman:
5 Days and Counting
Well now! The response to Runner has been absolutely incredible so far, from the ruckus that was raised at Barcade to the quiet signature requests that have come at me from unexpected angles, and as it closes in on my first week as a novelist – that’s still so much fun to say, I won’t lie – I am filled with nothing but absolute joy and gratitude for being given this chance to tell a story I believe in for people who’ll enjoy it. Thank you all. Truly.
Runner releases today!
It’s finally here! My first novel, the post-apocalyptic zombie survival tale Runner, officially releases today! If you’re in the Jersey City area, the launch party starts at 7:30 tonight at Barcade (a 21+ venue). Come on out for books, food, booze, autographs and a ton of classic arcade games you can play for only a quarter!
Even if you can’t make it, however, Runner is now available on Amazon as well – just in time for the zombie lover on your holiday wish list!
The Art of Dropping Your Guard
When I teach my creative writing course, one of the most important lessons that I try to pass on is the need to open up to a work of art, whether it’s a novel, an album, a television show, a painting, a live performance or whatever else they’re experiencing. I tell them to actively engage, to not just sit back and let it wash over them, but give it their whole attention and not be afraid of feeling a strong reaction.
For some reason, our culture tends to encourage us to experience art from a guarded, even cynical perspective – it’s the equivalent of going to see a stage magician but rather than relaxing in your seat with a smile on your face, instead sitting down in a huff, crossing your arms and barking out “Impress me.” Which makes very little sense when you consider that you’ve paid for your ticket and made the time to see the show – why approach it with such a hostile point of view? Even a “free” medium such as most television isn’t really free, as you’re still investing your time.
The comparison I make is asking my students to think of a time that they tried to show a friend a movie that they loved, one that their friend had never seen before. They sit down to watch the film, but as soon as it starts, their friends starts talking through it, texting constantly, taking phone calls, etc. The frustration they’d feel is exactly what an artist feels when people don’t give a work of art a chance – and that’s really all it is, giving something a chance. Taking the time to let it do its best, and see what happens. If you watch a movie, and I mean really watch it – not multitask with it as background noise – and it doesn’t engage you, then you’ve done everything you’re supposed to as the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, when I say “open” I don’ mean “uncritical” – if you give art your time, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s fine to express that disappointment. I also don’t advocate giving every work of art the same level of deep analysis – while it’s important to understand why you do/don’t love a work of art, taking apart a Jackie Chan movie the same way you analyze a Truffaut film is doing both of them a bit of a disservice. Over-analysis is as bad as no analysis at all, really, as it sucks out the joy of art just as surely as lack of engagement misses the joy entirely.
But one of the most liberating things I’ve learned over the years is to drop your guard and let art do what it will – make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry, make you think. Rather than sit back with my arms folded and wait for it to impress me, I go to it and encourage it to tell its story. It’s been an amazing transformation.