24 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Not Reading Comic Books Makes Superheroes Exciting

Legion of Super Pets
So, uhm, that happened.

I wasn’t much of a comic book reader growing up. I delved into some G.I. Joe and regularly picked up Akira and a few other Japanese-inspired titles for a little while. But, for the most part, I never got bit by the superhero bug. In fact, the first wave of superhero movies in the late 80’s and early 90’s actually turned me off to superheroes in a big way. Other than the mainstream characters and their most obvious rivals, I’d generally turn to one of my comic book friends when someone made a joke about The Legion of the Superpets.

I’ve sporadically seen some of the latest offerings in comic book movies in the theatres. (No, I haven’t seen The Avengers… but, really, that shouldn’t somehow ruin your day.) I’ve enjoyed many of them, in fact, as explosion-filled big screen entertainment. For movies like Thor, I don’t go in with high expectations and, as a result, I can enjoy a 114-minute popcorn binge accompanied by the sound his hammer makes when it connects with a frost giant. Good stuff.

A friend recently wanted to try out the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying by Margaret Weis Productions. Better yet, he was going to run the game so I’d get to actually play a character. OK, I’m in! I read nothing in advance of our session: no rules, no Marvel background, not even a movie review on Rotten Tomatoes! Instead, I volunteered to be Iron Man (who I just had to Google to determine if he’s Iron Man or Ironman prior to typing that) because I have no problem playing an egotistical “hard-headed futurist” with a potential drinking problem. And because I saw Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and I like Robert Downey, Jr…

Not knowing anything about the comic book universe I was in actually increased my enjoyment of the game. It’s been a long time since I was able to discover things in a setting. Usually, I have a head full of knowledge that my character does not have. Even more often, I’m running the game so I have to have a head full of knowledge that all the characters have plus what they don’t! That said, there’s so much material in the game for fans of comics that I think they would get as much out of the game as I did, probably more.

Marvel Heroic RoleplayingIt’s been a long time since I tackled a brand new system and I have to say I loved the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system. It’s incredibly narrative-based, something I’ve been trying to incorporate into my sessions with D&D Next (ugh, I hate that name, by the way). I want a player to tell me what his character is doing, not what he is doing. And that’s how I want to play in a game as well. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying works that way: say what you’re doing, then pull together the dice appropriate to your action. If you find yourself saying, “I attack” and reach for the same handful of dice you always do, you’re doing it wrong.

Better still, are the mechanics of success and failure. There is a back and forth between the heroes and the villains that prevents fights from becoming stale, one-sided affairs, but there is also a means to compensate for poor rolling. (Who has two natural 1’s and loves that rule? THIS GUY!) Better still, you can deliberately introduce an added possibility of failure to increase the dramatic tension, but this helps you accrue resources to pull off something spectacular as later in the scene.

I have to say, even if you aren’t a comic book fan, there’s a great deal to be learned from the design of this game’s mechanical side. It turns “pass/fail” into “exceed/pass/fail/fail-BUT…” and that makes for a genuinely exciting and engaging time. I would love to see these mechanics employed elsewhere but, to be quite honest, I could get used to being a playboy billionaire in a flying tank suit.

Also, if you’re interested in picking up the rules, DrivethruRPG is running their Christmas in July sale so it’s the perfect time. (Just do me a favor and pick it up through that link there. Thanks!)

Christmas In July at DTRPG

18 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Siren Song

Yes, it’s Wednesday, I am aware of this. But I spent Tuesday trying to work while happy. There’s really no better way for me to be unproductive. I don’t write from my “happy place.” There’s rarely much there to write about. Or maybe I’m not equipped to pick up whatever broadcasts on that frequency. But, that’s not to say I don’t look forward to some joy ruining my writing mood.

ATHF SirensYesterday, that ruinous joy was a Neko Case concert. You might recall Neko from such influential moments as the death of a lobster-headed sea goddess of madness (Tightly, Red Tide) or the sinister illithid plot to send body snatchers from the moon (I Wish I Was the Moon). But maybe I should stress that it was her influence that brought those things to pass… quite indirectly. I think she would, at best, disavow any knowledge of these things; but, more than likely, she is legitimately (blessedly?) unaware of her role in sending fell creatures to destroy fantastical realms again and again. And that’s not even touching on her sway over my more conventional fiction.

Neko Case at Rams Head in Baltimore 7/17/12
Neko, doing what she does.

I love sad songs delivered from an honest place. As a writer, I only get to line up words on a page. The emotional outpouring gets steadily stripped down. It’s like peeling off the Band-aid slowly. That’s not my method. I’m more of a “punch myself in the leg and yank the thing off” sort. Writing pulls at the Band-aid’s edges, toys and tugs at them, until you worry you’ve done more harm than good. But I’m probably writing even this from the other side of the fence, where the grass seems brown and dry by comparison to the lush pastures of singers.

A performance looks like an emotional release, certainly much more than sitting in a little room alone with a keyboard does. But if I remain realistic, I imagine the process of getting there is similar. At some point, there was likely a small lonely room, a pen, and a guitar. But seeing someone sing those words? Goddamn that’s some green grass just past the diamonds of the chain links.

And before Neko even took the stage, Kelly Hogan performed. Another siren of the sad, beautiful song, her album I Like To Keep Myself In Pain is absolutely worth your time. And I think you can see her appeal to me, based on the title alone. And I’m so glad we got to jog her memory at the end of the set so we could hear her song, and my daily mantra, “We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Beyond the fact that some of these turns of phrase seem drawn straight from my brain (perhaps we should blame the lunar mind flayers, above), she can deliver a steady stream of one-liners and humorous non sequiturs so you don’t have to “ride [her] bummer” all night long. Personally, I think half the fun of feeling miserable is making jokes about it.

Kelly Hogan's Carl Brutananadilewski
“It’s called ‘I Wanna Rock Your Body,’ and then in parenthesis it says, ‘Til the Break of Dawn.'”

Plus, Kelly keeps a miniature Carl Brutananadilewski, like a tiny Buddha in sweatpants, on a little table beside her while she performs. When Carl fell over when the roadies moved things between sets, I warned the guy of the bad omens it portended. The NY Giants probably have a terrible season ahead of them… and I say that with all the confidence of a man who doesn’t follow football. But I saw tiny Carl-Buddha topple, and that shit can’t be good.

See all this joking around, though? This veritable levity? That’s a genuine problem. I have writing to do, serious writing, about awful human beings and the terrible things they do. And I sure as hell can’t do any of it while I’m smiling about the fact that my arms were resting on the stage while my two favorite singers performed less than ten feet away. Hearing their voices, seeing them feel their music, was beautifully heartbreaking…

Ahh, there it is… That pain of already fading memory. That’s something to work with, to get started with, at least.

Thank you, Neko and Kelly, for a remarkable show.

3 Jul

Off-Topic Tuesday: Altering the Fabric of Reality

Someone should tell the people in their singularity-proof bunkers that it’s OK to come out now…

When my wife catches me watching a particularly in-depth show about subatomic particles, or when she looks over my shoulder at a diagram of supergravity, she only asks questions to be polite. I can’t really blame her. Either that stuff is “your thing” or it’s not. But the best question she ever had, during an episode of “Through the Wormhole,” was simply, “How does any of this affect my daily life? If they make this discovery [the Higgs boson], what will that mean for me?”

My answer was spectacularly vague. After all, I’m not a scientist, I just enjoy listening to people who are explain to me what they do. But, to summarize, I explained that it’s a discovery that leads to innovations down the road, creating technology that potentially benefits us all. Like I said: spectacularly vague. Ultimately, it means a lot more to the scientists than it does to me.

Yellow-ass, long neck giraffe.
Once you’ve got unified field theory all wrapped up, listen to Violent J’s advice, and “take a time out, open up ya mind and then peep the giraffe.”

Yet the Higgs boson is going to have huge implications for my daily life, just like most startling scientific theories. It’s not because I think that scientists intend to use their newfound knowledge to create an Apple product that’s “cruelty free” and incorporates exciting new Bacon Port™ technology. Generally, I assume the first thing science attempts to do is to try using the technology to make something explode, preferably in a rival country. Then they try to eat it. If that doesn’t work, they shrink wrap it and sell it at the Dollar Store where it can blow the minds of juggalos nationwide.

Alright, maybe those aren’t the implications I’m looking for. But every time a scientist says, “this could mean x,” I immediately say, “What if it doesn’t?” And then I begin writing a story in my head. If the scientist says, “this certainly means x,” I automatically take that conclusion and run toward the extreme possibilities born of that notion. Good science makes for good stories, and strange science makes for better stories. Despite what the world’s fucktards skeptics had to say about it, the only singularity caused by turning on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was due to crushing density of ideas that appeared in my head at once.

Setting aside the three obvious uses –it explodes, it’s edible, or it’s a children’s choking hazard– for a moment, there’s so many other great possibilities. An excellent novel, The Light of Other Days, takes a remarkable technology, a wormhole capable of transferring data instantaneously, and illustrates a great many unintended (and unexpected) consequences. Side effects fascinate me. The “repurposing” of inventions fascinates me. When this sort of thing happens, either with real or fictional technology, I can’t help but marvel at it.

But my favorite parts of the scientific shows I watch, and the books I read, are the parts that effectively say, “…and we don’t know anything past this point.” To me, that’s the sound of a starting gun.

19 Jun

Off-Topic Tuesday: Communities for Recluses (A Triptych of Rambling)

Two Reasons to Ask WHY?
“I just think certain things are meant to be done by yourself.”

I often advise people that writing is solitary business. That is, of course, based on my own personal experience. When I see a book written by two authors, I tend to be a bit baffled. In most cases, I can’t imagine the process that was used to produce the book in my hand. Nonfiction and scientific works seem plausible: a technical expert working alongside a wordsmith creating something that is both valid and readable. The same goes for autobiographies that receive the aid of a professional author. But once work strays into the fictional realm, I just scratch my head and wonder how it happens.

After all, it takes a lot of effort to simply remain focused (and remain kind) when I’m interrupted by another human being, even if it’s only for a minute, while I’m writing. Taking it to the (un)natural extreme, which is what I do, I just imagine two writers sitting side by side at a single keyboard, alternately pointing at the screen and tapping at the keys as they talk over one another. Not ideal. But apparently people make it work. And they probably accomplish it in some saner fashion than my “piano duet” method.

Although I’ve already expressed my opinion of writing-as-performance-art, a.k.a.: The Starbucks Method, I think there is a time for writers to gather, shamelessly, in public. After all, spending every day reminding yourself that you’re in this alone, results in the inevitable conclusion that, well, you’re all alone. Hearing from other lonely people can prove reassuring. There is hope in their success stories, and failures can finally become more comedy than tragedy with a sympathetic audience. Best of all, a gathering like that brings together a variety of perspectives as each writer has evolved in isolation, adapting in his or her own way to the demands of the business of writing.

Sci-fi SaturdayLast weekend at the York Emporium I had the opportunity to talk to several authors and artists, each with their own approach to their craft. Better yet, each had a well-conceived and deliberate approach to the operational aspects of their craft. Being a lowly, small-time freelancer, I couldn’t have been happier to get all these opinions in one place. Collecting anecdotes and great stories -also what I do- was just icing on the cake.

Thanks to Lawrence M. Schoen (who does a lot more than just talk and write about the Klingon language), the folks from Fortress Publishing (who are willing to do what it takes to get a cannoli), and cartoonist Dawn Griffin (who’s comic can be found here). Their insights, whether they knew they were imparting them or not, were valuable and their company highly entertaining. And special thanks to Jim of the York Emporium who puts on events like this, for a variety of genres, all year long!

After my talk, I had the opportunity to chat with some interested readers and the conversation turned to gaming in its early days. A clear difference between now and when I was playing role-playing games nearly thirty years ago is the difference in the community. Technology has connected all of those tiny pockets of gamers, sci-fi and fantasy fans, and the various tangential subcultures. It’s now much easier to bring those people together as a community. (Yes, conventions did it in the past, but that’s a post for another day…) Not only does it cement the culture, but it promotes the expansion and inclusiveness of the culture. I think it’s a good thing that my in-laws watch The Big Bang Theory and my non-gamer friends post about “A Game of Thrones” in their Facebook feeds.

Cave Troll
“As long as we don’t meet in real life, I don’t have to act like a human being!”

But it’s easy to lose sight of positives of the interconnected nature and growing inclusiveness of the community now. The negative aspects of what the internet can do to a culture are often glaringly obvious. (Sadly, a bit of looking around just these past two weeks reveals some of the ugliest sides of that behavior.) I think personal connection goes a long way towards moving in that positive direction and face to face interactions, outside the technology, help to further the cause.

22 May

Off-Topic Tuesday: Fire Support

Dropzone Games

The internet is probably more in love with acronyms than the military. Worse still, it’s the unnecessary nature of the acronyms that gets under my skin. I understand the need for brevity when it comes to texts and The Tweets when you are under an actual constraint. I accept the use of LOL more as a form of punctuation than actual speech and I will use WTF simply to avoid dropping f-bombs brazenly in an electronic conversation. But, when you are seated at a keyboard, spelling out “in my humble opinion” shouldn’t be an ordeal. It’s just like when you were young and told to “use your words.”

The term FLGS is, if I’m not putting too fine of a point on it, goddamn annoying. For those who are not hip (nor with it) or are just curmudgeons like me, that’s Internets for “friendly local game store.” Congratulations, you saved yourself a little more than 20 keystrokes. Again, potentially acceptable when that represents over 12% of your available communication space but unnecessary when typing without constraint. And if you literally say “FLGS” out loud in spoken conversation I will punch you in the jeans.

"It rubs the deodorant on its skin or it gets the hose again."

My (apparently) unreasonable demands regarding written and verbal communication aside, my chief concern is determining just how many hostile game stores are out there. Have I been lucky all of my life, narrowly escaping danger as I picked up the latest rules supplement and cheating death while I bought dice? Are there hobby centers tucked away down long dirt roads where a man wears the (rather roomy) skin of his first DM in front of a mirror saying, “I’d level me” with a party of corpses gathered around a cobwebbed table?

I’m going to go ahead and assume I’m wrong about Gamer Ed Gein. Maybe there are stores that are staffed by exceptionally unhelpful people. Maybe they’ll say “Here’s your nerd-books, nerd” after I make my purchase. But why would I shop at a place like that? Why would the person who’s exceedingly concerned about wasted keystrokes shop there or spend the time to put that F in front of the LGS that is worthy of his or her business? If I trust you opinion, I trust that your LGS is properly F’d… or something like that. Although I’ll add that if you say FLGS I likely don’t trust your opinion.

In today’s day and age (an expression of yesterday’s day and age, I think) there’s no reason to shop at a brick and mortar establishment unless they are appropriately F’d. After all, the internet is never out-of-stock and generally has better pricing. Yes, there are exceptions but, at that point, you’re putting so much emphasis on acquiring your product that you’d probably get it from someone with “Intent to Distribute” on their rap sheet. I’ve never seen the expression FLDD so I assume that friendliness stops being a requirement when someone needs to have something that much. If you are going to your local game store instead of shopping the internet, you’re going there for the F.

Some friends and former co-workers are building such a store. Intended to be the destination for wargamers in Maryland it’ll be the kind of place you go to “for the F.” Dropzone Games is going to be located in Glen Burnie, MD. Practitioners of geomancy and devout observers of feng shui rituals may identify the site as the former location of the Games Workshop Battle Bunker. So basically it’s like building a temple for channeling dark power on top of an ancient Indian burial ground.

When they throw open their doors for their grand opening, currently slated for June 15, I’ll likely remind you again. But don’t worry, it’s not located down a dirt road. It’s more of an industrial park so you probably won’t wind up stuffed in a crawlspace or anything. Hopefully they can become your local (war)game store and I’m certain you’ll find all the F you’ll need.

Dropzone Games
Good luck guys!
15 May

Off-Topic Tuesday: The Business of Writing that Isn’t Writing

"How much farther to Oprah's studio? I've got things I should be doing."

A lull in the blog always means a busy week. There aren’t even table scraps in a week like that. There wasn’t even any writing. The unfortunate fact of the matter is sometimes writing doesn’t involve any writing at all. A freelancer is a one-man show and he shoulders all of the responsibilities of the business from taxes to networking to tech-support to research.

In an ideal world, certain aspects can be outsourced. But outsourcing costs money. And money is perpetually in short supply until you’re sitting across from Oprah and nodding at whatever possessed her to recommend your work to the frothing masses eager to lemming their way along in her wake. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll dress up as a lemming on the show if that’s what it takes. Artistic integrity can panhandle on the street out in front of my new mansion.

But until I’m in that mansion and churning out re-branded fan fiction to soccer moms (you know what books I’m talking about), I’m the one learning to use layout software. It was a process of trial and error and made possible by the grace of incredibly helpful people whose tutorials and advice litter the parts of the internet that aren’t devoted to cat videos, pornography, and posts by George Takei. It’s genuinely amazing how much you can recall from graphics classes from twenty years in the past. I’d like to claim it came easy but let’s be honest, I was touching up negatives with an X-Acto knife, a red pen, and Goldenrod… a far cry from Scribus. But not so different that some of the pieces didn’t ring familiar.

All the crap you do with Adobe began here.

Familiarity doesn’t immediately translate to ease, however. A week letter, I can produce a passable layout that doesn’t embarrass me. But that was a week of writing next to nothing. It was an investment in tomorrow, though, because future projects have a template and a solid base of skills to work from. That side of things is exciting but the perceived lack of productivity (did I mention I didn’t write anything?) is hard to struggle against.

It’s easy to want to write something, even if it has no direction, because that feels like output. Output without a destination just creates a logjam. Or it just leaves a series of half-finished, half-recalled ideas scattered across the hard drive. Sometimes I need to back away from the Word files and sit down at the keyboard with an entirely different agenda. Sometimes it’s even a pleasant change of pace. More often than not it just aggravates me. But it’s the inglorious stuff that needs to be done. (As opposed to the glory of hunching over a keyboard in a dark room, freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer, and writing something that no one is guaranteed to read.)

Still, with a layout at the ready, I have some material bound for DrivethruRPG.com soon. Don’t worry, I won’t let you miss it when it happens. It also means that the next step on the road to a larger scale project is complete. Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is a way to fund outsourcing without bankrupting the author. I regularly bang the Kickstarter drum in support of projects I think are worthwhile. Just like learning how to layout a page, I’ve been spending time learning to drum for myself. And don’t worry about that either. When the Kickstarter gets rolling you won’t be able to miss it. After all, if I’m not writing, whatever is eating up my attention gets thorough treatment.

8 May

Off-Topic Tuesday: Talking to Strangers

Better than free candy.
Primer gray is just one more color on the risk-reward spectrum, kids.

Like so many things that I recommend, I’ll begin by saying, “Kids, don’t try this at home.” We spend countless hours and untold amounts of public funding educating children that anyone who speaks to them, can’t find a lost dog, offers them candy, asks directions, or wants help loading a couch into a van intends to do unspeakably evil things before depositing their lifeless bodies in: a) the river, b) the state park, or c) a crawlspace. While that might not necessarily be true, it’s certainly a case of better safe than sorry. Except for the guy needing help with the couch… that dude is going to straight-up murder you. For real.

It’s not my intention to undo the efforts of 18 years of “a very special episode” of anything. But I enjoy talking to strangers. Well, most of the time I enjoy it. Other times I just roll with it.

On our way out for our first date, I warned my now-wife that strangers were likely going to approach me in the street and start saying crazy things. As long as she followed my lead everything would be fine. She laughed (and secretly thought that I was the crazy one as she checked her watch to see how long this bad idea of a date was going to last). Not five minutes out of the car, as we walked towards the restaurant, the first one approached. He was eager to tell me that he knew about the computer that They built that makes us all do the things we do. He was pretty sure we’d run out of ways to protect our brains from it. I nodded, took his concerns under advisement, and reassured him that everything was going to work out just fine. Then I told him I really needed to get where I was going and couldn’t be late.

"The restaurant's just past this sign..."

Over dinner, I explained that it happens often enough that I’m used to it. They are my flock and they just want to talk about things and, for whatever reason, I’m the guy they want to tell. I’m at peace with it and, after a few years, so is my wife. And there are good stories in there sometimes. Although I should add that to me a good story and a happy story are two completely separate things. I get a lot of people who want to talk about some variation on the computer that They built or radio waves broadcast straight into people’s heads, others who just want to tell me, “I know you know,” and the occasional one saddled with Deeper Issues. If I have the time, and they keep their hands where I can see them, I’ll spend a few minutes listening. (I think that’s all most people want anyway…)

So, I suppose, I’m just listening to strangers most of the time rather than going against the childhood mantra “don’t talk to strangers.” But we take that lesson of terror with us into adulthood; we shy away from the borders of our comfort zone and the new people that lurk there. After all, “new people” is just another way to say strangers. Everyone has their own comfort levels when it comes to being sociable and there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert or an extrovert. I think everyone should push themselves, though. Despite the focus on breaking introverted behavior that this post implies don’t think that as an extrovert you shouldn’t look into a little less over-sharing on occasion. I’m just sayin’, there are things that aren’t meant to be a Facebook status update. Some things are between you and your pharmacist. Seriously.

"Stranger danger! Stranger danger!"

Since diving headfirst into this latest effort at freelancing, I’ve found I frequently reach out to other writers and artists. They don’t necessarily know me. If anything, my name might be associated with random communications but not much else. For my efforts, I’ve been rewarded with genuinely valuable insights, a willingness to share experiences, and just some cool stories. At the same time, I’ve gotten a few of those emails myself and I do my best to reciprocate. Geography permitting, I’ve even had the pleasure to meet some of these folks in person. (I will confess, however, that I do an arguably frightening amount of research on them prior to a meeting conducted at a location that I have scouted ahead of time for escape routes… or, at least, a bar).

In an otherwise solitary profession, I think it’s important to socialize with “co-workers.” I jokingly refer to a daytime email exchange as time around the water-cooler. We complain about projects, our terrible bosses (ourselves), and subtly ask if the other person thinks our latest idea is crazy. And while nobody has discussed the latest upgrades to the thought-broadcasting machine They are building, I have received some great motivation, traded some funny anecdotes, and heard some great ideas.

But I have yet to be offered candy.

1 May

Off-Topic Tuesday: Target Priority

Escher Hands
Writing about writing about writing about writing...

The inherent danger of a blog, as I see it, is the writing of it for its own sake. I’ve at various times called it an exercise in ego, the new vanity press, and even a tedious obligation. I make no apologies for any of that but also willingly acknowledge that I do find value here. What matters more, though, is that the value of a blog is always kept in perspective.

Ideally, a blog absorbs about an hour of my work day. Five hours out of the fifty that I require of myself is a small price to pay for what amounts to advertising and a place to jumpstart my typing on mornings when the words aren’t arriving fast enough yet. And that leaves forty-five hours to pay attention to the work that (presumably) pays to feed me.

"Yeaaa, you did get the memo about the new monster stat block format, right?"

Barring those with genuinely dishonest business practices, I’m my own worst boss. I am unforgiving when it comes to mistakes. I address myself with profanity. I expect lunch to be taken at my desk while I work. Sometimes I’m gonna need to come in on Saturday… yeah, umm, and maybe Sunday, too…

But I get to terminate tasks in whatever order I see fit, and so long as everything gets done, the boss doesn’t get to say anything about it. Two things are crucial to setting my priorities at the beginning of the day and the week: deadlines and available creativity. A looming deadline always holds my attention. The entire internet could crash while I’m focused on my task and I could care less about the blog or someone’s status update on Facebook until my work is submitted. (Then I’ll write an entry and “like” the fact that you are “soooo bored at werk [sic] right now.”

The available creativity is another animal entirely. When I wake up inspired, I don’t immediately sit down to blog about it. Inspiration is for work: fiction, D&D adventures, essays, and the like. Blog posts get the scraps that are left when the work is done. A silent period or a “missed” post just means the business of real work is taking place. So don’t despair, get excited.

24 Apr

Off-Topic Tuesday: 100’s of Unbroken Bindings

Like all writers I have an opinion on the digital world of books and publishing. In fact, I have a number of opinions on the subject, some of them even conflicting. And I don’t have time for all of them in a single post. But I’m certainly not going to rage against the pixilated word and call the printed word the Always-and-Forever King. There’s really no point in swimming against the electron tide. But, before I welcome the glowing digital page with open arms, I have to say a tearful goodbye.

I love my books. But it’s completely irrational. It’s a love born of habit and a need to collect. And I’ve loved things for far worse reasons. It’s nothing that does genuine harm, it only entrenches the bad habits I should be trying to overcome to employ a new system. The digital world already has that system in place, waiting for me, but I need to truly embrace it and, eventually, find a way to love it.

The “system” I’m talking about is how I make use of the books after I’ve read them. I would never get rid of books; they would be enshrined on a series of ever-swelling (and ominously bowing) bookshelves. They were placed in particular places, occupying spaces next to other books that were mentally linked in my mind by themes, characters, subject matter, or even sometimes a single turn of phrase that struck me as tied to another book. When I looked at one of my shelves I could see a network of connections between them, based on what other books were near them. It all helped me remember what I read in a specific book and how it related to everything else I’d ever read. I almost never, ever read the same book twice.

The books were also grouped by memory in terms of what I was thinking when I read them and the reasons I read them. The positions were specific enough that I could use them to jog my memory when I was trying to remember something as I was writing. I would either walk over to the shelves to scan the spines of the books or later, when the shelves were moved to occupy my office, I would just turn around in my chair. Enough of the shelves were familiar enough that they functioned as a memory palace of sorts, and as I imagined the spines of the books I could recall what was on the tip of my tongue but escaping me.

All work and no play...
"What do you mean you 'neatened up' my bookshelf?"

There were other habits beyond the precise placement of things. I don’t crack the bindings of books when I read them. (The name of the website is a play on this quirk that I receive no end of ribbing over from friends and family who know my reading habits.) I don’t dog-ear pages (and believe that people who do are savages). And, because I always have a backlog of new arrivals, new books are placed just as specifically as the books that have already been read but, to indicate their unread status, are pulled out from the shelf. A former girlfriend once thought it would be a very sweet thing to dust and neaten my bookshelves and, in the process, pushed back all the books. Needless to say, I was… distraught. I could appreciate the gesture but I made it a point of explaining the basics of my “system” to anyone else who got near the shelves ever again.

You may have noticed that a great deal of this discussion took place in the past tense. In an effort to push myself towards the digital, I conducted a serious and somewhat painful purge. I kept only about 170 previously read books, limiting myself to only very specific items. The rest were delivered box by heavy box -as if my memory palace was being torn down brick by brick- to my local used bookstore.

About a third of the books allowed to stay were sentimental enough to warrant keeping: my original copy of Heart of Darkness, an autographed copy of Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, my old copy of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham (who I discovered was dead upon reading his biography after finishing the book and eager to track down more of his work). A lot of them remain from formative years, as a person and as a writer.

[amazon-carrousel height=”200″ width=”600″]372fb692-384b-4852-ac98-df782fe91a0a[/amazon-carrousel]

Another third are poetry books. This, I suppose, is my nod toward the sentimental. I like my poetry to exist in books. The precise arrangement of words on a page seems to physical demands beyond the mutability of electronics. It’s a matter of personal preference but reading poetry on a digital device feels somehow silly in a way that nothing else does. I’ll spare you any more on this sub-topic other than to say when Adrienne Rich passed away this year, I was glad I had books to page through rather than a screen to swipe at.

The remaining books are nonfiction reference books. Keeping those was more an economic decision than anything else. These are the books that actually need to be cracked open for me to find whatever obscure idea I’m trying to recall. Replacing them electronically would be expensive and some might potentially never be put into an electronic format.

And of course there is a shelf of “pulled out” books, the last of the physical books to be read before I make the formal Digital Switch. It’s a backlog of 119 books but I expect to be through about half of them within the year. As their numbers dwindle, I feel a strange kind of sadness. It’s as if I’m watching the impending end of an era in my office every day: some rough, digital beast slouching towards my memories.

But occasionally I put off the biblio-pocalypse by picking up a stray book at my local used bookstore, The York Emporium. Besides, when I shop there I get to visit my old books now residing on new shelves. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones with smooth, flawless spines.

17 Apr

Off-Topic Tuesday: Antisocial Network

Until recently, I’ve spent little time in contact with other writers. I felt as though I didn’t have an excuse since my name was, essentially, meaningless amid the noise of other non-NYT Best-Selling writers. And I still consider myself barely noteworthy. Blogging still feels nauseatingly egocentric. Self-promotion does not come naturally to me.

"Air Team Commander Jeff formed the Head." 14 of your friends LIKE this.

But it’s good to trade knowledge and lessons from others in the same boat. I engage, a little bit at a time, with others via the internet. I occasionally mutter something in a forum within earshot of people whose opinions I value. Sometimes I Friend people which, apparently, turns them into a verb. I put them into “Circles” like a diabolist afraid of what might occur if they slip through the wards of the runes inscribed around them. I even “Link-In” with a few as though we are someday going to form some sort of publishing Voltron made out of little cars and submarines. It’s all pretty weird. Especially because, as previously discussed, I think of writing as solitary work.

The days of hyperlinked lives are strange days to me. For writers, particularly writers of game material it seems, it feels necessary. There’s so much out there, so much already being done, that in order to keep up I feel as though I would need to spend so much time reading the work of others that I’d never have the time to work on my own material. And, to make matters worse, it’s good material and I want to spend all that time reading it! A social network works to distill at least some of that material into quickly digestible pieces while pointing you towards the various good places to eat.

Correspondence has also fallen by the wayside. Or maybe I just wasn’t cool enough to correspond with anyone in the past. Looking back, I’ve enjoyed various “The Collected Letters of So-and-So.” Will there ever be more of those? Something tells me I’ll be surveying a person’s Timeline instead. I can’t genuinely claim that’s a bad thing once I get past my innate rejection of the idea based on my bias against “new things.” It’s a limited bias and it erodes quickly in the face of valid reasoning. I love books but I’ve begun the transition towards the digital future. Once again, we’ll set that topic aside for now.

Digital is king right now so it only makes sense to interact digitally. I still feel like Facebook is theater. People suddenly feel as though they are living their lives in front of an audience. That might work for the Kardashians, but most of my friends haven’t quite achieved reality “star” status yet. This was the mindset I was contending against as I toyed with the idea of a “public self” whose interactions were visible to passersby. My day to day life doesn’t require any Keeping Up With.

But I actually intend to have an audience by design. Why do I write things if I don’t want people to read them? Granted, I don’t expect people to be interested in how aggravated I am that I need to go outside and mow the lawn. Even my actual friends don’t care about that and so I try to keep that sort of garbage out of my personal Facebook status updates. Meanwhile, I want to share what I think about Vancian magic, the development of the new iteration of D&D, or what I think makes a cool story. And those are things that I expect appeal to an actual, voluntary audience (as opposed to the hostage audience that people become when they are Friended/Circled/Linked). Acquiring fans is odd but exciting. The knowledge that strangers enjoy what you wrote enough to seek you out, even just to say thanks, is exceptional motivation and also a tiny bit of pressure. But it’s “good” pressure, the kind that makes you want to do right by the people you suddenly realize are paying attention.

Kongratulations, Ross. It smells like koffee and anger...

Writing certainly isn’t a dependable bid for fame. The fact that I have less anonymity than I did yesterday is actually mildly unsettling to me. But stepping out into the light and sharing with like-minded folks is a bid for connection, interaction, and even growth. If fame was the objective, I would do better pursuing my own line of perfume and leaking a sex tape.

And nobody wants that to happen.