At This Point, It’s Just a Roller Coaster Ride

Here’s a quick update of what’s going on with the Big Move. Any of these could be a full blog post, but I’m having a bit of a time crunch.

  • We roll out of Albuquerque a week from tomorrow. 8 days.
  • Last week I broke a tooth, the tooth with the mutant root that was growing up into my sinus cavity, which I was going to have to deal with eventually anyway. So Monday I ended up having unplanned outpatient surgery, which explains a lot of my radio silence.
  • Tomorrow we go and get a replacement title for the car, because we can’t find the original and we obviously need it to sell the car.
  • We know where the cats are going. The plan is for them to settle into their new residence on Tuesday. Happy thoughts appreciated, Katie is going to be a wreck that day.
  • We’re still selling off the last few large items, and things we might get some real money for. Anything left over gets picked up by the charity truck on Friday.
  • Somewhere in there we’ll finish cleaning the apartment, so we can have the walk-through with the landlord on Friday as well.
  • We’re probably spending next weekend in a motel, since hopefully we’ll have sold the bed and the car and turned in the keys to our place.
  • We leave for Indiana by train on the 28th. It was cheaper than taking a plane and both cheaper and faster than  renting a car for a three-day drive, spending two nights in a hotel, and paying for meals. We have a sleeper cabin with meals included, and it will only take 26 hours.
  • We’ll visit Katie’s family for a couple of weeks, then fly to Helsinki on August 12th. We got a great deal on airfare, so we’re skipping the original plan of flying to Stockholm and taking a boat to Helsinki.
  • We’ll take a 3-hour train ride from Helsinki to Jyväskylä, assuming Wells Fargo quits screwing around and denying to transaction “for our protection.” Three phone calls where they assure us it’ll work it we try again, because they know we’re going to Finland, and it still rejects it. I hate banks.
  • Naturally, I have a group project for school due the week we’re traveling to Finland. I’ve already spoken to the instructor, and she assured me we’ll work something out.
  • We’ll be in our apartment in Jyväskylä in 23 days.
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Down to the Wire: Pardon My Absence

We leave Albuquerque in less than 30 days. Don’t be surprised if my presence on the internet is minimal. I’m checking email and PMs on Facebook, and occasionally touching base, but that’s it. Blogging will be minimal. The newsletters are effectively on hiatus until I have something major to announce.

July 12th and July 26th we’re having mega yard sales. Furniture, art, art supplies, nearly everything must go. If you’re in Albuquerque and you don’t know where we live and want to attend, drop me a line. That means a lot of this week is going to be spent turning the living room into something resembling a thrift shop.

We’re rolling out of here on July 31st. We’re going to be visiting Katie’s mom for a week or so, then heading off to Finland in the middle of the month.

I get one week off of school toward the end of July, but otherwise I’m taking classes online and writing term papers and studying for tests throughout this project. This is my last week for my current class; after this, I only have 3 courses to complete until I graduate.

The Starship Tyche roleplaying game WILL be released by the end of July. Fluctuations in moving logistics cut into writing/editing/layout time, not my school time, which is why I’m not committing to a firm date.

The Kaiju Patrol roleplaying game WILL be released by the end of August. Most of the moving logistics will be out of the way, but I will have school, and I have a freelancing deadline at the end of the month, so the release date will be based on how long it takes to work around those things.

I have other projects in the pipeline, but I’m not announcing anything until we’re settled in Finland. I’d like to make a major announcement by the end of September, when I’ve got my feet under me.

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Clarify Your Blog Topics with Loglines

If you can’t write a solid logline to describe what a blog post is about, is it really a post that you want to write?

There used to be a document on my computer desktop full of ideas for blog posts. Any time I thought of something that might be interesting to write about, I’d add it to the list. Most of the descriptions were terribly vague. “Using loglines with blog posts”, for example, or just a single word like “luggage” or a phrase like “five paragraph essays.” I’d go back through the doc when I needed a topic, and half the time I couldn’t remember what it was I had wanted to say. The other half of the time I didn’t have anything to say to begin with; I was hoping that if I wrote it down now, I’d find an angle or a premise later.

A while ago I switched over to using a “logline” file instead. I forced myself to take a minute or two to find a hook or a thesis statement that would make the idea interesting to write about. If I can’t come up with a good logline, it’s probably not a good topic for a post. Further, if it’s not a logline that makes me interested in writing it, then why on Earth would anyone be interested in reading it?

The only problem I’ve found in using a logline file over a raw idea file is that potentially good topics might get lost. I have sometimes found those single-word entries and couldn’t recall what my original context or intention was, but they played off of something else on my mind. They served as writing prompts, even if what I ended up writing about wasn’t what I might have originally intended. Loglines kill some of that random creativity.

Anything lost in raw ideas, though is made up for by less clutter. I would periodically delete a raw idea file when I’d been through it a few times and hadn’t found anything especially inspirational. The lack of clarity was a huge waste of time. A solid logline file gives me plenty to write about without the need to free-associate and try to find a context for words and phrases. If I do not a writing prompt, there are plenty of other places to find them without resorting to the junk drawer of writer’s resources.

In the end it comes down to passion and intention. If I think of an idea and I can’t think of a logline on the spot, it’s unlikely to be worth clinging to in the hope that it pans out later. If I can’t think of a logline, it’s a half-baked, half-hearted idea at best and not worth my time or effort to explore later. There are better ideas, ones that I care about, that need my time. If a logline makes me want to write the post, then there’s a hgher probability that you’ll want to read it.

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Writing a Marketing Plan that Doesn’t Suck

When I first started trying to write professionally, I spent a lot of time throwing things at the wall to see what stuck. I was like a baby that picks up everything it can get its chubby little sausage-fingered hands on and jams it in its mouth. After about the 500th realization that “hey, yuk, this isn’t food”, the light bulb comes on and the realization that there’s got to be a better way sets in. You need information, and you use that information to make choices, and when you start stacking up those choices in neat little rows what you end up with is a plan.

As an author-publisher (and thanks to Chuck Wendig for that ego-soothing term), anything I write has to have a marketing plan. Even as a freelancer, anything I write has to have a marketing plan. This is the difference between being a working writer and being a guy who blogs about writing about writing. This is the difference between creating art that soothes my soul and allows me to explore me true inner self, and creating entertainment that keeps a minimally-leaky roof over my head and tasty, tasty food on my table. If I choose to write this thing, who is going to pay me actual cash money for it?

A lot of people are afraid of marketing plans, because they think they’re fancy, formal things that you need to have an MBA from Harvard Business School to write. Other people blow of writing a marketing plan because they’re really just common sense, so incredibly simple that anyone with half a brain shouldn’t have to write this stuff down. The truth, as I’ve experienced it, lies somewhere in between. No, they are not hard to write, and yes, they address a lot of unspoken things that you probably instinctively know about the work. As with a lot of things, though, writing it down makes it real. When you’re stressed out and dealing with a ton of other things, it’s also more than just a nice idea to have something written down, a sort of map to remind you “what the hell am I doing?”

A bare-bones marketing plan doesn’t have a lot of moving parts. You need a paragraph of so describing what it is; you can cut this down to a single line for a short story or expand it out to two or three paragraphs for a longer, more complex manuscript, but don’t go overboard. Keep it tight. You need to know who the intended audience is, not only to know where and how you can sell it but so you remember who it is you’re writing for. You need to be able to articulate why your piece of writing is going to be better than someone else’s extremely similar piece of writing, whether that’s the credentials and viewpoint that you bring to the table as the author, or the clever twist and unusual approach you bring to the piece itself. Finally you need to know who your partners in crime are going to be, from potential publishers to buy it to self-publishing sites to dot it yourself to forums and social media and other venues to publicize the things so people know that it’s out there for them to buy.

That’s really about it. You can add in fiddly bits and data and a lot of business-y, book trade-y jargon, but that’s honestly about all there is to it.

These days I tend to start the marketing plan for a book, a short story, or a screenplay at about the same time I start writing the work itself. Problems only occur when I become beholden to it. If I get new ideas, discover a new direction or a new character or a clever subplot that doesn’t conform to the marketing plan, I have a tendency to dismiss it out of hand. That’s wrong. It needs to be a dance. Yes, you need to think about how your creative choices affect your ability to sell the thing. You may very well end up chucking out ideas because they don’t stick to the plan. But the plan has some wiggle room in it, and it is no sin to tweak it to fit the work, as long as you’re clear about what you’re doing and that the revised marketing plan will be as good a thing as the tweaks in your story.

Working with a marketing plan does keep me focused, though. Knowing the audience affects the writing. If it’s for grandmas or elementary school children, the swears and bloody violence should probably be kept to a minimum. If you’re writing a roleplaying game supplement targeted at folks with a gamist mindset, you might want to skip over the narrativist diatribes. Knowing who you’re talking to helps to craft the message.

There is only one thing I want you to take away from this concept of a marketing plan: You are not Kevin Costner and this is not Field of Dreams. If you build it, that does not guarantee that they will come. You cannot bang out daily word count and expect readers to stumble upon you, publishers to magically trip over your work laying in the road, and the universe to shower you with riches. You need to know how you’re going to get your work out there and how you intend to get paid. Writers write; professional writers make money.

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If It Doesn’t Excite You Creatively, Don’t Do It

Conventional wisdom says that if you want to be a working writer, you take whatever assignment lands in front of you that pays. You learn to write what the client wants, the way they want it. It’s a job, and that means it’s about making money and getting your bills paid. It’s very rarely about you being creatively fulfilled on a personal level.

That’s the practical reality of being a writer. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I can string words together passably well, that I have a skill that people are willing to pay me to utilize. I know that I’m not the most talented writer in the world, and that it’s not likely that I’ll ever create great art or become a bestselling author. That’s not the point. Even if it’s not always creatively fulfilling, it’s something that I enjoy, its something that allows me to take control of my own destiny in this world of high unemployment and economic instability.

There reaches a point, though, when the lack of creative fulfillment not only becomes a drag, it becomes a drawback. It’s like any other job. Even if you still enjoy it, if you’re not getting anything out of it but a paycheck it starts to wear you down. The lack of passion for the work affects the work. It keeps you from putting your absolute best into it, because you’re not head-over-heels in love with it. It stops you from moving forward, from getting better at it, because you can’t see the point of being driven and obsessive because there’s not difference in the pay scale between “great” and “good enough.”

You do what you’ve got to do until you can do what you want to do. But you must never lose sight of what you actually want to do. You must never stop working toward doing it. Your master plan must constantly bring you closer to the true goal, even if it’s only a centimeter at a time. As you get more steady work, you gain more options. You reach a point where you can pick and choose assignments, and only take things that interest and excite you. Then the quality of your work improves, which brings in more clients, improves your pay scale, and allows you to get even more picky about what you accept. You need to know your goals, and stay aligned with them.

As I’m about to make some drastic life changes, now is as good a time as any to up my game when it comes to writing. The days of taking any and all assignments are over. By doing so I have learned the markets, made contacts, and figured out what I’m good at and what I like. By adding passion back into that mix, I want to switch things from “good enough” to great. If it doesn’t excite me creatively, I’m not going to do it.

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Tim Ferriss

On the day that Katie and I decided to move to Finland, I was reading Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek. Katie wanted to go back to school for her Master’s degree, but we couldn’t figure out how to make that work financially; the additionally student loan debt was unlikely to be offset by an increase in pay. We had also talked about all of the places we’d like to visit in Europe, most likely on a series of vacations, but we couldn’t figure out ho we’d ever make that work, either. What Ferriss proposed was to invert conventional thinking; instead of looking at how much money you had and decided what you could do with it, figure out what you wanted to do and then figure out what you needed (including money) to make it happen.

There are a lot of personal anecdotes and tidbits of business advice in the book, but the real-life trope inversion is the heart of it. We don’t work with purpose; we work because we’re expected to work, and we work to pay the bills and survive. We tend to settle for what we feel is within reach, and we artificially limit ourselves. We don’t set goals and work toward them. For years, I said “I want to be a writer, but…” and tried to squeeze writing into the time left over after the job sucked up most of my day and most of my energy. Katie said “I want to get my Master’s, but. . .” and accepted all of the limitations that would prevent her from doing it as fact. We both said “We’d like to see Europe, but. . .” and to at face value that it was an unreachable dream and we’d never really get around to it.

Now, I have to throw in the truth that I do think Ferriss is kind of a shallow scumbag. He provides a lot of personal anecdotes in the book, and the things he wants aren’t things I’ve ever want. He talks about wanting an expensive sports car, for example, and I can’t relate to wanton materialism. He cheats, not just in clever, work-harder-not-smarter ways, but in ways that are just flat-out unethical and art nothing more than gaming the system. He wins a martial arts competition, for example, not by training and becoming good but by exploiting a technicality in the rules. Never mind that there were people who had spent years of their lives working hard to earn those awards honestly; Ferriss won, and that’s all that matters to him.

The upside is that the basic principals actually work, and you can apply them without throwing away your moral compass. It’s not magic, and it does require a lot of work. Most of it speaks you using scientific principals; figure out what works and do that, no more, no less. Figure out how you can outsource things you don’t want to do to other people. Figure out how you can make money by having other people do the work. But always, always, keep your focus on what you want and why you’re doing what you’re doing and never do work simply because that’s what’s expected of you.

Today, Katie and I are getting ready to move to Europe. We’re not rich; we’re basically as dead broke as we were two years ago, but we figured out how to make it work. Katie’s going to be getting her Master’s, tuition-free, because we figure out how to make it work. I own my own business, and do what I love to do for a living (sometimes it’s about choosing the work, rather than avoiding it) and I’m getting ready to take things to the next level. No matter what I think about Tim Ferriss as a person, or how much of his book applies to me or not, I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for the bits of advice that did resonate with me and show me the possibilities for my life.

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How the Five Paragraph Essay Made Me a More Satisfied Blogger

To be perfectly honest, I know that blogging is frequently more about the blogger than the reader. I’m always looking for ways to write better, because good writing is more likely to attract readers than bad writing. I’m also looking for ways to just get the ideas out of my head in the most efficient way possible, so I can say what I need to say without rambling aimlessly and being overly wordy. That’s why I’ve been playing with the classic five paragraph essay structure to write blog posts that I find more satisfying.

The typical five paragraph essay starts with a thesis in the first paragraph, introducing the idea or concept that you’re going to talk about and why you’re talking about it. The second paragraph goes into the actual topic in more detail, with explanation and some exposition. The third paragraph usually presents the good points that uphold the topic, and the fourth paragraph points out the bad points that detract from it. In the final paragraph, the thesis is restated, summed up, and theoretically proven.

The structure works for me because it forces me to outline what I’m going to say. I jot down the points I want to make, and order them into neat paragraphs. Only then do I start to actually write. When I first started blogging, I’d sit down and just start pounding the keys. I would ramble all over the place, wandering from one point to another and back again. Having a structure allows me to simply get to the point, clearly and concisely.

The downside is that it is sort of formulaic, and it doesn’t always fit the needs of the piece. If I have a lot to say in one paragraph, say, the positive points, it could end up as a very long paragraph. If there’s not a lot of negative, I might be forced to squeeze out three or four sentences just to make a paragraph and fit the structure. There’s not always a nice symmetry to it. I’m also not always keen on presenting the good and then taking it down a notch; I’ll often mix it up and present the negative first, then redeem the thesis and make things a bit more upbeat by putting the upside into the fourth paragraph.

Like any sort of structure or writing advice, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. It doesn’t have to be exactly five paragraphs; I tend to think of them as sections instead. If I need two or three paragraphs to make a point and convey the information I need to communicate, so be it. If I can combine two sections, usually the first and second or the third and fourth, I’ll do so if it makes the piece stronger. The only thing that actually matters is that I walk away feeling satisfied that I’ve said exactly what I wanted to say.

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Flash Forward: My Health and Finland

Let’s be honest, I can stand to use a few pounds. I don’t have money for a gym, and with the move coming up I wasn’t going to invest in any home equipment. My primary form of exercise used to be walking, but in the past few months my neighborhood has gotten a little to stupid and violent; Katie has forbidden me from even walking up to the nearest coffee shop for wifi, lest I get rolled. And with summer here, it’s just too damned hot to be outside.

This is another reason I’m looking forward to Finland. From our apartment, Katie’s school building is about 2 kilometers, and the city center is about 4 kilometers. We’re getting bikes, but there are some wicked hills, so I’m going to end up doing a lot of walking. When its dangerously cold, I’ll take a bus, but if I can stand it I’ll keep to dressing properly and walking briskly to stay warm. And I’ll want to get out. Working in a tiny student apartment through the long Nordic winter, I’m going to go stir crazy if I don’t get out into some open space and fresh air to move around.

In spite of the allegedly conventional wisdom that warm weather is better for certain ailments, my chronic pain isn’t one of them. Extreme heat makes it worse. Something to do with the combined stress of dealing with pain and dealing with being ridiculously hot overloading the nervous system. I do better in the winter. I look forward to a cooler clime.

Add in that I have allergies to dust, and that New Mexico is possibly the dustiest place on earth, and it’s a wonder I can breathe here. Seriously, I just dusted my desk yesterday, and today they’re a fine layer of silt on everything. I have to be crazy for living here for over 20 years. I know that my breathing improves whenever I manage to get away to someplace not designated to be a desert. Portland? No issues. Terre Haute? Breathing easy. Here? Gasp! Wheeze! Choke! Finland is green and wet and not made of dirt and sand. I have hopes that may respiratory issues will improve.

There’s also the matter of money being tight, and food being expensive, so I’m going to be trying to pack the most possible nutrition into the smallest possible portion sizes. Certainly no money for junk food and crap above and beyond actual meal ingredients. This is a good thing.

The bottom line, though, is that a big change is a good time to just chuck old habits and start building new ones. Love life, eat better, walk more, and then go have a sauna. Ahhhh. Change. I embrace the hell out of it. This is going to be so good for me.

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Roger Corman

Let’s revisit my earlier statements that I sometimes feel like the Ed Wood of tabletop roleplaying games. I have great passion and great vision, like Ed. I have no budget and limited talent with which to harness that passion and execute that vision, like Ed. I have great friends who will be supportive of whatever I do, not matter how weird it is or how badly it flops, like Ed.

I’d really prefer not to end up directing porn and dying young, though. Like Ed.

Thinking this through some more, I’ve decided that I’d rather be the Roger Corman of tabletop roleplaying game. He’s never won any significant awards (well, he got an Oscar for his body of work and his collective contributions to fimmaking, but not for the gravitas of any single film), but he’s made a lot of movies. He’s made some good ones, some critically well-received ones, but that’s just playing the odds, because he’s made what, like a film a week over the course of his lifetime? He’s made a lot of crap films, but he’s entertained people, and he’s made a nice living. He’s worked with, and even discovered, some amazing talent. He’s lived a great life, doing something he really enjoys. You can’t beat that.

When I decided to go back to college for another degree, one that might have some practical benefit, I chose business. Not to be crass, because I think the goal of life is to make money. Not because I’ve abandoned any dreams of making art. I’m not making art. I’ve never made art. I make entertainment. I want people to have fun. To do that costs money. To really do that, it helps if the entertainment you’re making pays enough that ou don’t have to work a day job, so you can spend your time making more entertainment. That requires some business savvy. Which, some people say, precludes one from being an artist. I’ll pass on the whole starving thing.

By the end of this year, things will start to settle down, or at least we’ll be settled in. We’ll be in Finland. I graduate with my Bachelors in Business Administration in November. And then, with luck, I can unleash my inner Roger Corman. Then, if things go according to plan, I can let ‘er rip and start unleashing a string of highly entertaining, if low budget, roleplaying games into the world. Then, if I’ve got it all figured out the way I think I have, I can make enough money to support Katie and I from this kooky niche hobby industry while she’s getting her Master’s degree in a respectable profession for grown-ups.

I don’t make art. I make entertainment. Let’s have some fun.

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