Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book review- Trader's Tales- Half Share

With barely enough time to keep up with my current work and writing obligations, I am finding myself with little time for recreational reading. Fortunately there is a vibrant audio archive out there, from news to fiction and I have a long enough commute to get some enjoyment in.

Trader's Tales: Half Share - Book Two in a series of books set in the "Age of Golden Sail" by Nathan Lowell 

Available in audio and print format, I found Half Share a little short (about an hour's less listening time from Quarter Share), but as enjoyable to listen to as Quarter Share.

Half Share sees Ishamel Horatio Wang move from the Mess Deck to Environmental and from a member of the crew to a ship mate. Where Quarter Share focused on Ishmael's adaptation to spacer life, Half Share delves into the deeper relationships of the various crew members and Ishmael's interactions with them. The conflict again remains entirely off screen - one decking and a character back story that makes Ish's seem rosey - while the main story focuses on Ishmael and his relationships with three of his ship mates.

As Lowell's gift of speech unfolded the story of Ish's post Henri experiences I came to realize I had been fundamentally wrong about one thing. This realization opened up a greater appreciation of the book. In my review of Quarter Share I said "about the simple life aboard a merchant ship plying the deep dark."

Thing is, Ishmael's story isn't about a simple trading ship. It's about an exceptional ship. No, it's not the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, able to make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. No it's not an awe inspiring Super Star Destroyer, able to cast a shadow on passing planets. But it is exceptional. In a galaxy of run of the mill cargo haulers, the Lois McKendrick and her crew are one of the super stars. Being a super star of cargo isn't so very exciting, so it's easy to see how people could think Ishmael was having it too easy.

And Ishmael isn't a skill-less nobody. Again, he's no Luke Skywalker, hero of the Republic, or James Bond, super spy of her Majesty's government. But you take a boy and have him raised by a bright and individualistic literature professor and you end up with someone who's outlook on life is far different from your average eighteen-year old.

No, the Lois is something special and Ish proves to be the catalyst that makes her sing. Lowell masks a tale of "right place, right time" within a seemingly hum drum tale of merchant spacers. Which explains why I've already got Full Share queued up on my iPhone for listening. It certainly should be interesting to see how Ish handles the inevitable change to a new ship that must come in future stories.

Solid Story: It's not an epic tale of galactic warfare. But is a ripping good yarn about the life of a spacer and the adjustments one makes to live that lifestyle.

Slowed Down: While we know Ish will be jumping a test in the next book, you don't get as much of the "Ish can do no wrong." He's stymied by the more advanced environmental tests and you learn just how low a position Half Share is when he talks with his new boss and his orders boil down to "if it's anything but green, call me. Don't do anything else, just call."

Reading Style:  Nathan's reading voice is excellent. He's able to give each character a distinctive voice, so that he could omit the "X said" and you would still know who was speaking.

Laughter: Half Share continues in the humorous foot steps of Quarter Share. I found myself laughing in delightful peals at many of the stories comedic moments.

Size continuity: The omnipresent tablet is a schizophrenic object. Ishmael studies nearly the entire Spec 1 Environmental course on it and yet it was small enough to store in a ship suit pocket. When he was able to put it into his civilian sport coat, without it causing an issue, that's when I started to have some issues. Now, to Lowell's credit, this story was posted in 2007 so when he wrote it tablet computers were still the stuff of fiction. Unfortunately now it is something I noticed. Owning an iPhone and iPad I know how little detail work I can do on the phone vs the pad. From the descriptions, the tablet in the story couldn't be more than 3x5, which would make it a poor study tool, ship deck plan device and so on. Still, maybe it has a roll up screen or something else high tech.  Similar issues with the 3D welkie sculptures and how easily they get carried around pockets. I wear sports coats often and know how even a set of keys will ruin the line.

Time continuity:  This happened a couple of times, but the most glaring was During one of the major heart to heart talks. One of the characters goes out on a tour of the ship, something that takes 30-45 minutes. While she's gone, Ish and another lead character talk. There were no "time passes" moments but after only about ten minutes of conversation, Ish passes the first character just coming back from their tour of the ship. It worked plot wise for the conversation to happen then, but ti was till jarring. All in all a minor quibble.

The Cymru rating: 8/10
I'd expected to not rate this as high as Quarter Share. I think the author expected the same after my last review. Were I to rate Half Share on the same story style as Quarter Share, then it likely would have been only a 6/10. But Half Share was an entirely new story, new perspective, new goals, just the same fascinating characters.

Would I buy/listen to this author again?: Yes
I'm now on to book three in the series and I will most certainly explore other works by Nathan Lowell.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: Trader Tales 1: Quarter Share

Apologies for the long absence (what you were gone, hadn't noticed). Yeah, well I know I'm not exactly the edge of your seat must reading. I've been applying my creative writing skills to a speech I'll be giving in relation to my day job. If it goes well, I have folks that want me to turn it into a training course and maybe a book. Given that, it's been my main focus for a while.

But I can't let a great book go by without a little recognition to it.

Trader Tales: A Quarter Share - Book One in a series of books set in the "Age of Golden Sail" by Nathan Lowell

The first chapter book I have a conscience memory of reading was Farmer in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein. While almost certainly not my first chapter book, it is the one that left an enduring impression upon me. From that very beginning I've been fascinated with Science Fiction. The first role playing game I really got into was Traveller, a science fiction themed game and I've always had a special love for the "ordinary" of space (which is why Farmer has stayed with me for so long). Some of my favorite parts of Science Fiction novels have been the mundane or "character building" sections of a book. The hero, who would grow to be the Captain of the ship, on her first cruise and all the foibles of learning to be a spacer. These chapters have been as much my favorites as the dramatic battles that saw the fates of whole galaxies change.

I also have a passion for the early nautical life of Earth. From Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada to the Age of Sail and Nelson's gallant battles, I love the sea borne life. The Horatio Hornblower series rates right up with the Honor Harrington series as my all time favorite book series.

So when someone (I'm pretty sure it was Tee Morris) mentioned Trader's Tales with a description of "Hornblower in space," I had to check it out.

Summary: It's About the People
Quarter Share is the first book in a series. Like Hornblower, it starts with the character at the bottom of the pile. He's an eighteen year old orphan with no skills, no money and no clue. And it took an act of kindness to keep his story from ending right there. This books only action is all off screen. No emergencies, no disaster, one off screen mugging and the only death is before the story starts. It's not about dramatic action, but about the simple life aboard a merchant ship plying the deep dark.

And that's what makes it so interesting. Maybe my life is just too filled up these days, but the simplicity of the book was what appealed most.

The Good:
- First person narration: It really works for this book to have the lead character (Ishmael Horatio Juan) tell the story in his own words. It gives it the personal nature that makes the book really work. Had he not done that, it likely would have been too much like Hornblower. As it is, the book stands alone for the narration style.
- Great lines: Good thing I usually listen to this in my car. I found myself laughing often and loudly.
- The "feel": Not sure how to state it any better. The overall fabric of the story makes for a very visual story. I could see the shape of the Lois McKendrick and smell the coffee brewing.
- The hornpipe: He used hornpipe music for transitions and this tied it nicely back to the original Age of Sail.

The Bad:
- No failure: Something that the Hornblower stories have, which Trader's Tales doesn't, is the knock you to the ground and still get back up again determination. Horatio Hornblower scrabbled every step of the way to each of his promotions. Ishmael doesn't face the same challenges. He has the normal getting used to shipboard life, but everything he tackles he achieves. There is no adversity and by the end of the book I was left wondering a little how he could have gone from zero to so competent in five short months. Hopefully the future books will introduce a little more challenge.

The Cymru rating: 8/10
On its own, it rates a strong score. The sequels will have to work hard to keep the same score.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Creativity vs. Continuity

So I've been working on a writing assignment for five of the last seven days. Even at a very modest five hundred words a day that means I should have 2500 words in the can. Right?

Zero words later I have run smack dab into the steel cage death match of creativity vs. continuity.

As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons that I love writing is the ability to make stuff up. Being able to create a character, a plot, a new technology, even an entire universe , words can't describe. And getting to read your words in print is both humbling and completely ego satisfying.

Now if I were writing a short story, in a made up universe, that bore no connection to modern reality at all, I could do whatever I wanted to do with that creativity. Need a wormhole from Houston 1945 to Alpha Centauri 5012? No problem, just insert an interphasal flux wave form engine and I'm done.

Only when you start playing in a sandbox that is connected to something bigger, then you start to have issues. If I'm going to use a flintlock pistol, then I can't kill a person at a 1000 yards with it. Everyone knows what a flintlock is and that it can't do that. When you start playing in an entire universe you really start to run into constraints. Imagine if a writer tried to put transporters into Star Wars? That would go over about as well as symbiotic life forms that channel energy (Okay, so important note. When you invented the universe, you get to change the rules.) If you want to write in the Star Wars universe, you have to play by the Star Wars rules. Jedi don't use red light sabers, Wookies don't speak English and no one says "Beam me up."

So five days into my writing assignment and I'm at zero word count. Welcome to research and note taking. I've not written a single usable word, but I've researched the technology I'll be using, the backgrounds and names of the characters and the time period for the project. I have to admit, some of it has been a royal pain in the seated portion of my anatomy. It would be so easy to use no-name references, run of the mill technology and a time period with no relation to any major event in the universe. I could do that, but I also know the readers of BattleTech love the intricate details and when something new slides into the existing history like a hand into a glove, we have happy fans.

So for this project continuity wins over creativity. If you want to play in someone else's universe, you gotta play by the rules.

I do have this great idea for a completely unconventional knight in shining armor in a no name fantasy universe. Maybe next week.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Welcome to the future- Writing now, inventing then.

BattleTech Art- 2010
BattleTech Art- 1988


Why be a writer?

I've been asked this question more than once and goodness knows I've asked it my to myself many times. In my three part blog, on being a freelance game designer , I touched on this same question.  More recently I had a chance to revisit this question and have it lead to another interesting question that just has me wondering.

Being a fan of BattleTech and a father of boys it is a moral responsibility to introduce them to the game. I'm currently reading the original Warrior's Trilogy, by Michael Stackpole  to my oldest son (For those unfamiliar with BattleTech, this trilogy introduces the entire BT universe through the eyes of the major powers as an interstellar war unfolds) . Perfect bedtime story material (with some minor edits to remove some words). While reading the first book, Warrior: En Garde I had an absolute "welcome to the future moment."

One of the lead characters books an interstellar voyage. Her profile is loaded into the cruise lines computers and a series of automatic actions takes place. Her medical file is reviewed and the computer automatically adjusts the pharmacy's inventory for items she might need. Flight Engineering reviews her physical statistics to ensure she can handle the travel and any other special medical needs she might have. Her food purchase and restaurant ordering history is then dissected and the data is compiled with all the other passengers to shape the menu for the cruise.

Then things get really fun. Her age, social status and other factors (interests, clubs, education, etc) are reviewed. First the housing computer decides she gets an active deck, with other younger passengers (no screaming babies in her future).  Her dining partners for the first few meals are then determined. She is automatically booked for several activities that match her personality. After all this, the review by the intelligence agency computers is almost tame. In the matter of a few seconds her entire life is analyzed and her entire trip is laid out to best match what is expected she will want. 

This book was written in 1988.

In 1988 the Internet hadn't even become mainstream. Email was something scientists and college students had. You still used floppy disk to save data. Intel's premiere computer chip was the 386SX and had a blinding clock speed of 16MHz! Just to bring this back to reality, Intel chips today run in the 3.0 GHz range. That's GigaHertz! One Gigahertz is equal to 1000 Megahertz.

And here Mike Stackpole was writing about technology that we are just now seeing come into its own with the explosion of Social Media. Over twenty years ago, when the Internet was likely something he'd never heard of, he was creating technology we have today.

So that brings me back to my questions.

Why do I like to write fiction?
Because you get to make **** up! When I wrote the Castle Brian rules for BattleTech's Jihad Hot Spot Terra I was treading brand new ground. I was writing rules that had never existed in the BT universe. It was a complete rush to make up new things that people would be reading and incorporating into their games. I'd become part of the fabric of the BattleTech universe.

So I've only been writing for a few years now. In that time real world technology has surged ahead but I've not had any moments of "Hey I thought of that." Which brings me to my next question.

I wonder if Mike Stackpole ever looks around him and says "Wow, twenty years ago I wrote about just this."?

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE… (It's a great song, even if you don't like country)

Stackpole is not the first, of course. Heinlein, Asimov, Clark and the other fathers of modern Science Fiction were making predictions about the future decades before it came to pass. Heck, what robotics scientist doesn't have the three laws of robotics memorized?

Why be a writer? Why not? Even if it never makes me a fortune, there is something about playing with the reality. Whether you're writing a 20's era detective mystery - with magic swords and dwarves, or a 31st century interstellar war - with great big stompy robots, the sky is the limit. And you just might end up predicting something that happens in the future.


Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: Phoenix Rising

Secret agents, explosives, strong drinks - not shaken not stirred, gallant British gentlemen and beautiful - and deadly women. Ah the good old British Intelligence, God save Queen… Victoria?

No, this is not a review of the latest James Bond book. It is a tale of everything else I just mentioned. Toss onto that clockwork technology and a whiff of the supernatural and you have all the makings of a Steampunk era British spy thriller in the tradition of the Avengers, with the old "new" tech of Artemis Gordon.

Phoenix Rising (A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel) is the collaborative work of Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine. Tee Morris has written both fiction and non-fiction, being the man who literally wrote the book on audio book podcasting and has given us the sarcastic wit of a dwarven detective in Capone's Chicago and the high seas swashbuckling thrill to remind us of the era of Errol Flynn. PJ Ballantine has a knack for fantasy and weaving it into a completely realistic setting, be that Elizabethan England or a future may be Cyberpunk world.

So the first worry I always have when reading a collaborative work, is if it will flow. Having been one of many writers in single product, I know how easily it is for the different styles to become very jarring. This wasn't an issue. I'm familiar with both Tee's and Pip's writing styles and I found it hard to tell the two styles apart. They clearly took time to blend their work together.

The story itself starts off like any good action movie. In a scene that would give James Bond a run for its money we get a taste of the era, the steampunk technology and the decidedly opposite personalities of the two main characters. And much like Mulder and Scully, it's antagonism at first sight. If the heroes are to save the British Empire, it looks like it will be in spite of themselves, given how little they get along. After all, how smart is it to call the person you just saved a lunatic. Especially when laying in the open door of an airship a couple thousand meters over the frozen expanse of Antarctica.

And that's just the first chapter - which you can read for free from Amazon.

I have to agree with other reviewers who've noted how well Phoenix Rising exists with in the setting of Steampunk. Goggles and gears are not some decorative icing tossed on the top of some pulp fiction thriller. Instead, Morris and Ballantine have woven a complete tapestry where the technology is part of the world and history has adjusted ever so slightly to reflect this technologically advanced British Empire. Any doubt on the richness of the universe they have created can be dispelled by listening to any of the eight podcast short stories set in the MoPO universe.

I don't get to read much these days and it takes something pretty special for me to buy an actual paper copy of a book. Phoenix Rising is just such a book and I am certainly looking forward to the next book in the series.

PS- Congrats to Tee Morris who has just proposed to his writing partner. May Tee and Pip have many happy years of marital and authorial bliss together.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oh My Ears and Whiskers, How Late it's Getting!

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Adams was a masochist, pure and simple. As I sit here I have missed a deadline. Not just a, "whoops, I know the deadline was yesterday", miss. No this is a, "somewhere last month I was supposed to have this all done", kind of miss. The sound of it whooshing by was not pleasant. Honestly I don't think of it as whooshing by, but more that it rushed up on me, knocked me to the ground and is now sitting on my chest subjecting me to Chinese  water torture.

Of course the first, obvious, question - and one I know my editor will ask if he reads this - is "if you have time to write this blog, don't you have time to work on your assignment". The answer is a "Yes" and a "No." Yes, I am writing. In theory that means I could be writing the assignment I'm late on. No, I shouldn't be writing it right now because if I wrote it in the head space I'm in, I'd write utter garbage. I've learned the lesson that there is a difference between "Just write" and "Write what needs to be written." If you can't focus on your primary project, you should still write. If you don't exercise your writing muscles, they get weak. So write. Write a blog, a book review, another project, but at least write.

But that's not the theme of this blog. It will make a great blog, but not today.

Today the theme is communication.

Writing can be a very solitary activity. Grab your laptop, some headphones and that triple venti marbled mochamia with a lemon twist and find a tree to sit under. Bingo, you are writing. And unless you've mastered the entire chain of writing, editing, cover art, self-publishing, etc. you will need to talk to other folks. (For more on self-publishing I highly recommend Mike Stackpole, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Rusch's blogs. They have all been tackling the major changes in the publishing industry and the ease that you can self e-publish.)

It can be very easy to fall into the "zone" and just focus on your writing. Or at least focus on not writing (Put the World of Warcraft DVD back in the box!). And then as that deadline gets closer and closer, like some mad tornado of swirling doom, you run for the basement to ride out the coming storm. Might make you feel better, but the folks waiting for your work are not getting warm fuzzies.

And in today's world, it isn't like there isn't a high barrier to entry for communication. I can reach the BattleTech Line Developer in at least seven ways, all without moving from my chair.

So communicate. Do it early, do it often, do it always. When I was in the middle of the TRO3085 project, I talked with Herb at least once a day (usually by IM). I send him updates on a regular basis (Just finished section 4, working on section 5). And most importantly, when something is not going the right direction, communicate early!

A week before my deadline, I emailed Herb and told him I knew I was going to be late. I asked if he could prioritize the work I was doing so I could least impact him and I apologized ahead of time. Since then I've communicated regularly to let him know my status.

If you mess up, you need to talk even more. Hiding in a dark hole is only a way to ensure someone sends  the marines in to find you.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: Chasing the Bard

You've just read an absolutely great book. It had all the right elements, had great characters and the author did a wonderful job in painting the back story that the story rested upon. And then you discover the book was a sequel.

A sequel? You mean I started in the middle? The horror! The frustration! I can't take it anymore, I'll just have to end it all… Okay so the last might be a little too far. Still for those of you like me, there is nothing more annoying than coming into the middle of the story. I'll skip watching a TV show if I missed the intro , just because I don't want to miss any nuances of the story.

So when I discovered that Digital Magic, by Phillipa Ballantine, was a sequel, I was torn as to what to do. I'd completed Digital Magic, so I was already well familiar with the characters and the world. Would Chasing the Bard be too much review and not enough new? Would knowing the outcome of Digital Magic make it like reading the mystery novel knowing the butler did it, in the dinning room, with a candlestick?

Absolutely not.

My other trepidation to listening to Chasing the Bard was the setting. A book that had William Shakespeare as one of the main characters would be trodding in one of my favorite periods of history.  I've read books on Elizabethan history for fun and going to most so called "Renaissance Faires" makes me twitch as I see what most people interpret 1500s England as. Would a Kiwi from down under be qualified to bring one of my most beloved time periods to life, as the backdrop to her bardic tale?

Absolutely yes.

As I did with Digital Magic, I listened to PJ Ballantine's podcast novel  version of Chasing the Bard. Pip's voice work and the work of her esteemed guests was wonderful. Her characterization of the immortal trickster's voice, Puck, was positively brilliant and Tee Morris' portrayal of Shakespeare  was one of the best I've heard (and I've heard a lot of Will Shakespeare's in my time).

The story itself was a classic battle of good vs. nihilistic nothingness. I don't think you can truly call the Unmaker evil, given what he ultimately desires is the total nothing of all (Who let this guy out of the script of Neverending Story?). While the story might be a classic Trope it is the implementation and the weaving of history and classic fairie lore together that makes it a truly engaging story. Oh sure I knew the outcome. Even without reading Digital Magic, I could guess the eventual outcome. But the journey! Every time that Sive stuck her size zero fairie foot in her mouth I nearly cried out in frustration. For a female fairie she could be as dense as your typical redneck male.

Her characters were excellent, I would say even better than those of Digital Magic. Puck, Brigit and Warrick practically steal the show and the one scene with all three of them is positively explosive. And how Pip weaves the Bard's own interpretations of Oberon, from a Midsummer Nights Dream, into her own characterization of the fairie king make for an interesting mind twist as one ponders how the Bard's experiences in the story affected his writing of future plays (Yes, I was caught thinking of how the never happened story might have affected the real plays Shakespeare wrote. The story was that good).

And the end of the book not only elegantly sets you up for the next book, it also leaves you wondering.

Just what is "home" for William Shakespeare? Where did his spirit go?

An excellent "read", well worth the listen. And as an added bonus, it's all released. Listen to all twenty chapters as quick as you can, or spread them out to keep the story going for longer.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The check is in the mail, honest...

Yesterday I received an email from Catalyst Game Labs' controller (Publishers of BattleTech, which I do freelance writing and game development for). She was just dropping me a line to tell me a check for one of my published projects was in the mail.

After the obligatory happy dance it did get me thinking about the whole making money part, of what can still only be fairly called a hobby.

Hobby… Yes, it is still certainly a hobby. I made a respectable amount of money last year, but in the grand scheme of my monthly expenses and day job paycheck it isn't enough to alter my basic lifestyle. Last year I used the money mostly to pay off bills and cover unexpected expenses of the tight economy.  So I'm not getting rich off this, but I am getting paid. And with paychecks come certain things you don't tend to think about.

So knowing I'm getting another check in the mail, also made me flash back to my recent, yearly, brush with Uncle Sam and my taxes. When you are making money in a few hundred here and a hundred there (I've had checks as small as $20) the total impact of what you make doesn't really sink in. So when I got my 1099 from Catalyst this year I had the sudden realization that this was going to make an impact on the taxes I might owe the government. Fortunately I'm married to a pretty awesome woman, who has run her own small business for years. She had raised this issue before and I'd pretty much brushed it off not thinking it would be that big an impact. She then went and saved my bacon by making sure we covered our anticipated taxes. At the end of our tax process we didn't owe Uncle Sam any money, but I darn well owed her flowers, dinner and years more adoration.

50%- When you get a check, divide it by 50%. No matter what it is, just divide it by 50%. Take half that money and send it straight to the IRS, do not pass go, do not collect $200. You can find the form and information for this at this link on the IRS website.

"Why 50%? I'm in the 30% tax bracket." - A couple of reasons. First off  any of the money you over paid you'll get back in your tax return. Instead of risking having to pay more, set yourself up to get back. Also, prepaying state taxes is much harder and may not even be an option in some states. The extra money you sent to the IRS you can use to pay your State taxes. (I don't have a clue on how taxes work in other countries, but this would probably be a safe bet in most places.)

You are your own book keeper and your own lawyer:
You may not be making a lot of money, but you are making money and you are "in business." If you are getting paid, you should have some kind of contract or purchase order.

Track your projects: It's up to you to make sure you track this. If you don't have good records, then you are relying on the other party to have good records. This isn't always the case. I had a couple of old Catalyst projects that were delayed several times before seeing publication. The projects were so old, they were on the companies previous system, which had issues. Because I had a copy of my contract, I was able to send it to their controller and she was able to use that to pay me.

Read the fine print: It is a legal document. Read the whole thing and understand it. For example, a standard clause in the contracts I have is X% if I'm late. So if my work is late, then Catalyst can dock my pay. If you don't read it, and you sign it then you are stuck with it.

Say Thank you:
When they pay you, take the time to send a thank you email (or if you have regular phone conversations, pick up the phone). Yeah you earned that money, but in an industry like writing politeness goes a long way.

The flip side of this is to not be pushy or demanding. Even if the company you are writing for is late, not responsive or dropping the ball, politeness still goes a hell of a long way. It's a small industry and not to be to cliché, cream does rise to the top. Stay professional through any interactions and you'll be in a much better position in the future. I know I'm not Catalyst's best freelancer, but I also know that my politeness and professionalism has been one of the reasons I keep getting assignments.

Have some fun: Last year the economy really sucked for me. It was a belt tightening year all around and I had a lot of bills to pay. But despite all that I made a point to set aside a small part of each check I got for something fun (For me this usually meant a Sushi dinner for the family). You are working hard to get that paycheck and if all you ever do is pay bills, you don't get as much joy from the experience of being paid.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Oh my G… it's full of blank!

The blank page… No greater dread have I.

Oh certainly there are things far more frightening than a blank page. I'm just unable to think of them right now. The sheer expanse of blank white screen is threatening to swallow me up. If I don't get some words on the screen it will suck me down and I'll never get anything done. Oh, look, is that a new game on Facebook?

No! Focus, blank page, must fill it.

I'm currently sitting on two deadlined writing assignments from Catalyst Game Labs. I also have another one that doesn't have a deadline yet, but that's a matter of time. Oh and I've got a Steampunk short story pounding on my skull to get out and an alternate earth story. The last two are purely because I want to write them, heavens knows what I'll do with them if I do.

So what am I doing on my lunch hour? When I could be cranking out a thousand or so words of productive, what am I doing?

Staring at the damned bloody blank page and trying to find the motivation to start.

Oh, look, squirrel…


So while I avoid the blank page syndrome, I decided to write about how I have dealt with blank page syndrome in the past. I know, I know, the irony. At least I'm writing.

Don't Start with a blank page: I learned this trick in my project management career. After nearly two decades working in High Tech, I've developed a large storehouse of templates. I have templates for charters, templates for plan of record, templates for status reports (in doc, ppt and xls format), templates for one on ones, even a template for my PMP application.

The template gives you a framework to start with. Something on the screen (page) so it's not so damndably white.

Throw some spaghetti at the wall: You don't have to start at the beginning, you don't even need to start in the middle or the end. You can just not start. I know, makes no sense, that's why it will fool your brain.

Instead of forming a complete sentence, jot down half formed ideas. For one story I have a disjointed page that includes things like the characters name, a note saying "artifact wraps around right arm", a half formed snippet of dialogue ("What is it about me that attracts trouble? Why can't I just have a normal day?") and some other odds and ends.

When I started, I didn't have a single fully formed thought. I just dropped ideas down and worked from there. Before I knew it, I was driving off on a line of dialogue and descriptions that gave me nearly an entire scene.

Right tool for the job: I've discovered that Word (insert your preferred document program of choice) isn't always what I need for a particular writing task. When it comes to the finished product, I'll always move to Word. Until then I make use of many other tools.

Mk I Notebook: Don't knock the good old paper and pencil. Writing by hand uses a different part of your brain than typing does. I use a notebook to jot down ideas sometimes. The free form nature allows me to explore concepts with greater ease

OneNote/ EverNote: I've been using OneNote for a while now. All my blogs are written in OneNote and I store future blog ideas and notes in the same Notebook in my OneNote. I've given EverNote a twirl, but I it's linear data entry doesn't offer the same free form that OneNote does. (I do use EverNote for notes I want easy access too. EverNote's syncing from PC, to iPhone to iPad is currently much better than OneNote.)

OneNote is a great place to capture ideas and concepts, to paste research and the like. I have taken to starting a project in OneNote and migrating to Word as it gets more gelled.

Excel: Does your story have a lot of moving pieces? If you're writing for an established universe or a game system, there are a ton of moving pieces. I'm working on one project that is pulling from close to twenty sourcebooks. I've been laying out data in a spreadsheet, to better organize it. When I was writing (as a player) for an online multiplayer game I kept a spreadsheet for the cast of characters for my faction in the game. I started with this list early on, before I started writing stories.

Change the subject: If I'm unable to break the blank page barrier on a project, I will change to another project. If I'm writing, then I'm at least exercising my art. I may not be creating paid for words, but I'm being creative and that's the most important thing. Which is why I'm here, writing a blog, instead of writing one of my Catalyst contracts.

Do: Don't let the horror of a blank page slow you down. Harness the fear and Iet it be your ally. Or at the very least beat it into submission and lock it in the closet with the rest of your fears.

Just write.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Don't quit your day job (too soon)

"I'm a full time writer…"

Every aspiring writer hopes to say this one day. The day they can write their resignation letter and say goodbye to the 9 to 5 job. It's a dream goal, and a sign you've made it. There is certainly a tipping point to being able to do this. From what I've read, it almost always comes with no small amount of trepidation. Pip Balantine mentioned this in her blogs and podcasts, when she took the leap and left her Librarian job behind for full time writing. Her writing partner, Tee Morris, still holds a day job, writing when he's not working and squeezing in life around all that. I don't know Tee's reasons, but as a father I can hazard a guess that this factors into his decision.

But what do you do before that tipping point? There is the obvious question of "At what point do you go from full time librarian and part time writer to full time writer?" But there is the less obvious question of "What's my first priority, Librarian or writer?"

I follow a number of writing related blogs (see the sidebar). In Quick Writing Tips, Daniel argues hard that there shouldn't be any doubt in a writers mind. I do recommend his blog for many things, but on this subject he's sided on the side of "having a productive writing morning? Blow off the day job and keep writing." Now I don't know where Daniel is in his writing career, so I'm not going to judge him. And I don't know what his home life is, so again I won't judge him. If this advice works for him, then I support him in it. I do worry about giving blanket advice out of context and I personally can't agree with him.

 I've faced this very same question more than once. Just this morning I started jotting some notes down before heading off to my day job. The ideas just started gushing and honestly if one of my boys hadn't asked me a question I might not have noticed the time. What did I do? I got up and rushed out the door.

You see at the end of the day, I'm not a project manager, I'm not a writer.

 At the end of the day I'm a father and husband.

And because of that, my first responsibility is to them. Someday I might make enough money to be a full time writer but until then, the day job wins out because the day job is what keeps my family safe and cared for.

Again, going back to Daniel, it's all very subjective. If I were single I might approach this very differently. One other, important factor is your writing speed. Kathryn Rusch points out there are fast writers and slow writers. She offers different advice based on that. I fall into the slow writer camp, so I'm going to be more conservative in my jumping to the full time writing camp.

So what is my advice for holding a full time day job and a part time writing "job"?

Don't do too much…

Seriously, this has to be the biggest thing I learned during my work developing TRO:3085, for Catalyst Game Labs (which was just nominated for an Origins award). I was working roughly sixty hours a week, I was writing and developing 3085, I was writing big chunks of another Catalyst game book, and I was trying to fit time for my family in around all that. I got a personal thank you from my boss, TRO3085 was a well received success and my family started wondering who that funny guy with the beard was.

I was close to burn out. I was trying to do too much and do it all at once. I nearly crashed and burned.

Don't do too much…

I rebalanced what I was doing. It's not perfect and I still feel like I don't have enough time for everything. But I learned I didn't have to take every writing assignment that came my way. I learned I could ask for help. I learned I could say no.

In my work for Catalyst, I work with a great team of volunteers. Folks who help out on Catalyst products for little more than a thank you and free PDF copies of the books. I've lost track of the number of times one of them has come to me and said something like "I'm really sorry but such and such is happening and I won't be able to do much for the next X amount of time." Know what I say?

"Take your time. Family/Life comes first."

Am I going to be the next Amanda Hawking, in the next year? No, I won't be. But that's okay. I'm content to start slow. Slow and steady wins the race.

Family/ Life First-
Don't try and do everything-
Don't be afraid to say no (even to yourself)-
Build inertia slowly, you'll be moving fast before you know it-

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review: Digital Magic

An engaging read (listen) from the first page to the last page.

I recently finished listening to the, free, podcast version of Digital Magic by Phillipa Ballantine. I was turned on to this novel by a professional colleague, in my day job career, and for this kind  act I am very grateful.

In the last five years I've led a very sheltered reading life. With the exception of re-reading the Honor Harrington series, my sole fiction intake has been BattleTech with a side of Shadowrun sourcebooks. You might say I was taking a busman's holiday. While I love BattleTech, you can get burned out on a single universe when you are reading, writing, playing, fact checking in just that universe.

So when my neo-luddite self discovered that people had put complete books out on podcast, for free, I had to check it out (Okay in my own defense, I was once a tech geek. But it has been so long since I've been a geek that when Twitter first came out I was one of those who said "What's the point?" I am no longer an early adopter and look to others for good trends).

Digital Magic will appeal to anyone who loves the Cyberpunk genre and especially to those who enjoy the magic/technology sub genre that games like Shadowrun specialize in.

Given I listened to this as an audio book, I have to start with saying that Miss Ballantine's reading was superb. She has a very engaging voice and very seamlessly handles the majority of the characters leaving you no doubt who is speaking. The other voice actors were for the most part very good. The Daniel character had some audio issue in his later appearances that really jarred you out of the story, but this was an exception.

The story snags you from the beginning, putting you right into the mind of one of the lead characters from page one. And when the character happens to be a shape changing thief who has a startling reaction to an ancient mask, you know you are in for an interesting story. Miss Ballantine then proceeds to throw you into a quick series of turns as she introduces the rest of the cast and sets up two completely separate story lines, one set in a war torn New Zealand and one in a sleepy (or not so) English village.

Several times I thought I had the story figured out. Several times I was proven completely wrong and guessing anew at just where things would end up. And then only two chapters from the end, you get a complete right turn that leaves you marveling at where you've ended up. She keeps you guessing, interested and thinking through the whole book. A mark of a good novel (or podcast).

The only other negative mark I have to give is for the podcast production schedule. I was lucky to not discover the book until it was already up to chapter twenty of twenty-two. Still, when I reached chapter eighteen and there was no sign of the last two chapters, I stopped listening and waited. It was close to three months before the final two chapters came out and I could finish the book. I can't imagine what it had to be like for those that had been listening from chapter one. To Miss Ballatine's credit, she was moving half way around the globe during this time, but still it was a painful wait for her listeners. Having more of the book in the can, before posting it might be better in the future.

Where would I place Digital Magic and Miss Balantine in my repeat appearances list? I rarely re-read a novel, so its no slight that I don't put this on my must keep around list, but I Pip Ballantine has been added to my must read/listen to her work again. I've just started listening to Chasing the Bard and will probably buy (spend real money) her new print novel, Phoenix Rising (co-written with Tee Morris).

Digital Magic is available as a free podcast and also as a digital eBook, so you can choose your medium for experiencing this great story.
Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Saturday, March 26, 2011

An essential tool to succeeding in Freelance Game Writing

A Thick Skin…

I imagine that twenty years ago, maybe even ten years ago, the feedback a game writer got was limited and definitely not real time. Mainstream online interactions didn't exist two decades back and even a decade back products were printed and shipped old style. So you could have months from release to fan comments on the product.

Today, you can release a product electronically and by the time you've been to the coffee maker and back there are a 100 posts on the product. In this world of instant media you have to develop all the key skills of a regular freelance writer, but you also have develop an iron hard skin.

Now maybe Pip Ballantine needs a thick skin, what with her audio novels and tackling the popular Steampunk genre, but in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's very popular blog, on surviving as a writer in today's publishing economy, she doesn't mention thick skin.

She does list the following:
1. Flexibility                           6. Storytelling Ability.
2. Forward-thinking             7. Voice.
3. Business Savvy                 8. Risk-takers.
4. Entrepreneurial Spirit     9. A Willingness to Try
5. Write Fast                         10. Nonconformists.

These are all excellent pieces of advice and I would also recommend her Freelancer's Survival Guide if you want to tackle this crazy art.

But I think even more than self published authors, writers for an established game universe have to have skin so thick you can survive a trip through the sun. The BattleTech game universe is twenty-seven years old now and there are fans that have been following the game that long (twenty-five for me). With all that history your fans can develop some very decided opinions. Like every bad Star Trek convention spoof you've ever seen, gamers can have the same firmly fixed opinions and woe betide if the writers change the universe in a way that fan doesn't like.

Enter the age of instant media and the ability for the fans to express themselves isn't limited to a handful of conventions a year. They can respond quickly and in great volume. This can be wonderful, when some fan posts a heart felt thank you. This can be gut wrenching when another one declares how you've just destroyed the game.

Thick Skin.

You've got to have a mountain of self confidence, a healthy dose of patience and a wicked sense of humor won't hurt. With these in hand you can tackle the feedback, sort the wheat from the chaff and probably end up learning a few things from even the most vociferous of trolls. Mind you it may just be learning to add this person to your spam filter, but every little lesson has value.

Oh, and that skin comes in handy with the job itself. When you're the sole author of a book, you have the "power". You get to decide what happens and when. When you write for a game there can be dozens of other writers. Then there is a developer, a line developer, the fact checkers, the editors, the layout guys and so on. With that many opinions conflict is bound to occur (Management guru Mark Horstman likes to say "Conflict is two people in the same county", so get used to conflict it's a part of life.). So once again, a thick skin is very important. As is being professional, polite and calm, even if your fellow staffers are screaming bloody murder at you.

Thick Skin. You don't need to have it to be a game writer, but you probably won't last long without it.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

1. Flexibility
2. Forward-thinking
3. Business Savvy
4. Entrepreneurial Spirit
5. Write Fast
6. Storytelling Ability.
7. Voice.
8. Risk-takers.
9. A Willingness to Try
10. Nonconformists.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On being a freelance game writer/designer pt III

In my project management career we have a saying. It's a saying the game industry probably knows all to well, even if they don't use the exact phrase.

OBE - Overcome by events.

Or, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Such is what finds me a month from my last blog and in many ways describes how not to get your foot in the door. In Part II I talked about your public presence and how that was a critical factor in working for a game company. To be honest it applies to any job. I wrote a project management blog  in a similar vein after the NPR public relations disaster of two weeks back. In Part II I promised to go into making the jump from a volunteer (playtester, fact checker, etc.) into writing. Better late then never, here we go.

First off, don't let yourself be overcome by events. When the chance comes along, it is usually a brief little window that may or may not present itself again. Jump on the chance and run for it, because it may not come around again. And that's what I did. I was one of the few fact checkers who took part in the, then, super secret The Blake Document review. Some of the promo material used to promote the book were in universe marked up copies of units from FM:Merc Supplemental Update. Uncle Chandy's right hand man was reviewing possible candidates for hiring. I saw an opportunity to further promote the BattleCorps website and get a chance to write. So taking the leap, I wrote a pitch to Herb to include a bio on the Battle Corps' commander in the Biographies section of the book.

But what if he said no?
I don't recall where I learned the lesson, but it's one I've lived by for a long time and one any aspiring writer absolutely must believe in.

"You will never get anything, if you don't ask for it."

So I asked and then I pitched.


Yes. If you are submitting a story to BattleCorps, you provide an complete story. It's different when pitching into a continuous story game line. Unless you are Herb, Ben or possibly Randall, you don't know the entire story and the entire plan. So spending your complete labor of love on an idea that, while great, doesn't fit the universe can be very much a let down.

This means nine times out of ten you have to pitch your idea at a higher level. Provide enough detail for the developer to understand what you are pitching and your style. Not only does this keep you from spending months on the perfect LAM rules, when they were written two years ago and are just waiting for the right book, but it also can help protect the company you hope to work for. Who owns an idea can be a very touchy issue in game designing and writing. This is a huge part of why unsolicited designs from people not already under NDA ends up in the document not being opened and quickly round filed. The last thing a game company wants is to be accused of stealing someone's idea. They may have already been working on rules for sentient computers, but if they opened Jo Bob's rules (which involved memory chips made out of chocolate chips) they could put their entire plans at legal risk.

So nine times out of ten, when you pitch an idea, you pitch the concept. Then you wait for a reply and a contract (or at least a written go ahead).

That's what I did with my first foray into the writers credits of Catalyst Game Labs. I pitched my idea to Herb and he said "Ok" (no really, that was pretty much the sum of his first response. Herb's a man of few, but powerful words).

I guess I did something right, because when the next sourcebook came out I was one of the people it was sent to for open submission. But that's a whole other kettle of fish and isn't about becoming a freelancer, but about being one so I'll talk about that sometime in the future.

I got paid a whole $20.00 for that submission. It was the best twenty bucks I'd ever earned and I darn near never cashed the check.

Several years later I've definitely made more than that first twenty, but I still mark that point as the first time I realized maybe there was something to this hobby of mine.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On being a freelance game writer/designer- Part II

If you haven't read last weeks blog, you'll probably feel like you just dropped into the middle of a conversation. You'd be right!

So then, how did you become a freelancer?

Ah yes, now that the history lesson is done, let's get back on topic. So how did I go from BattleTech fan, to freelance developer? As you will recall, from last week, my first flippant answer was "don't ask". This isn't as flippant as it sounds.

I've been reading a lot about getting started as a freelance writer. The mantra there pretty much boils down to, "write, finish, submit, rinse and repeat." The key to that process is the "finish" part. If you don't finish your story you can never try submitting it. This is a process I'm still learning on the writing side, but Jason Schmetzer, Editor of the BattleCorps site, pounds on this one for how to get your stories accepted by BattleCorps. This is awesome advice and I know Craig Reed did just this, becoming a fairly regular writer on BC as a result.

For basic freelancing, this is essential. For becoming a freelance game writer/developer it is also good general advice. If you lack basic writing skills, it will seriously hinder your aspirations to be the next Gary Gygax. It is not, however, a barrier to entry. I've been writing for BattleTech now several years, and I've yet to get a story accepted to BattleCorps. It's a different medium and different requirements. I'm considered good for game writing, but for full on short stories I've not passed the bar.

Digressing again, back to the core question.

Welcome to the 21st century, the age of online/social media. By the time you get your name in print, the odds are you've developed an online reputation that is going to follow you for years to come. This is an essential fact of life and something we all have to come to grips with. I face this in my professional life on a daily basis. It got to the point that I seriously considered changing my writing name to separate my writing "hobby" from my day job. In the end I realized it wouldn't do much good at this stage. If an author writes under four pen names, it will take you probably two minutes to find out all their names and their real one. Welcome to the digital age!

No, I'm not digressing this time. Becoming a successful game freelancer, and I would argue a successful writer, speaker, consultant, any job that requires good public perception means you have to be very aware of your online reputation. Heck, entire sites have risen about measuring this reputation. and Peerindex are two prime examples of this.  And my own growth to a freelance game  designer for Catalyst mirrors these principles.

It was my participation in the 3048 Fan Council (An online post based RPG) that started it all. Several people were impressed with my writing and more importantly my drive to work with people and be inclusive. CBT Moderator and BattleTech factchecker, Worktroll, asked me to help grow the still young BattleCorps Legion. I was the first and only non-mini painted character in the regiment. I was invited to playtest not long after that and to be a moderator after that. This was all a result of my online presence on CBT and BattleCorps. I was nice, I was inclusive, I contributed to the conversation. Everyone knew I was a hard core House Davion /FedCom fan, but I was on great terms with fans from all walks of the game.

And this is exactly how many of the ASF Cabal and Master Unit List team were recruited. All of them had shown a marked expertise in some area. William Gauthier had built his own fan Objective Raids document, Luke Robertson regularly wrote in character essays on aerospace usage and so on. But that wasn't everything. After that their demeanor went under the microscope. William is a great example of this. In the BattleTech community he is know as "MadCappellan", a more ardent fan of the Capellan game faction you would be hard pressed to find. And while being dedicated to his faction, William has never let it take him to far. His online interactions are commendable.

Do you have to have a really good online reputation to become a freelancer?
No, you don't. But you have to be very damn good, very good. And you still have to find a way to get your foot in the door. There are a few that I know, but they are the exception, not the rule.

So how did you go from Fact Checker to Developer?
And this is where you do ask, sort of.

But that's for the next blog.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner