World building month: Video Games as Writing Tools

August 21, 2008 at 6:40 pm (assorted miscellany, fiction, Inspiration, motivations, writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I spend a lot of time playing video games, and have since I was fairly young; we used to play a lot of Super Breakout on the Atari 2600, and I loved the Hitchhiker’s Infocom game. Nowadays I spend most of my time with World of Warcraft, with occasional breaks for Oblivion and whichever DS puzzle game strikes my fancy. (Professor Layton and the Curious Village is, by the way, far too much fun. Go buy it.)

For me at least, WoW isn’t much of a creative inspiration. The lore is spread too thin, and most of the time I get no real sense that it’s actually relevant to what I’m doing. There are certainly a lot of places to go and find out what the story is, but it isn’t really necessary to progress in the game itself. Natania at the Aldersgate Cycle wrote up a post about how WoW almost ate her novel, and I noted in the comments that I have more or less the opposite reaction. WoW has just an enormous world with huge potential for storytelling, but it really disappoints in that particular area. I play to spend time with friends, and to raid, so for me it’s more of a social time sink and a way to do some teamwork as well as get those competitive urges out. If anything, spending time trying to find lore in WoW makes me want to log out and write something, because the game itself seems very much like a cardboard stage set. Nothing you do ever actually effects a change in the world (except for a few one-time events Blizzard throws in).

So. If WoW doesn’t tempt me away from writing, what does? Well, Oblivion, sometimes. If they put the social aspects of WoW into Oblivion, I would never stand up from my computer chair probably ever again, for the rest of my life. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. I hope. Oblivion is essentially entirely open-ended; the player can go wherever, whenever, and the world is interesting enough that spending a few hours exploring is actually fun. You can interact with any object, explore any ruin, go for a swim, steal a horse, pick herbs, whatever strikes your fancy. And the NPCs actually move, and go to the taverns, and they talk to each other! And what they say changes based on things the player has done! OK, so most of the time it’s not very original dialogue, but at least you don’t get the impression that these people are glued to the floor and can’t speak the same language as the guy ten feet away. And the graphics are, at least for me, just stunning. It’s a well-fleshed-out world, and I find it very easy to lose track of time. It’s easy to become that character on the screen.

Dangerous? Maybe. But there are some really cool redeeming features for a writer, at least a writer who enjoys the same sorts of fantasy worlds I like. First, the character creation screen is incredibly detailed; you can adjust parts of the facial anatomy you never knew had a name. It’s reasonably easy (with addons, on which more anon) to shape a character who fits an image in your head — say, that of your hero or heroine, or your villain, or what have you. I am not the world’s most visual person, so it can be hard for me to nail down an appearance without trying to draw it, and the character creation alone has helped me a lot. A whole lot, because I can’t draw well at all.

So let’s say you have this heroine, who matches with your vision for her appearance, and that’s great. If you want her to be, say, a hunter who never goes into a town and lives on wild plants and maybe stealing from some farmer’s field, you can do that in the existing world pretty easily. But if you start to accept and finish quests, you’re definitely putting your character into a world created by Bethesda, and it can be easy to just roll with that and forget why you started playing this time. So. This is where the construction set comes in. You can do almost anything with it, even raze every building that’s in the game and replace all the NPCs with cows, if that’s what you want. I have no idea how long that would take; probably a very long time. However, it’s pretty easy, once you learn how to use the tools, to find a corner of the world without much going on and to build whatever you’d like. Ruins, a town, a cave, a lake, some picnic table in the middle of nowhere, a wooded glade, etc. You can draw your own textures and items and import them into the builder, but I’m not that proficient with Photoshop and anyway, the story I’m working on now has a similar visual aesthetic. I just use the existing bits and pieces and slap ’em together like Legos until it looks right. You can add NPCs, give them scripts to use and paths to walk and schedules to follow. You can add monsters who will attack your character. To my mind, this is an absolutely unmatched world editor for fantasy writing. Because once you’ve created your landscape, you can take your playable character and go see what it feels like to be her. You walk the roads, you arrange the furniture in your house, you do whatever you want. It’s cool.

There are also ready-made addons that can make character faces look more realistic, or slow the passing of game time, add buildings, change NPC dialogue, and more. A lot of these are worth looking into if you’re playing just to play, and some of them are even useful for world building, especially the ones that add hairstyles, eye colors, and other things so you can make your character better match your idea.

For me, Oblivion is a great way to have some fun with my story, and to try out ideas for my worlds and see if they feel viable. You might think so, too. If you try it just be careful not to get addicted — and video game addiction? That’s a whole other topic for another time. I know folks also use games like the Sims to build things, but I find the style too cartoonish for my tastes, and you’re far more limited in what you can do and which styles you can use. It might work for you, though. Have a go!

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3 Steps towards Becoming a Business

August 21, 2008 at 1:28 pm (assorted miscellany, nonfiction, writing) (, , , , , , , , )

As I get more freelance assignments, it’s important to me to look like a professional (not least because, well, I am). If you consider the entire project of presenting yourself well at one time, it seems kind of like an octopus with too many arms, and you’re the jar. It’s a little terrifying and a lot overwhelming. I decided to focus on three things at a time, and to follow a progression that made sense for me. I’ll be outlining these steps as I go, in the hope that they might be useful for someone else getting started in freelance writing.

1. Get Organized

I admit that in many areas of my life, I just sort of wing it. I’m great at making lists, and not so good at following through on them. One of my resolutions this year was to actually implement a useful task tracking system for myself, and I spent the first half of the year trying them on for size. I’ve settled on a slightly modified version of Getting Things Done, which you’ve probably at least heard of unless you’ve been living under an Internet rock somewhere. The most important aspect for me is that my to-do list is reliable. Every time I think of something that needs to be done, no matter how small, I write it down and add it to my Inbox on Remember the Milk. At this point I no longer have to spend time worrying about the task; if your brain runs a mile a minute, this is no small advantage. I know that my ideas and tasks are recorded, and after getting used to the system and learning to trust it, this means I’m not wasting brain cycles worrying about whether I’ll remember to pick up cat food. I won’t say stray thoughts never intrude anymore, but it has made a huge and noticeable difference for me.

Since I have this system in place, I can also use it to track freelance jobs. I start a new list on RTM for each assignment, since it’s really a project with lots of small tasks. So far each job has been different enough that it takes a little while to tease out the steps I need to take, but once it’s done, it’s done. If I get tripped up, I can always refer to the project to-do list and sometimes that’s all I need to get going again. At the very least I’m not buried in Post-Its that aren’t even color coded or really at all useful for anything but making modular origami, which is definitely fun but maybe not so productive as a system for staying on track.

2. Get business cards.

If you had told me several years ago that not only would I want business cards, but that I’d be willing to spend my own money to get them, I would have laughed. A lot. I’ve never been much for anything I perceived as “too corporate,” which included business cards. Yeah. Then I grew up. Useful for more than just entering contests for free lunch, business cards can be a great way to market yourself and get folks to remember you. I think it’s helpful to add “freelance writer” as a job title, since otherwise the person is likely to forget and will someday clean out their card file and go “Jennifer Durren, who’s that? Round file!”

I know lots of folks recommend Vista Print as a cheap source of cards, but I really didn’t want an advertisement on the back of mine, and I found a lot of their designs to be, hmm, the card equivalent of a web page from 1997. Also, I wanted to have some cards in hand for PAX, so once I decided to have them printed I also needed to have them done quickly. I ended up using Staples; they offer a design service online and send it to your local store to be printed the same day. The design I chose ended up being $35 for 200 cards, which is a little steep but I figured if I get even one useful contact, they’ll pay for themselves. So I spent yesterday in happy anticipation of picking up my new cards, only to be really disappointed when I picked them up. Seems the employee in the copy area didn’t know what she was doing, and didn’t bother to call their technical support, so I have 200 cards that say “PROOF” across them in addition to being splotchy. Way to print the wrong PDF, copy area girl! So yeah, I’ve spent more time than I wanted trying to get this fixed, and the manager I spoke to last night essentially shrugged and said “call back tomorrow and talk to this other manager,” but said other manager’s attitude was that they needed to make this right and that it was, in fact, unacceptable. I still need to make a trip up there, but it sounds like it will actually be resolved, which is good. The fact that I’ve spent so much time on what should’ve been a simple order: Not so good. I’m certainly annoyed, and I hesitate to recommend Staples as a source, hence the lack of link. It might be better to actually visit your local store and see how much confidence they inspire before you trust them with your cards.

Once I have the cards, I plan to enter every free lunch contest I see, and also to hand them out to anybody willing to take one. Writing jobs turn up in the strangest places, and you never know.

3. Get Paid

One of the most intimidating aspects of working for yourself is the financial stuff, at least for me. Different clients use different payment methods, and when I realized I might have to actually send invoices I had a temporary moment of panic. But man, if Web 2.0 didn’t come to the rescue again: Invoice Journal is a free! site that lets you track your clients, your contacts, agreed-upon rates, hours spent or price per project, etc. Then you can generate an invoice for your client, which they can view online as a PDF, or which you can print and mail the old-fashioned way with stamps. Pretty nifty, and while it’s still a beta, it’s worked fairly smoothly for me as well. I also keep the same information in an Open Office spreadsheet, which provides me with a backup as well as a way to generate different kinds of reports for myself; better safe than sorry.

I also have a PayPal account, but really, who doesn’t? It’s an easy way for clients to pay, especially small businesses and individuals who don’t normally cut checks for freelancers. I’m setting up a separate business checking account with my bank, too, so I can keep a clearer picture of what I’m earning and what I’m spending. Untangling my business finances from my personal spending will be a huge step, and also will make it easier to file quarterly taxes. Good thing I like filling out forms.

I hope some of this has been useful for other folks who are just getting started, and welcome any comments or questions you might have.

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Mondays, Case of the

August 18, 2008 at 3:09 pm (assorted miscellany, motivations, nonfiction) (, , , , , , )

My husband works Monday through Saturday, so traditional weekends aren’t really a thing around here. I do try to keep to a somewhat normal weekday work schedule for myself; there are more freelance job postings on the boards Monday through Friday, and it helps me to set limits. I still write on Saturday and Sunday, but unless there’s a pressing deadline, I just allow myself to work exclusively on fiction.

So that leaves me to come up with a weekday routine. I don’t know about you, but I feel much better about myself if I know I’ve accomplished something each day. I’ve been using Remember the Milk to keep track of tasks, and I recommend it if you’re looking for to-do list software. It uses tags, something that’s familiar to a lot of folks now, and you can create dynamic lists based on a search. For example, I’ve got a Work list, which is great, but I’ve also got a list for high-priority work. This means if I’m having a bad day, I can at least see what absolutely must be done, and focus on that rather than trying to decide where to start.

I read job listings every day, and if I see any that seem like a good fit, I send off an application. I also try to think about articles I could submit to various publications: newspapers, magazines, websites, and the like. Each day I develop one of these ideas more fully, finding an interesting angle for the topic, figuring out who I might interview, and how long the article should be. Sometimes I run with the same topic for a few days in a row, and look at it from different perspectives, which is a lot of fun in and of itself. I love learning new stuff, and researching these ideas is productive play for me.

I also make sure I send at least four queries out per week, and occasionally more. Writers get a lot of rejections; some of them are based on writing skill, but some are just an editor letting you know that your specific idea wasn’t a good fit for their specific readers (or advertisers). If you take each rejection personally, freelance writing might start to feel like a sure path to depression and self-loathing.  Better to be confident of your own voice as a writer, and believe in your work; then you can take the suggestions you find helpful and let the rejection roll off your back.

I actually look forward to Mondays now (believe me, this was not always true). I’ve got a firm routine in place, and I’m proud of the work I get done, even on a bad day. Structure is important to me; it may be important to you, too. It’s a little tricky to figure out where to place priority when you’re just starting out (as I am), but talking to other freelancers and learning about their methods can be a huge help in organizing your schedule.

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But this isn’t a question of free speech

August 14, 2008 at 12:34 am (assorted miscellany) (, , , , , , )

So a story has been making the rounds, a story about a librarian who wrote a book with thinly veiled descriptions of the library’s patrons, and labeling most of them as crazies, perverts, and sex offenders. She self-published through PublishAmerica, which is reasonably infamous among writers as a vanity press, and the cover? Yeah, it’s a… picture of the library. She used a pen name — her own maiden name. From the Ludington Daily:

The surname Miketa is Stern-Hamilton’s maiden name, which may sound familiar to some because her father, Andrew Miketa, according to Stern-Hamilton, was a first string center with the Detroit Lions circa 1952.

Fascinating. So the library director fired her, and she’s started a lawsuit, and I visited a local blog to (I admit) see what kind of witch hunt the locals were on and whether they were planning to run the author out of town on a rail. Imagine my surprise when what I got instead were pages and pages of comments about the “fact” that a librarian was fired because the library did not want her to exercise the right of free speech. My suggestion would be to look up more information about defamation law in the US and think about how that might apply here. Given the apparent labeling of library patrons as “mentally ill” or “mentally incompetent” (taken from her termination notice as published in the Ludington Daily), I’d think they might especially want to reference the bit about defamation per se — this covers imputations that the person is mentally ill or is committing a criminal activity. Standard I Am Not a Lawyer disclaimers apply, but I’d think twice about hopping up on the high horse of Free Speech if I were the author.

My favorite part of the entire thing so far was a little exchange that occurred on the Ludington community blog. In the middle of the “her right to freedom of speech has been violated!” ziggurat, an anonymous user posted something to the effect that the author’s family were all a bunch of drug users and a drain on society (reasonably stupid post to make, I’ll grant). And the reply from the author’s outraged defenders?

Actually lud resident, that’s defamation. You’d better hope Ms. Miketa doesn’t read this because it won’t take long for someone to get your location and real name from your Internet Provider if she wants to sue you.

Free speech! Free speech! Until someone disagrees with us and writes under a false name, in which case we will out them and sue them for all they’re worth!

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