I Discuss the Leland Yee Affidavit on Game Talk Live

If you’re a Critical Intel fan you’ve probably read my narrativized breakdown of the affidavit against Senator Leland Yee. In short: Yee, a California State Senator and anti-gun, anti-violent games campaigner, has been arrested on charges of accepting campaign donations for political favors, links with Triad gangs in San Francisco’s Chinatown and brokering arms deals for Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines.

Yeah.

And that’s where the craziness starts. Let’s not forget that Yee’s closest associate and main campaign fundraising official was also allegedly caught trafficking drugs across state lines and trying to hook an undercover FBI agent up with not one, not two, but three contract killers in a murder-for-hire plot.

Given all this John Woo-style insanity, the folks at Game Talk Live invited me on the program to give an interview about the charges. You can see an edited version here:

This was my first live talk show and I didn’t do too bad considering. My biggest gripe is that my wifi signal was too weak in the original place where I planned to give the interview so at the last minute I moved somewhere with good signal but bad lighting. Lesson learned. The sound delay also threw me a bit (there was a quarter-second delay Skyping in from Hong Kong), but the end product looks pretty good all told.

And hey, they used my Indiana Jones picture from Halloween! Sweeeet.

That was fun, hope to do it again.


WARNING: This Update Includes Oceans, Podcasts and Soviets

Got a few updates here, a few personal and one big recommendation.

First, old business:

I wrote a piece for Mission Blue about what world leaders accomplished at The Economist World Ocean Summit.  You might not’ve heard about that because, you know, celebrities are getting divorced and stuff, but last month several governments sent representatives to meet in a Davos-like conference on how to fix the enormous damage we’re doing to the ocean (aka the thing that keeps all of us alive).

I also published a Critical Intel on how Tom Clancy used tabletop wargames to research Red Storm Rising.  That’ll be interesting to you author-types or anyone who’s fascinated by the Cold War with Russia.

Heh, sorry, the last Cold War with Russia.

Now for new business:

If you’re someone who writes words in exchange for government currency – or want to be one – check out THE FREELANCE GAME, a new podcast about freelance game journalism.  Hosts Nathan Meunier and Andrew Hayward are both veterans of the ink-for-money trade and dispense advice in a tone I can only describe as “water cooler casual.” The show’s helpful without being dictatorial – it’s emphasized early that every freelancer follows their own path – and provides pleasant shop talk in a profession that can occasionally feel isolating.  Discussions tend toward the frank and humorous, without the bombastic personality jousts so common in gaming podcasts. I’ve listened to one episode so far but there are three out now (including one with IGN editor Mitch Dyer).  Check it out.


The Hidden Power of EPIC FAIL

I came across a couple pieces this week that synched up nicely, clarifying a point that’s been bouncing around my skull for awhile.

Item One: an episode of Extra Credits titled “Fail Faster,” about the power of doing and correcting rather than trying to build a perfect foundation.  EC’s actually a show about game design, but this episode’s broadly applicable to any creative endeavor.

Item Two: an editorial from New York Times Magazine called “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” detailing the author’s experience as a failed writer – and his ultimate realization that failure is a natural and powerful part of the creative process.

Though by no means a summary of the full article, here’s a great pull quote:

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Both of these hit on a point I’ve been revisiting lately: that while it’s important to outline and develop ideas, you can’t get bogged down in thinking about a story rather than writing it.  It’s a common trap writers fall into – even professional ones – and it’s often driven by the fear that we won’t do our story justice, that we’ll get it wrong and make mistakes.  That it won’t be as good as something else already out there.

Fun story: In the early drafts of Frozen, Elsa was a straight-up villain like Hans Christian Andersen’s original Snow Queen.

Yeah, not so great. The movie was fun, but didn’t have much heart. Then Robert Lopez and Krisen-Anderson Lopez wrote “Let it Go,” and the team thought, Hey, maybe Elsa’s a tragic figure.  So they had an interesting villain and a show-stopper, but something was still missing.  That is, until an early read-through of the script spat up so much chemistry between Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell that the team thought, Check it – what if these two are sisters and the story’s about family dynamics.

BOOM. Hit movie.

As Extra Credits says, every great game course-corrected for success.  To scatologize John Lasseter’s classy quote, every Pixar film was, at one point, a giant turd.

Popular wisdom states that you can’t polish a turd, but that phrase ignores something more important – poop makes excellent fertilizer.  In the same way, bad ideas aren’t worthless or hopeless if you take the time and patience to grow a good idea from their nutrients.

But to do that, you have to have some crap to work with.

So go forth and fail today.  Make crap – a giant mountain of it – then use that fertilizer to grow a tree, a field an entire orchard of tasty fruit.  All you need is time and patience.

And shoveling.  Crap requires a lot of shoveling.


Cooking For Writers

So here I am, stuffing a bunch of jarred spaghetti sauce mixed with angel hair pasta into my maw, and I begin thinking: what exactly is the best food for writers?

This question has become more apparent for me now that I’m writing full-time, since I now have to interrupt my writing every day to fuel the petty bio-needs of lunchtime.  These regular interruptions have given me a lot of trial-and-error of what works and what doesn’t, and here’s what I’ve learned:

It Either Needs to Cook Fast, or Really Slow

Hard boiled eggs.  Toast and jam.  Salads.  Sandwiches.  Anything you can make in under ten minutes is great writer food.  These dishes minimize the amount of time you spend cooking, which can be important if, like many writers, you’ve got the attention span of a teething puppy.  Alternately, they also allow you to get going straight out of bed in the morning, which is crucial for upping your word count.

But there’s a lot to be said for slow cooking, too.  I’d have never survived writing Critical Intel while carrying a day job if it weren’t for my crock pot.  Crock pots are the perfect thing for a writer – it’s almost impossible to overcook anything, which is important since we have a tendency to wander off and become absorbed with the bot boiling or a pizza in the oven.  I ruined a lot of pots and set off many smoke alarms before figuring this out.  With crock pots you just chop up the meat and vegetables, crank it up and let them sit for a few hours while you work.

Soup Is The Devil

Don’t eat soup while working.  It requires two eyes and both hands.  Gets all over your manuscript pages.  Makes it almost impossible to read when you’re trying not to spill it.  I know it’s tempting to eat so-cheap-and-actually-quite-good soup at your desk, but unless you’re taking an actual break from writing for lunch it’s not worth it.  Go for something one-handed you can eat absent-mindedly like a sandwich, a salad or even stew.

Nutrition: Kind of Pretty Important, Actually

What you put in your body matters, full stop.  Nasty, fatty food makes you feel nasty and fatty, and it makes your brain run slow.  Don’t exist  on pork rinds and mac n’ cheese unless you want what comes out of your brain to grease up the page.  Hit the vegetables and lean meats.  Change up your cooking patterns.  I learned to stir fry recently, and I’ve been eating a lot more vegetables due to that revelation.  If you don’t like vegetables, try spritzing them with a squeeze bottle of lemon juice.  Anything to avoid too many carbs or fats that’ll make your mental clock tick slow.

Vary Your Routine

If I eat the same thing too many days in a row, I start getting restless and thinking Maybe I’ll just nip out for lunch, hit a restaurant, get some ramen.  That always seems like a good idea – hey, take the computer! get some work done at a coffee shop! – but often it means I waste time in transit, linger too long at the restaurant or get caught up in an added-on errand.  I avoid this by cultivating a decent culinary repertoire – not only having the ability to make something different when I feel like it, but making sure I have ingredients on hand that can make a variety of different dishes.  Today’s stir fry is tomorrow’s soup.

Cook In Advance

Cooking great cauldrons of food and eating them down all week can be a really good idea.  My wife and I are fans.  We’ll make chili or soup on the weekend and eat it one meal a day until it’s gone.  Chicken soup is a my personal favorite, since you can get one of those rotisserie chickens from the store, eat it for dinner, then throw whatever’s left in the pot.  BAM.  One meal becomes three or four – great for the budget-conscious scribe.  Plus, pour it over some steamed rice and it’s chunky enough to eat while working.

Anyone else have good suggestions for writer food?  Recipes?  Kitchen gear you can’t live without?  Let me know.


The Writer’s Travel Kit

Travel.  Adventure.  Putting your boots on foreign soil.

It’s something we all aspire to do, but for the writer travel can serve a unique need.  Inspiration, for example, or research for a new project.  Distance and breathing space is another worthy goal.  Or perhaps, like me, you just want to see the world and jam it into your notebook.

But in my new life as an expat writer, I’m finding that my travel kit has changed significantly – because it turns out writers need a few different tools than your average backpacker.

Since I’m packing for India and it’s on my mind, here’s my new kit for writing across the globe:

Carry The Right Bags

I’m a proponent of carry-on baggage –  large bags don’t do well in crowds or on trains, and I find it’s better to do laundry halfway than overpack.  Plus, if you’re a writer you’re probably not swimming in hard currency, and it’s nice to save on baggage fees and be able to stay in a smaller room.  Ideally, I only use my suitcase for clothes, relegating everything else to a large backpack, and a smaller day pack I keep stowed when it’s not in use.  My suitcase of choice is an old Zero Halliburton I inherited from my dad.  It’s small, stylish, crazy maneuverable and the aluminum shell could stop bullets.  Hell, they’re so cool James Goddamn Bond uses them and the DoD chose it to carry the Nuclear football.  If you don’t want to blow an entire paycheck on one, you can pick them up cheap on Ebay.

Travel Journal

Recently when my dad and grandmother passed away, I found myself wishing they’d kept journals. Both of them saw so many places and witnessed so much history, and all of it disappeared when they passed away.  Determined that the same won’t happen to my experiences, I’ve become a dedicated journal writer on trips – both so I can remember where I’ve been, and so my (currently theoretical) kids can still benefit from my wandering days when I’m gone.  Besides that though, journaling gives me a depth of vision I wouldn’t have otherwise.  Patterns emerge, and you get to know both yourself and the place better – and of course, it’s a great place to pull details from when you’re writing.

Travel Notebook

“But wait,” I hear you say.  “Don’t you already have a notebook?”

“No,” I reply. “I already have a journal.”

“WTF semantics!” you say. “That’s the same thing.”

But no, it’s not.  My journal is where I download my experiences at the end of the day, my notebook’s what travels in my pocket.  If my journal is the big, double-barreled Get Off My Lawn elephant gun, my travel notebook is a concealed pistol.  Let’s be honest here: you don’t want to carry your travel journal around, it’s too much risk.  You could lose it, it could get stolen with your bag or drenched in a sudden downpour.  Your memories from three trips, gone in a blink.  So carry a second, portable notebook that’s for jotting notes you use to craft your journal entries in the evening.

Smartphone

I know that there’s a big movement right now to, “OMG, get off the internet and find yourself!”  But listen, speaking as a former security analyst, there’s some places you don’t want to disconnect.  Last month I took a 17 day trip to Thailand and Cambodia, both of which are in the middle of major political instability.  In Thailand we were connected to local media in real-time via Twitter and managed to keep abreast of events and avoid the protests (except one march that passed our hotel).  But in Cambodia I made a bad decision: I didn’t get a tourist SIM, reasoning that our hotel would keep us informed, and it would be good for me to get away from social media.

Big mistake.  When we asked, the hotel desk said everything was fine.  When the army beat striking garment workers and the police opened fire on protesters with AK-47s, the hotel hid the morning paper.  After I pressed the concierge for information, he incorrectly informed me where the major protest site was, and as a result my wife and I wandered into a full-on government crackdown, complete with armored riot cops and military police carrying loaded assault rifles.

Keep your phone working and monitor local news – both for safety and intellectual curiosity.

A Phrase Card

Visitors can have a bad habit of visiting a place but ignoring its people, and as a writer people should always be your primary concern.  Language, of course, often stands in the way of getting to know others when you’re abroad, but a little can go a long way.  When I was in Thailand, I created a file on my iPhone listing basic Thai phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” and “how much is it?” and started referring to it regularly.  It’s amazing the difference that it made in my interactions – vendors smiled at me more, people took extra time to help me, taxis offered fairer prices and the hawkers lost interest in me.  In short, people were more genuine rather than maintaining the facade that holds sway in tourist areas.  This led to conversations that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

I’m carrying on this tradition in India by making a pocket-sized card with basic Hindi phrases.  It may not be the silver bullet that it proved in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s respectful nonetheless.

Laptop and Power Adapters

I’m of two minds about the laptop.  While I’d love to bring it along to write on a trip, in reality I always end up back-filling journal entries rather than working on fiction.  (Besides, I’ve learned from experience that I find writing on the road unpleasant.)  Add in the possibility that it might get lost or stolen, and a laptop comes off as a liability.  On the other hand, a laptop is crucial for researching tour bookings, restaurants or other local entertainment on the fly and connecting with family should something bad happen overseas.  Our standard procedure is to bring my wife’s laptop, and if I feel like writing I do it in the cloud, pulling stories I’ve uploaded to Google Drive or Dropbox.

A word of warning though: many countries have different plugs, voltages and frequencies.  Remember to do your research and bring adapters if necessary.

Ziploc Bags

Last month I took a speedboat down the Mekong from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  Five hours jammed into a fiberglass tube with no ventilation, zero escape exits and the worst squat toilet in Asia.  It was actually more pleasant to ride on top of the passenger compartment, but to get there you had to shimmy along a six-inch ledge holding onto a railing until you came to the rebar ladder.

Did I mention this boat was going 60 miles per hour?  As I hung there, feeling the wake spraying my legs and watching stilt villages whip by, I was suddenly very glad that I’d secured my iPhone and notebook in Ziploc bags.  There are less dramatic reasons to do that of course – rain and splashes for example – but a good Ziploc is especially important if you’re traveling by boat.  You could get a real dry bag if you want, but I find Ziplocs do fine as long as you’re not submerging them.

Scissors

Rather than explaining all the local news events I reference in my travel journal, I just pick up some cheap scissors and clip articles from local papers.  That bigass pocket at the back of a Mokleskine has to be good for something, right?

Magellan Outdoors Wear

I’ve worn Magellan outfits on two archaeological digs and in four countries.  They’re tough, light and have mesh netting so you don’t have to worry about your underthings going swampy in the heat.  The pants also can convert into shorts within sixty seconds and they have so many pockets for notebooks and pens it borders on absurdity (many with zippers and dry pouches).  And because they’re basically swimsuit material, in a pinch you can wash them in a bathtub and let them air-dry overnight.

Local Literature

Writers like to read – stereotypical but true.  And when traveling, I find it enlightening to bring along a book about the country.  In Thailand it was a collection of short stories called Bangkok Noir.  In Cambodia I picked up several history books about the Angkor period.  When I was in London seven years ago, I burned time on trains reading Henry Fielding.  For India, I’ve loaded my Kindle up with Rudyard Kipling, and will pick up a book from a local author when I’m there.  Not only does reading this give you a better sense of place, it also keeps your own writing fresh since it’s likely written from a different cultural perspective than you’re used to.

A Camera

Obvious, right?  Not everything can be captured in words, sometimes you have to see something amazing so you can reference it in a story later, or keep it just so you can Facebook your friends and say, Holy turdmuffin guys, look at this – there are five kids riding this damn moped and two of them are asleep.

***

That’s about it for my gear.  How about you guys?  Anyone got a cool gadget that helps them write on the road or keep a travel journal?  Any tips or tricks I missed?  FILL THE COMMENTS WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.


Writer-Sense: Being Your Story’s Peter Parker

The Gut.  The Bullshit Detector.  The Internal Editor.  Everyone’s got a name for it.

I’m a geek who grew up on Spider-Man cartoons, so I like to call it my writer-sense.  As in, My writer-sense is going crazy!  

Your writer-sense is the dashboard indicator that tells you something’s wrong.  A plot point doesn’t work. A character needs to be cut.  Your book is too long, or your article doesn’t have enough supporting evidence.  The writer-sense is one of your most important skills, and you ignore it at your own peril.

But we do ignore it – a lot.  Out of laziness.  Out of over-fondness for our own writing.  Out of fear that changing this or that element will gut our story. But the most common reason I ignore my writer-sense is that I don’t totally trust it.  Writers – even “successful” ones, whatever that means – tend to walk around with a big lump of self-doubt caught in their throat.  Their writer-sense is like a malfunctioning gland, producing way too much self-suspicion than is necessary.  It stops serving as an Internal Affairs auditor keeping everyone honest, and becomes a micro-managing boss.

As a solution, writers generally tune their writer-sense out for the first draft.  Like a movie crew on a short schedule, they just keep shooting and if anything’s wrong – well, screw it, just fix it in post-production.  Character motivation not ringing true?  Fix it in post.  Gun in a desk drawer never mentioned before?  Fix it in post.  Burt Salamander’s ploy for infiltrating the Central Iguana Agency is stupid and contrived?  WHATEVER, JUST SHOOT THAT SCENE IT AND FIX IT IN POST.

None of this is really a problem, except when you get too used to tuning out that writer-sense, and this attitude carries into the second, third – or God help you – even the final draft.  Join any writer’s group and you’ll hear all the excuses for it: “My internal bullshit detector’s broken,” is a common one, as is  “I hate everything I write,” but the old down-home classic is always, “I never know when my writing’s good.”

Let me put this to rest: yes, you do know when your writing’s good.  Your writer-sense told you during editing, but you didn’t want to listen.  You left all that nasty stuff in there just in case it passed the sniff-test, either because you were too attached or couldn’t be bothered to do the work.  Don’t do that to your readers.  Don’t reveal all that gross, behind-the-curtain messiness.

You just had a beautiful story-baby, don’t show everyone the afterbirth and claim it’s part of your child.

I recently critiqued a friend’s novel.  It was quite good overall, but had some small issues with character dynamics and world-building.  Nothing drastic or major, just tweaks and spot rewrites.  When I emailed him my critique sheet, he replied that he was already aware of many issues I pointed out, but was glad I’d confirmed that they were a problem.  I can’t fault him for that, since it’s the same with me.  I know that when he finishes critiquing my novel, I’m already going to know half the things he’s going to say.

The middle sags.  Your secondary character’s motivation isn’t clear.  There are too many scenes where characters wax expositive.  The romantic sub-plot deserves a trip to the guillotine.  I know all these things, but I haven’t acted on them.  My writer-sense was going crazy, but I wanted a second opinion. In the meantime I’ve let these elements sit like prisoners on death row, hoping for a reprieve that’ll never come.  Better to act and be done with it – but I didn’t.

Because the truth is, rewriting can be a hard and painful process.  A second draft feels like re-setting bones.  To heal the story, you have to break it first, then put it back together with pins and plates.  If you don’t, the plot heals crooked and warped, and each successive draft covers the injury with scar tissue, making it more difficult to fix.

With this book, I didn’t trust my writer-sense.  I let fear take the wheel and tell me my writer-sense might be wrong, that I might cut something oh-so-valuable that I’d never recapture again.  That’s crap, by the way – if you’re smart about it and save your drafts, you can salvage anything that you find yourself missing too much.  But here’s the kicker: once it’s gone, you probably won’t miss it anyway.

Listen to your writer-sense.  Let it tell you something’s wrong.

Don’t make excuses.  Don’t hand your readers half-finished work. Fix your story today so it doesn’t limp through life.

Break your story’s legs so it stands tall and straight.

 

 

 

 

 


People of the Internet: I Have Returned

MacArthur

 

It’s 2014, and as promised, I’m back in business!

After a two-month sabbatical, Critical Intel returned last week with an article about how Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, evokes a time period through game mechanics.

And in case you missed it, I also penned a humor piece for Slate a few weeks ago called, “NORAD’s Fighter Escort for Santa: Another Example of Wasteful Government Spending.” I was particularly proud of this one, since I’ve always admired Slate‘s Future Tense blog.

In other news, I just returned from 17 days in Thailand and Cambodia, where I collected writing material between exploring temple ruins and dodging riot cops–so expect to see some Southeast Asia-flavored content here and in CI soon. (If you’re wondering, Southeast Asia-flavored means spicy.)

Thanks for hanging with me through the sabbatical, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the messages of support I received during the short hiatus. Here’s to a new year and new possibilities.

2014 is going to be a good one, I can feel it.


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