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The Accidental Podcaster: The Ghosts of Christmas Presents
Dec 24th 2016
One of my favorite authors ever is the American short story writer William Sydney Porter, better known by his nom de plume of O. Henry. Even if you haven't read his work, you've almost certainly seen some adaptation of one of his most famous stories, The Gift of the Magi. The story is simple. A young wife, Della, crushed that she has practically nothing with which to buy her beloved husband Jim a Christmas gift, decides to sell her greatest treasure-her long, beautiful hair-in order to buy a chain worthy of his prized pocket watch. She makes this sacrifice gladly in her excitement to present something special to the one person she loves most. When presented with the gift and a newly shorn wife, however, Jim is dumbstruck; he's sold his watch to buy a set of long-coveted hair combs to adorn the now-missing tresses of his beloved wife. Were they foolish? Perhaps. But what resonates about the story isn't about the gifts themselves. Both selflessly sacrificed their greatest treasures in the pursuit of making the other happy, illustrating the point of the season: to give selflessly and do what you can in the pursuit of bringing joy to those you love.
I've been thinking about this story a lot the past few days. As is usual for this time of year, my little subterranean office looks like an elf snuck in and exploded Christmas everywhere. Every surface is covered with candies, cookies, and craft parts; every corner heaped with rolls of paper and piles of packages, some incoming, most outgoing. Sorting bins and multiple dry erase boards of battle plans help soothe my harried brain, as does the fact that the last of the Christmas boxes (both directions) are finally on their way. Two weeks of writer's block, three inboxes of temporarily ignored email, and a stack of unfinished editing drafts, however, do not. Nor do deadlines that loom and pass unfulfilled while the to-do list seems to grow at an exponential rate. As I gaze about the carefully controlled chaos, I wonder again, as I do every year, why I don't take the easy way out. Screw the stress, gift cards for all. Be done with travel plans forever. Buy some holiday cookies from the bakery, and to hell with the tree. There are moments I can very much relate to the Grinch's sentiments at the beginning of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The whole season is a lot of work, on top of the lot of work I normally undertake. It's a lot of stress. It's a lot of noise. I completely understand why so many people get overwhelmed and depressed this time of year. And I hate feeling that way.
But at the same time, I can't picture a life without some form of a Christmas season. Despite the bitching by some about the secularization of the holiday, I like that it's evolved to become a festival of sorts that everyone I know - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, that one guy from college who practices Buddhism - celebrates in some way. There's something to be said for coming together collectively during the darkest days of the year to spread lights, shut down normal production for a week or two, gather together where you can and ship packages of joy to those you can't be with in the flesh - physical reminders of the place they hold in your heart.
The Accidental Podcaster: A Christmas Mystery
Dec 8th 2016
It is Christmas morning, 1989, and my sister and I are beside ourselves with glee. Santa came last night. We had heard the sleigh bells jingling long after our parents had tucked us into bed, faintly at first, then progressively louder as it seemed to get near. I could remember whispering excitedly as it got ever closer, it had to be just outside the house now, reaching for the curtain to peek, and...
Our eyes popped open at the same time, blue pools staring back at each other in wonder. It was morning now. Seestor's honey-framed face looked as surprised as I felt to find us tucked neatly under the Huggabunch comforter and the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, warm and snug. Had it been a dream? We race, very quietly, to the landing of the staircase. We've already been warned that we aren't allowed to go downstairs until after the baby is awake, but nothing was mentioned about not creeping down a few steps to have a look. We carefully but expertly hang off the bannister as far down as we dare. The tree lights aren't turned on but sure enough, we spot piles upon piles of presents heaped about in the dim light of the morning dawn. I have to grab Seestor's hand to stop her from barrelling down the rest of the stairs in excitement.
It was real!
The Accidental Podcaster: Chapters
Nov 30th 2016
I don't remember a time when I didn't write stories. Somewhere tucked away in the attic of my grandmother's house is a plastic bin filled with crumbling sheets of cheap drawing paper, bound with either yarn ties or staples set so perfectly straight that you'd swear there was a ruler involved. Some were stories about talking animals, others about mad scientists or princesses with swords (my princesses saved themselves, thank you very much). Whatever topic occupied my grade-school-aged mind usually ended up in a very limited print run on my grandmother's kitchen table, sometimes autographed so that when I won my Pulitzer in the decades to come, she would be able to say her copies were worth more. I wrote and illustrated, made covers and bindings, carefully drew my own publishing imprints in each one (Rainbow Press, after my teddy bear and one constant companion). And in what would become a theme in my life, I generally chronicled scenes and anecdotes the way I wanted them to be more than how they might actually have been.
As I got older, I became increasingly selective about the people with whom I would share my stories. After a few unfortunate incidents, I took to writing and leaving out decoy notebooks of fake projects; one of my more ambitious projects was a faked diary with fictitious teenager problems and more than a few fake teenagers, "hidden" in a fairly obvious spot to take the attention away from where the real one was stashed. Trust had to be earned before one was permitted to enter my writing universe; even my numerous online blogs would last only a year or so for a specific readership, and when those relationships changed, so did the host where I'd secretly start a new blog with new readers and new intent. I can honestly say I have more ex-blogs than I have ex-boyfriends, which should tell you something about me.
The last of these blogs, The Fourth Castle, started as a place for me to hone my skills for a public audience again after I got pissed off one night by a snarky email from an indy publisher and decided things needed to change.
The Accidental Podcaster: Blessings
Nov 23rd 2016
As I type this, I'm curled up in the reading chair in my office, surrounded by three walls papered in post-it notes for story bits and RCM to-do's. Baron's joyous tones are booming through the house as he battles through the Darkest Dungeon; in my headset, Killer and Varyar are waging a battle of their own. In the room next to mine, a fourteen-pound turkey is thawing in my utility sink for Thursday's dinner; its 21-pound big brother is already in my kitchen fridge, waiting to be roasted in the morning. Provisions are laid in for the next several days so I don't have to deal with stupid people. I have a little bit of cleaning to do in preparation for hosting the Thanksgiving celebration, but most of my time this week is split between catching up on some RCM odds and ends and catching up on my reading (I've already finished two books and am about to end a third). Oh, and by the time this posts Wednesday morning, we'll be just a few hours off of the autumn Steam sale - an excellent bit of timing, considering earlier this evening the web ninja and I finished the pre-sequel for Borderlands and are ready for something new.1
In short, life is good.
It wasn't always this way. Thanksgivings of my childhood rarely ended with the warm and fuzzy Norman Rockwell images of chubby children curled up lovingly with their equally chubby dogs in front of a fire, Father puffing at a pipe over his newspaper while Mother in her Donna Reed-esque getup finished putting the dishes away. Our Thanksgivings of yore, like most holidays I had between the ages of eight and nineteen, were mainly spent waiting anxiously for our mother to get home from her shift at the nursing home (she almost always worked holidays for the extra pay), trying to make things nice in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, her deadbeat husband would be in a better mood by the time she returned. It wasn't likely, but hey, holidays are the time for goodness and miracles, right? We had to believe that not all holiday spirits came in a cheap brown bottle.
The Accidental Podcaster: Election Night
Nov 9th 2016
I've known Dave since I was six years old. Our families lived five doors apart from each other, my siblings and his brothers were always at one another's houses, and I've always looked at them like they were my own brothers. 95% of my interviewing and questioning skills come directly from mock newscasts done with Dave as a child. My first "anchor" position was behind a cardboard box on his mom's lawn while he shouted his on-location news report over from the sidewalk. His grandmother may have asked us to stop doing that, which is why ten minutes later I got my first editor job publishing the short lived "First Street News" (Dave was the reporter for that, too, and I'm pretty sure we still got yelled at for being loud).
This doesn't mean we always agreed on everything, and as adults, we still don't. Dave went into this election as a big Trump supporter; I was so horrified by both main choices that I cast a conscience vote for someone else (no, not Johnson or Stein, either, and yes, it was a real political candidate). But on the areas where we differed, Dave always did something that a lot of people don't: the issues he was most passionate about he backed up with solid reasoning, but he also actively sought out people with different viewpoints as a challenge to his own. Even when we were kids, playing schoolhouse in their play room or pretending to be news reporters on the sidewalk outside my house, he always asked questions, sought opinions, checked facts. He wasn't content with just having his own opinion; he was actively interested in yours. It was a trait that served him well later in life as a news reporter, and sets a strong example for the students in the media classes he teaches.
So when I sat down tonight, I had a different piece I'd intended to be finishing for this column (late, per usual. I think I'm more honest with these posts when deadlines are looming). But I've been utterly captivated by Dave's independent election night coverage through Facebook Live. Titled "Tough Talk," their group put together a diverse and entertaining panel representing both sides of the political spectrum and led probably the most balanced and engaging political discussion I've seen all year. Ray, Ivan, and Deismond were well spoken and highly entertaining, their chat was lively (always helpful with panels), and I enjoyed how everyone, both on panel and in chat, had some really good questions and comments.
Defining A True Gamer
Nov 4th 2016
Coming up with definitions for labels is never an easy task, even more so when that label is part of your identity. In this case, it is the label of a "gamer". The first entry on Urban Dictionary defines a gamer as "someone who plays video games when bored ... usually very good at it", or "someone who plays video games as a hobby." The second definition expands on this category by defining multiple types of gamers: "casual gamers," "hardcore gamers," and "true gamers." The author has a very negative definition of casual gamers, stating that they are gamers who buy consoles to play sport or racing games, don't enjoy fantasy games, and makes up the bulk of the gaming community. The author also defines them in such a way that reminds me of stereotypical frat boys. To the author, hardcore gamers aren't actually as hardcore as the claim to be, since they are the type to complain about new "3D" gaming technology and debate the minutest details between two games in a series. Finally, the author defines true gamers as those who have gaming as a "true hobby," play the finest games available, own high quality PCs, and play PC games.
In comparison with the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary, these definitions are very narrow minded. It lists four definitions, but I will only focus on two: a participant in a war-game or role-playing game; a player or creator of such games and a person who plays video, computer, etc., games esp. habitually. I prefer this definition, since it allows for a much wider range of people to fall under the category of gamers. This is partially due to my earlier experiences with my gamer friends. I was told multiple times that by primarily playing The Sims, I was not considered a gamer, even though I met (and still do) the criteria listed in this definition.
Ultimately, the use of the gamer label is rooted in the desire to shape one's identity, both personally and socially. In "How to be a gamer! Exploring personal and social indicators of gamer identity." Frederik De Grove, Cédric Courtois, and Jan Van Looy used social identity theory to explore "why people attribute a gamer identity to self and others" (p. 346). They point out that video games are different when compared to other forms of media when it comes to identity, since video games provide a platform for expressing and experimenting with one's identity (p. 347). What was interesting about their research was that, early on in the article, they pointed out it was easy for gamers to not attach the gamer label to themselves. Their study primarily focused on adolescent gamers, and they ultimately concluded the following: older adolescents were less likely to identify as a gamer than younger adolescents, males were more likely to identify as a gamer than females, and those who had played games in the last month were more likely to identify as a gamer than those who hadn't played. Finally, they determined that adolescents who had gamer friends were more likely to identify as a gamer as well, which emphasizes the social aspect of being a gamer (p. 354-357).
The Accidental Podcaster: Music Notes
Nov 2nd 2016
There is one point on which I will always give Stephenie Meyer mad props: from her second book onward, in her acknowledgements at the end, she lists out the main playlist of music she listened to while working on each novel. Using music to set the tone while one is working isn't in itself particularly groundbreaking. We all do it. But it's rare to see an author take the time to publicly acknowledge and share the music that helped shape each of their own works. In having that knowledge, the stories suddenly have an entirely new dimension; one can feel the tone more vividly than with words alone, and I would argue it helps bring the reader closer to the picture in the author's mind.
Continuing the Meyer example, I am not a Twilight fan. I was 28 when I decided to read them,and only then because every female I knew wanted to talk with me about the series "because I read books" and I can't have an opinion on something I haven't read. The first book was about what I expected - the writing was a little rough, decent idea for a story but not really my cup of tea. I thought the secondary characters were rather well done, but hated the protagonists with all their stupid angsty teenage issues (seriously, you'd think at 100 years old and having travelled the globe that Edward Cullen might possibly have learned more social skills than silently staring creepily at young girls. That's not sexy, that's...disturbing). The second book was a little more polished, writing-wise, but again, I was past the stage of caring about whiny teen issues. I was ready to drop the series for lack of interest when I caught the playlist Meyer listed in her acknowledgements. Meyer writes that the core of her playlist for all of her novels was an aptly-named rock group called Muse; for the second book, her playlist included a lot of Coldplay, The Fray, My Chemical Romance (YAY GERARD WAY REFERENCE!), The Arcade Fire, and others. Suddenly a lot of things fell into place - of COURSE the protagonist was whiny. Of COURSE she annoyed the crap out of me - she was at a stage of life where she was trying to transition to adult decisions, but on top of conflicting feelings and lack of life experience, now she was also dealing with being caught in a love triangle with an equally angsty werewolf and a sparkly vampire who, again, should have known better. It's a lot to cope with. But having listened to a lot of the same music when I was at that period of life, I was brought back to that mindset for a little while, and started to understand why there were so many fans - coming from that perspective, Meyer nailed exactly how Bella and probably most teenage girls would act in that situation,and had enough realism with the secondary characters reactions that it created a very nicely balanced story that I did, in fact, see through to the end (I finished with Bella and Edward's ill-advised vampire marriage the night before I got married myself). The music, though, is what gave me the key.
Now, as Varyar works through his conniption about Twi-talk making it to RCM's front page...
Inspiration: How Is It Important?
Oct 31st 2016
Have you ever wanted to do something? Wanted to do it so much that it felt wrong not to drop everything for it? What caused you to want it? A favorite book that made you want to create the same kinds of stories? Or a movie's soundtrack that filled your mind with ideas for compositions? It could even be as simple as the want to make a chicken pot pie that you saw on TV. What you felt was the inevitable and amazing feeling of inspiration. And while it may be unavoidable, just how important is it to the creative process?1
Inspiration is really good when you need a subject matter to work with. For a writer, it can build a story, or even a world, from absolutely nothing. One author who knows this well is Jim Butcher. Butcher is the author of the Codex Alera series and the Dresden Files series. He has recently released The Aeronaut's Windlass, the first book of his new series the Cinder Spires. He has gone on record saying Codex Alera came from a forum thread where he participated in an argument between lousy subject and wonderful execution versus wonderful subject and lousy execution. The former believed that all a book needs to be good is great execution while the latter said that you only needed a good subject matter and everything else would just fit into place. Butcher put himself firmly on the side of the former. He was told to put his money where his mouth was "by letting [one of the arguers] give [Butcher] a cheesy central story concept, which I would then use in an original novel." Naturally, Butcher told him to give two concepts and that they would both be used.2 Those concepts were the Lost Roman Legion and Pokemon. Using those two concepts, Butcher made a New York Bestselling Book series about the descendants of the Lost Legion using environmental spirits as friends and servants.
Now, it may seem like a stretch to call that 'inspiration.' So, let me point you toward a relative novice's work. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have started and am maintaining a "Story a Week" blog. Basically, I write a complete story in a week and every day I must write at least 1000 words. I have been doing this for about twelve weeks and so I have twelve different stories. Why do I bring this up? Well, every story I have written so far has been inspired by something. One of my stories, 'The Path Home,' is 7000 words of one woman's trials and tribulations of returning home after a horrific fight. It was inspired by the song 'The Path' by Miracle of Sound. Is it a loose tie? Sure it is. All I did was use the main idea behind the song. Yet, it inspired a complete story that could be put in a compilation further down the line or on my portfolio. And I am just friggin' proud of it.
The Accidental Podcaster: Lessons
Oct 26th 2016
I had my annual performance review for my day job the other morning. I never worry about these things - for me, they're more of a formalized recount of what I've learned over the prior year and what I need to get to where I want to be. I've been very fortunate over the past ten years to have worked for a place that actually challenges me in a way that leads to self-growth, and been managed directly by a succession of women who have each been exactly the mentor I needed at exactly the time I needed their particular contributions. Each of them brought something very different to the table that contributed to the overall picture, so if I get to be called an operational badass now, it's in big part to the lessons and perspectives each one brought me. Today's lesson was one that's been bugging me for a while, something I've been working at diligently for some time but still feel I've been failing at miserably.
Let me start by saying that I have a very analytical approach to tackling problems. When a challenge is presented, emotion takes a backseat while I focus on how to first stabilize the situation and then move forward with the plan for whatever needs to happen next. Sometimes that course is pretty clear, other times I need data to form a better picture of what's needed, but the core process is always the same: finding the paths to get from the present situation to the desired outcome, then presenting the possibilities to assess the best course of action, and then putting that plan into motion. Results are clear - was the objective met or not?
But the same does not necessarily apply to management of people. It isn't always clear what, if any, tangible progress is being made. You can't ignore emotional factors when dealing with people, and the most logical way isn't always the best way of handling people issues. This has led to a number of faux pas over the years which make me very, very anxious about the reactions of others, particularly in a working environment. It wasn't that I was trying to be callous or cold (though in the past I've certainly been accused of both, and worse), but my focus was on solving what I was understanding to be the problem. When it was brought to my attention that this approach was alienating, I started second guessing ALL of my interactions - would this criticism hurt the other person's feelings? Was what I wanted really worth the argument? When I corrected people, how were they receiving the message? Did I need to be warmer and fuzzier, and if so, how does one go about that?1
The Accidental Podcaster: All About Me
Oct 19th 2016
Years ago, in that weird adult-but-not-really transition time of being in college, there was a fad of sending insanely long chain emails under the header All About Me. The messages consisted of a list of questions - LOTS of questions - with the idea getting to know one's friends better. Most of the questions were pretty inconsequential (Coke or Pepsi? What's your favorite color? Do you have any brothers or sisters? What's the most recent movie you've seen at a theatre?1), but some of them got pretty deep. There was one I stumbled across recently from a letter that Baron sent me shortly before we graduated. It started with the question What is your dream? (note: I didn't say goal. I want your dreams.) My answer at the time was as follows:
Many of my dreams are goals in disguise, and I think the opposite works as well. But one in particular, something I'd love to do but never will for reasons that are pretty obvious, is I'd love to just run away and disappear for a while. Just get in the car early one morning and leave everything behind, run away to somewhere I've never been before, see where the road takes me. To me, that's the ultimate adventure: just go to some random place entirely different from anywhere you've been before, to strip yourself of the comfort of familiarity and really experience life. Obviously, this will have to remain a dream, just because people would go totally ballistic and panic if I actually carried through on this. I couldn't do that to the people I care about.
Interesting how so much changes in a decade, and how so much doesn't. *eyeballs Iceland*