Where The Colors Go

c010e1e7e267177883ae3dbab2d24bc5If someone handed me a black-and-white outline for a famous painting and colored pencils and asked me to fill it in, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t create great art. I probably wouldn’t get most of the shading, but I’d at least have an idea of where the colors were supposed to go.


I’ve been thinking about the importance of video games as art today–I buy wholeheartedly into the notion that they are a form of art, but some is more pop-art than anything else. While I love movies, TV and books, I think there’s something unique to video games that other media struggle to do (books probably come closest): they put you in someone else’s head, and force you to live with the consequences of your decisions. Not all games really focus on this, but I’ve noticed a lot of indie games do a fantastic job of putting those choices on you, and punishing or rewarding you for them.

This thought, in light of the current political scene in the US, suggests to me that there aren’t enough politicians playing really good indie games. After being forced to make those difficult decisions, you get a whiff of what it would be like to live through a loosely related scenario. Granted, I’m not likely to understand what it’s like to live as the captain of a steam ship sailing on a vast underground ocean, or be a border agent for a closed-off authoritarian nation, but I have become emotionally invested in the outcome of the life of a character in those scenarios. It’s a simulation, it’s entirely fake, but it’s not without stakes: If I die, I have to at least endure the frustration of going back to the beginning.

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The most concrete, and possibly not a great example of this, would be This War of Mine, a slice-of-life simulator where you’re leading a group of residents in a war-torn city through harrowing moments of everyday survival. Food is limited to what you can loot or scavenge. Non-player characters will do the same to you. Sometimes a member of your household will steal your cache and leave. After you’ve sent one of your characters to an elderly couple’s home and tried to decide whether to attack them and take their stuff or leave them alone and just grab whatever’s outside (so that your group doesn’t starve), you start to think how awful it is that these innocent people are being forced into the scenario by military actions beyond their control or choice.

Then you start to look at the world around you, and realize that there are real people in that scenario. People are being ejected from their homes to become refugees from Syria, for example. That’s also the reason this might not be a great example: it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you might actually meet a refugee. At that point, you’re almost certainly never going to fully comprehend the horrors they have endured. Simply playing a video game will never make you fully qualified to even understand what they’ve gone through. You can’t really walk a mile in their shoes from the comfort of your computer chair. But, you will at least know where the colors go.

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This is also why it’s important to read diversely, and to experience as much art that takes you out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s head. I’m not going to claim that I know about revolutions because I played Civilization and Red Faction, nor that reading John Lewis’ March trilogy will make me an expert on the civil rights movement. Hell, even listening to/working on a podcast with LGBT characters doesn’t qualify me to speak to what it’s like to live as part of that community in this political climate. But, I can at least say I’m making some small effort to understand. I’m trying to learn what the shape and color of that is, even if I’m looking at it through blurred glasses. (Not that I want a pat on the back or recognition, I just feel right trying to better myself).

 


This was all swirling through my head when I landed on another notion: I don’t think it’s possible to make complex decisions without taking emotion into account. A decision like that of how to help the refugees from other countries has an emotional component, even if there is hard data that supports it. I was thinking (and likely with bias) about how the liberal decision to take refugees in comes from a place of compassion, while the conservative decision to ban them comes from a place of fear.

Perhaps we need to send the Republicans a few copies of This War of Mine?

Catching Someone Else’s Fire

Somewhere between the 2016 Election and the Women’s March, I caught myself wondering where I got the activist streak that’s been growing in me for the last several years. I was entirely apolitical in High School, following my mother’s example to a certain extent.

People who follow me on Facebook today might know that I’ve got some very intense views (Speaking of which, I am extremely anti-Trump and pro-feminism. Meaning that if you’re not into that sort of thing, this is your polite invitation to leave us be).

The answer to the question surprised me: I learned from my friend Peter’s example.


My third (of five) years in college caught me at at bit of an odd time. Coming out of a relationship and a religion that made up the bulk of my identity, I was trying to figure out who I was going to be. This meant I needed new friendships, new goals, new probably everything.

One of the friends I made, Peter, was a year or two younger than I was. He wore glasses and a beard, a black, zip-up hoodie with a sausage on the back. He sat a couple of rows ahead of me in my medieval lit class. I don’t remember how we even started talking, but within a few weeks, he was part of my core friend group. There were six of us, in all. Pizza, beer and zombie movies became a regular thing–every week or two.

Nostalgia could drag me away from the thread: He talked about his activism pretty casually, but never dragged me out to his meetings. A number of his activist friends became my friends, but no one ever asked me why I never showed up for the causes (hell, no one even tried to convert me to them). I watched the campus news reporting on Northeastern’s janitorial staff landed a better contract, saw the work the Justice for Janitors group had done. Never thought about it beyond “hey, good for Peter and his friends.”

One night, after Scott Brown was elected briefly as a Massachusetts Senator, he and I went out and had a few depressed drinks. We talked more politics, we drowned our political sorrows. It was the first time I really cared about a political thing. We stayed out most of the night, met up with a mutual friend and had a few more drinks.

We graduated, we worked on a few projects together. We kept up the pizza and beer, we talked all night on a few occasions. Eventually, he moved away from Boston. We stayed in touch (not as much as I wished we had, but when we chatted it was always as though the miles were not there).

Somewhere in there, I started attending the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center charity walk annually. Somewhere along the way, my Facebook feed started to fill up with more and more political posts. At some point in the intervening years, I’d started to pick up those activist tendencies.

Peter passed away in 2014. A few months before my sister and cousin did (it was a rough year). I was grateful to have known him, to have had years of his friendship, and to shared jokes with him. I have many fond memories of him, but it wasn’t until this year that I realized the impact his life had on me. I don’t have the fire he had, or the experience, but I will do what I can to honor that impact.

I share this story mostly to encourage you: you never know who’s watching. The sarcastic, goofy dude from your English class could pick up your advocacy lessons without being taught.

White Horses and Errant Knights

I’m going to ask you for an hour of your time. I promise it’ll be well-spent, although you’re still under no obligation to give it. Half-hour

It will give you the time to listen to two things I’ve not been able to shake from my head for the past week. Both have come to mean quite a lot to me. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. The bug bit me after a friend started her own radio anthology show, and I later started helping them edit.

Now, I’m passing them on to you.

The Memory Palace – Episode 90: A White Horse

I think of myself as an ally to the LGBT community, but I know I’ll never really understand what it means to be a part of that community. This episode hit me hard. I was driving home from visiting family and nearly started to cry. It was recorded, I believe, shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and it really helped me to understand what that place–and places like it–mean to my friends. And I felt its loss, several weeks later.

Nate DiMeo’s podcast takes a moment, or a person, or an object, or a place from history and expands on it. Breathes life and meaning into it. He gives you the thousand lyrical words that beautiful photograph could mean. They are sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, and as with this one, sometimes heartbreaking.

Second Citadel — The Head of the Janus Beast (Part 1)

It was the first story I worked on with the Penumbra, and I fell in love with the world pretty hard. The finished product was even better than the script, and I beamed more or less the whole drive home. The acting and the sound design really nailed the world I read about a few months ago. The story of two brothers, would-be knights trying to find honor and a devious monster they think they can defeat for it.

I don’t want to gush, especially as I’ve been working with this team and their scripts for a few months now, and they are friends–it’d be weird for everyone. But, I’ve been anticipating this one for months, and now that it’s here, it’s better than I’d anticipated.

That said, if you do enjoy Second Citidel, check out the Juno Steel series of podcasts from the Penumbra. A PI solving crimes on a futuristic Mars. It’s got hints of Futurama and Blade Runner, and a great cast and characters. I am really loving working on this show.

Doubling Up My Reading Habits

A couple of years ago, there was a spate of articles and blog posts from people who vowed to read only books by women, or people from a minority group.

I also remember reading about some fairly extreme (as in, typical) reactions such as death threats and worse, but I might have conflated those with other death threats (by men) for what are very silly reasons. That isn’t to say there was no reaction to the people who took that vow.

I’m hopping on the bandwagon, about a year late, and with a bit of a twist–mostly because I caught it by accident. giphy

Mostly by accident, I noticed earlier in the year that I’d started a pattern: two books by a woman, one by a man. So I’ve just carried this through so far, and I intend to read twice as many books this year by women as men this year.

The results are still pending, but I’ve found myself almost cursing this pattern once or twice. Mostly, because one of the best books I’ve read this year was by a woman, and I’ve been eager to finish the trilogy. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (and its follow-ups, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy) might be the best new world I’ve discovered in a long time. I’ve wanted to tear through the trilogy, but have been forcing myself to read other books between–partly for the pattern, and partly to avoid World Fatigue (a sensation I got after reading the first two Song of Ice and Fire novels).

The books that have dragged have actually mostly been the male books. I feel bad, as they have included a Terry Pratchett collaboration, The Long Earth and the Welcome to Night Vale novel. I enjoyed both, but felt myself sort of forcing myself through them, eager to return to Leckie’s space opera. This is likely not indicative of anything other than how much I’m enjoying those books.

To my shame I’ll admit that if you were to gather the authors on my bookshelf (prior to this little reading escapade, but even now) in a pub for a drink, it would be a very jovial and entertaining group. It would also be a sausage fest: mostly male, mostly white, with a small handful of women and people of color sitting around one small table in the corner.

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If you catch my drift

These are excellent authors, one and all: Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Stephen King, Stephen Fry, Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien e e cummings. We’d even have most of the Daily Show cast here, including Stephen Colbert and John Hodgman. Truly wonderful authors, and I am proud to admit I know them; it would also be a hell of a party. At the same time, I have to admit an unconscious bias in my reading–even in that list, there’s one name that’s not white and American or English.

While gathering my collection, and putting books in the hopper (to be read later) I’ve been driven by either recommendations (usually from podcasts and authors) or authors I’ve enjoyed in the past. I don’t need recommendations yet, but if I do I’ll make some noise here. I’ve got my next three or four books lined up already, with a few ideas for where to go from there.

This is a low bar, and admittedly, intentionally so. This isn’t really a statement, it’s more of an experiment. So far, it’s paying off.

Wendig, as Usual, On Point

They’re like pressure-cooker bombs — their metal exterior denting and bulging like a botulism can at all the toxic shit trying to get out but goddamnit we just can’t let it out gotta keep it in gotta 

Here, have a gun.

No, no, it’s okay.

It’s easy to get one.

It’s not just easy, it’s part of who we are, we say. It’s baked into the Constitution. Never mind that the Constitution was written by men who had muskets which took about, oh, three years to load and fire. Never mind that the guns we have today are concealable and have bits of lead that travel hundreds or even thousands of feet per second and that they can discharge these little angry metal wasps at an alarming rate of however fast your finger can twitch. We say, it’s right there. In this holy, God-sacred document that governs our nation.

via Recipe For A Shooting — terribleminds: chuck wendig

Unfinished Business

Some days, you wake with a song in your head. This morning, I woke up with the feeling of melancholy I got when I finished Douglas Adams’ unfinished final novel, The Salmon of Doubt. To be fair, some of that melancholy was the fact that, to pad out the incomplete first act of the novel, his estate included not only early essays, but eulogies by his friends, but the bulk of it comes from the knowledge that Dirk Gently will never solve the mystery set out.

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Not to mention the dozens of other Adamsian characters we’re never going to meet. The few chapters we did get introduce us to a cab driver who is convinced that, because no one has ever said “Follow that cab!” to him, he is the cab everyone else is following. What else would there have been.

I bring this up because, twice today, I also encountered the tale of The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ Holocaust drama about a clown force to lead children to the gas chambers. He was so embarrassed by how bad, bad, bad” (his words in an interview) it is, that he decreed it not be be released for 36 years after his death, and another producer has added years to that, according to a recent AV Club piece. The combination of the two got me thinking about my potential legacy of unfinished stories.

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While I understand the drive to pore through every scrap of paper ever touched by famous writer (which I am not, although wouldn’t mind being), there is a part of me that feels uneasy about this. There’s a reason I write some things in, say, this blog or on my Facebook page (my two largest current soapboxes), and other things in text messages or emails. There are dozens of things I’d really rather not be seen by the general public: under-cooked ideas and unintentionally offensive remarks being merely two of them.

In some ways, this is one of the great quandaries of my generation, we of the Foodstagram and Foursquare check-ins. If Apple unlocks the iPhone of a terrorist, what is to stop them from doing the same to mine (aside from not owning one)? Is the NSA truly watching everything I do?  When we are sharing everything, is there such a thing as privacy?

This may also go back to the question I posed previously: How do I know when an idea has legs, and when it’s going to die in the Steamer Trunk?

The one facet, at least the one that relates to this line of thinking, is my control. The half-formed ideas lack the grace and poise of the edited ones. They are naked, they are raw, they haven’t had the time or consideration that can transform a questionable notion into a reasonable one; there are things that sound okay in my head, but sound offensive to someone else. I don’t much like being exposed in that way.

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(Incidentally, this speaks a lot to why I hate conversations on the phone, too. When I am speaking face-to-face, I have the context of another person’s body language and any props they may have; on the phone, it is my words and tone alone that must convey my message, and I can’t edit them as with an email or IM.)

All this is to say, a small part of me wishes I hadn’t read the Salmon of Doubt, and I don’t think those who watch Jerry Lewis’ film will be edified by it. The former is incomplete, raw, and unedited; the latter will–if it does see the light of day–smack of voyeurism. While we all wish we could see into the minds of our heroes, my sense is that the end result is less satisfying than anything we would have imagined for ourselves.

So, when I die, burn anything that isn’t ready for publication. It’ll be clearly and cleverly buried somewhere I’ll disavow all knowledge of.

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‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Bad

Generally, I’m not that into live albums. They’re recordings of a concert I wasn’t at, and listening to an incomprehensible mass of other people having a really great time isn’t my idea of fun. I make an exception for Colin Meloy Sings Live, largely for the banter, but he does something that I find endlessly funny and endearing each time I hear it.

“Tonight, I’m going to play you the worst song I ever wrote. And it’s bad to the core.” Meloy says. “The fact that I put pen to paper is really terrifying. It makes one want to retire and become a college professor or something. It’s the sort of thing that shakes the very foundation of your being. But I’ll let the song speak for itself…”

I love a lot about his length intro to what’s ultimately a third of a song. The song is campy, it’s goofy. It’s a little catchy, it will get stuck in your head. But, he’s right: it is a far cry from the complex and often intellectual writing style of Meloy’s typical work. It’s a first draft of a song through and through.

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On the other hand, there’s another piece of media I unabashedly love: Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head, the story of a robot who helps Abraham Lincoln fight the forces of darkness and his former butler-turned-Zombie. What I really love about it is that Mignola (as I heard it), wanted to make a series out of it, but felt like he got everything he wanted to do out of a single issue of the comic. When he tried to adapt it for TV, he had the same feeling about the pilot episode: this is pretty much all it needed. (Also amazing vocal performances from Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce).

After writing about my own recent first draft the other day, I started thinking about the Purgatory folder. The place that bad story ideas go to sit the rest of their days in incomplete mediocrity. This is different than my steamer trunk folder, where “meh” drafts go to marinate. But what sets them apart? What makes one story worth working on and the other less so?

I’m not really sure. But I figured it was worth rambling about for a few hundred words.

What I do know is that this is one of those “Your Mileage May Vary” scenarios, as some ideas that I can’t make work, someone else can. Then again, there are a ton of ideas that I think are dumb that someone else has already packaged and sold (I typically use this idea to calm myself when I’m worried that I’ll never get published).

Maybe the ‘this is the worst story ever written’ feeling that comes with your average first draft feels different when you know the potential could be a lot stronger. Perhaps it’s that you get to the end and the internal BS-o-Meter hasn’t tripped any alarms. It could even just be that I reach the end and am still madly in love with the idea, whereas another idea might be one I met at a party, took home and gave a fake number to in the morning. At the moment, I think it’s that I got to the end and saw some of things that were wrong with it, but knew I could fix them–see also, the reason people sink hours upon hours into Minecraft.

I don’t really know. So, I figured I’d ask the other writers out there: what’s your threshold for seeing a story through to the bitter end versus canning it forever?

Permission to Suck at Writing, Captain?

Think for a moment about the last book you loved. The experience of reading it was likely something not unlike this:

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Here’s the thing. I can almost guarantee that the book you read isn’t the same book the author started writing. For the non-writers in the room, this is because no matter who you are, if you’re writing something, the first draft is going to suck. It is going to suck hard. It is going to make Transformers 2 look like a work of art. It’ll make The Room look like it has a coherent plot, dialogue and characters. It’ll make [insert widely-regarded bad thing] look like [widely-regarded awesome something]. (You can fill in your own pop culture references. This blog is interactive!)

Every book. Every short story. Every script for every movie, play, radio show. No exceptions. That’s what a first draft is, it’s what they’re for. Anyone who says otherwise is a pretentious hack. Writing a crappy draft is not the hard part.

The hard part is allowing it to suck.

A couple of months ago, I picked up and read through one of Chuck Wendig’s writing advice books. From it, the tip that stuck out most was giving yourself permission for the first draft to suck. There was also something about hacking your way through the narrative swamp with a machete? (His advice is a lot of fun).

It stuck with me because it’s not something I really know how to do. I’m hardly a perfectionist; there are many, many areas in my life in which mediocrity is acceptable. But when I set out to write a story, I want instant gratification or nothing. I want this story to be an exact carbon copy of the idea that’s in my head, and I want it to be perfect.

See where the problem starts?

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I recently finished the first draft of a story. It’s an idea that’s percolated in my head for a few weeks now. I’ve mentioned it to a few people who are excited about it. I’m not going to say more, as I don’t want to over-hype it, in case it turns out to actually suck. Which is a possibility for these reasons:

  • Characters have little to no personality.
  • There are only two named characters.
  • Their names are so dull.
  • They’re also both good guys.
  • All of the bad guys are outside of the narrative.
  • There’s no conflict.
  • There’s a giant plot hole at the end (because I changed my mind about something halfway through).
  • The ending is mostly exposition and a little rushed (because once I saw the end in sight, I galloped toward it)
  • Oh my god, what was I thinking with the names?
  • I’m not 100% the physics work.

The idea that’s in my head is a lot more bad-ass than the one that wound up on paper. The temptation is going to be to can it. Leave it there, like the half-dozen other stories sitting unfinished in a folder in the Cloud–or as I like to imagine it, Idea Purgatory. That’s what it gets for being unsatisfying.

Those of you who are writers are likely to tell me exactly what I’m about to say I should do, so I’ll beat you to the punchline: Let it sit for a while, then suck it up, and jump back in the saddle; that’s the only way to fix it.

I think this is an idea worth finishing, so I’m going to. I’m going to let the crappy story marinate in my head for a few days more. The intent is two-fold: One, new ideas are going to come to the fore that’ll make this story more interesting; two, I will get so annoyed at how bad the draft is that I’ll have to start the second in order to get it out of my system.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s okay for this one to suck. Because this is the version only I have to see.

Welcome Home to the Wasteland

Forgive me, WordPress, for I did not run.

This week, for those wholly removed from the video game community, Bethesda’s fourth iteration of the post-apocalyptic series came out for PC, PS4 and XBone. Fallout 4 is a huge game, a huge nerd-cultural event, and the reason I didn’t run this past Thursday night.

I’d pre-ordered a special edition of the game, but opted not to shell out for the two-day shipping from Gamestop. It had finally arrived, and I was finally going to play it. We have a road trip planned, so I also had to pack and make dinner before I could play. And also squeeze in a run.

Then it started to rain. Honestly, I just needed the excuse.

For anyone still unconvinced, let me expound a little further on why this game release is so packed with excitement for me. I first encountered the series in middle school, playing with a friend late into the night. Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout Tactics were early, turn-based RPGs. A different style, made with the same black humor about the apocalypse. Man had created the bomb, man destroyed the world, and man had to live with the consequences–sometimes, these were funny.

Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas (which I played in reverse order) continued that tradition in a very different style. Closer to a First-person shooter, I was initially totally opposed, until I actually tried them and found them addictive and engrossing.

Then I started to hear rumors that the fourth installment would be set in my home city, Boston.

Not only would I get another trip to the wasteland, I could check in on how my home town fared in the apocalypse (spoiler alert, not well). Not only would this be one of the biggest and most advanced Fallout games so far, it would feel the most familiar. IT would be filled with places I knew.

I will be going around searching for all of my old apartments (and as the town I grew up in is pretty close to Concord, we’ll see if I can find it too). I’ll be checking out my favorite spots and old stomping grounds. All with my trusty dog sidekick, Dogmeat.

What I’m really saying is: Sorry, not sorry.

Getting Enough Pizza For Everyone

I refuse to link to any of the coverage of the stupid Starbucks coffee cup, because I refuse to give anyone ad revenue for the awful, useless non-story that it really is. I further refuse to acknowledge any point of view that isn’t “this is a vapid, useless thing to get worked up about” or “The guy who got everyone all worked up about these is a con-man.”

Really, I just want to stop hearing and talking about it. So, let’s stop.

You tell ’em, dumpster divers.

What I want to talk about instead is political correctness: that invisible social contract oft-lamented by those who feel they’re unable to live up to it. That feeling that you have to walk on eggshells in order to not offend someone you’ve never met before. [I think there is another side to this discussion that I’ll likely explore in a later post, but for now, this one goes out to people who whine about everyone being “too PC”]

I fully understand, it is hard to acknowledge that you have made a mistake. Continue reading