Today’s work is going back to the beginning, both literally and figuratively.
The idea for The Poison Eater came about when I was working on a short story for one of our fiction collections. The story idea was really exciting to me, but the story itself wasn’t quite coming together. I realized that part of the reason was because the story was bigger than I could tell in a short piece. It needed breathing room to explore the characters and the situation.
So, when I needed to come up with an idea for a Numenera novel, I dug up the draft of that story and used it as my inspiration. So much has changed since then, but the essence of it and the main character have stayed the same.
My novel-writing process is a jumbly process that I honestly don’t recommend to anyone else. It takes forever, it’s confusing, and it’s a lot of extra work in the end. But it works for me — and if there’s one writing “rule” that I believe in, it’s: Find what works for you.
To start, I write an “outline” — I put that in quotes because I’ve seen other author’s outlines, and they’re beautiful binders full of detailed plot points, chapters, scenes, and character backgrounds. Mine is a sentence. Or maybe two. And then I start writing. Each section that I write continues to add to that outline sentence. It’s very much like exploring the Ninth World in a game. Oh, look, here’s a new character! I should put them in. Look at this crazy place I just made up. I should put that in. Here’s a cool artifact. I should put that in!
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Because each time I encounter something as I’m writing, I have to ask questions: What is the significance of this? Does it mirror the characters’ emotional states, the thematic elements of the book, or this particular plot point? What is its role in the story? Where do I need to “back fill?” (A good example of backfill: I was writing a chapter in the middle of the book and I wrote about one particular character wearing an object. The object just showed up as I was writing (this happens a lot, I think, if you’re open to discovery). And I realized that it was the perfect object for the character, but it needed to show up earlier in the book, so that it had even more emotional significance when it showed up in the middle. So I made a note in an earlier chapter to mention the object there for the first time).
Which brings me back to rewriting the opening chapter. Now that I know so much more about the characters and the story and the objects that matter, rewriting the first chapter is all about adding those elements and giving readers the foundation to understand the story. The opening chapter is a promise of what’s to come–and until I know what’s to come as the writer, I can’t promise it to readers. I’m sure the first chapter will change again, as I continue to write and learn about the novel. In fact, this is pretty early in the process for me to go back and revisit the first chapter, but we’re sending it out to KS backers as a reward soon, so I want it to be as close as possible to its final form before it goes out.
Remember: Poison never lies.
Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff. Or just click The Poison Eater category to get a list of all the previous posts.
Today was one of the first days in a while that I’ve had trouble working on the novel. I know why — I walked to the coffee shop, thinking about the novel the whole way, really excited to get to work on it. Then I sat down and …
…nearby, someone was watching a very loud video on his phone. He was soon joined by a friend, who started watching a different but also very loud video on his phone at the same time.
…the guy behind me made a phone call that started with, “I’m turning in my resignation. Fuck this shit.” And went downhill from there.
…I forgot my headphones.
…someone close by was wearing way too much perfume and my headache was instant and ferocious.
…I’m feeling a bit stuck on where to go next in the book. Go back and rework the first chapter to send to Kickstarter backers? Write a new scene? Do more planning?
None of those things by themselves is enough to knock me off my writing track, but all of them combined? It’s more than my brain can handle. It’s kind of like this: I have a dog who is 90 percent the most awesome dog in the universe (sorry, other dog owners who read this, but it’s true). But 10 percent of her is a reactive dog. If other dogs bark at her, she sometimes loses her shit. We’re working on it — she can walk by one dog now, two dogs, maybe three dogs and be mostly calm and well-behaved. But if, on a single walk, she walks by a fourth dog? Then no amount of training, treats, or tricks is going to keep her from freaking the fuck out. It’s kind of like decision fatigue, only it’s more like focus-fatigue.
That’s how it is for me as a writer. One distraction? I got this. Two. Yep. Three? Maybe. But four or five in the same writing session? Nope. I’m done. And no amount of training, treats, or tricks is going to keep me writing right then.
This morning, I did try for a bit, focusing inward and putting some words down on the page, but they weren’t good words. (Note: There are two kinds of “not good” words. The first is “rough draft not good” words, which are useful words, and ones that I can come back and fix later in the revision process. The second–what I encountered today–are words that won’t be useful in the revision. They’re just me putting words down for the sake of putting words down. It was only my own determination — I WILL DO THIS — that kept me typing and the words were angry, not in tune with the book, useless in the end.)
So, I switched gears and started writing this blog post instead. It provides a useful vessel for my cranky-pants mentality, it is easier to write right now because I know what I want to say, and it makes me feel like I didn’t give up on writing completely.
What’s the lesson here? Sometimes it’s okay to say, “Nope, not today.” (Or, nope, not right now.).
Now. I want to be careful here. It’s really easy to read this and think that it’s okay to just drop your writing at any sign of difficulty. But that’s not what I’m advocating. I’m saying know your limits and your triggers. The fault here, in many ways, is mine. I left the house without my headphones, which is the only action that I could have controlled in this scenario. That alone would have decreased two of the triggers and left me with more possibility of productive writing this morning.
I’ve found that taking a few minutes to prepare before I sit down to start writing is vital to my ability to be productive. What are your writing focus-fatiguers? Mine are social media, the Internet and email (I set up Freedom and Self-Control before I sit down to write); my caffeine addiction (I have coffee or tea ready in a cup that I like); noise (I try to remember my headphones so that I can block distracting noises AND provide myself with the right noise–my novel soundtrack, or whatever I’m in the mood for); and emotions (I’m bored. This is hard. I want to play Fallout. I should get up and have a snack – I have lots of ways for dealing with that, and it’s probably enough for its own blog post, so I’ll tackle that at a later date).
Will I come back to the novel today? I don’t know. I will probably try. There is still the stream of excitement from this morning’s walk bubbling inside me, and since I capped that excitement (instead of wasting it by writing useless, grumpy force-writing), I am hoping that I can come back to it later and that it will still be fresh and full of life. I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, I’ve written this blog post, which might help someone else. I’ve dispensed with my grumpiness at those who have a large social footprint. And I’m looking forward to the walk home, where I can continue to mull over what’s next for the novel.
Edited to add: I did return to the novel late in the day. It wasn’t as productive as a morning writing session would have been (morning is the time that brain goes zing and the words flow like coffee; nighttime is more like each word is a heavy rock and picking it up and putting it down in the right spot takes a lot of work), but I went in and reworked some of the opening chapter, and even solved a plot dilemma that I’d been having. (If you are a Kickstarter backer of the novel, you’ll get to see this opening chapter pretty soon!).
Follow along! If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff.
As you may (or may not) already know, I’m working on a new novel set in the science-fantasy world of Numenera. Called The Poison Eater, it’s going to be available as a beautiful hardbound, illustrated book (and in other formats as well) in late 2016.
For now, I’m hard at work on putting it all together. I’ve been posting some pictures and updates as I’ve been working on it, and wanted to gather it all together in a format that people could follow if they were interested.
There won’t be any spoilers, but there will be:
My goal is to post something (almost) every day, even if it’s just a photo, so that you always have some glorious Numenera fiction goodness in your hands!
If you’re interested in learning how this novel (or, really, any novel) comes together, feel free to subscribe to this blog. Over on the right in the sidebar, you can subscribe to JUST posts that pertain to The Poison Eater, so you don’t get all the other stuff.
Let’s go on a novel adventure!
2015 was a rough year for so many of us in the world. Private and public heartbreak, hopebreak, lifebreak everywhere. I won’t list all the reasons, because you’re paying attention to the world and you know them already. And you know the way your heart feels bruised, like bad fruit, and how your bones feel heavy, like you’ve landed on the wrong world and the gravity is killing you.
But. But. But. But, 2015 was also a brilliant, bold, and fucking fierce year. 2015 was teeth and claws. Fur everywhere. Scratching and clawing for shit that matters. 2015 was a battlefield, a howling mass of force that wouldn’t shut up, wouldn’t sit down, and wouldn’t go quietly into the night.
Maybe that’s every year. Maybe I’m stating the obvious. Maybe I’m just getting old and I feel my wounds more this year than I have in the past. But I don’t think so. I think we’re on the brink of big change, and that takes its toll. I believe in fighting–getting down in the mud and dirt and blood–but I also believe I can change the world by kindness, human empathy, respect, communication, education, and the fierce beats of my blood.
And that’s why I am declaring 2016 to be my Year of the Motherfucking Heart.
What does that mean? Time will tell, but I already know that it means a few things:
The first two parts of this series looked at the basics of designing games for kids. This segment looks specifically at accessibility, particularly for players with dyslexia, color-blindness, visual impairments, and autism.
WHAT DOES ACCESSIBILITY IN GAMING MEAN? AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Accessibility in gaming, to me as a game designer, means purposefully creating ways for the widest variety of players to play your game to the fullest.
For kids, this kind of accessibility can be life-changing. Studies and personal accounts have shown that gaming helps kids feel more confident, learn new ways to express themselves, and develop important life and social skills.
Accessibility in gaming typically falls into five categories: Vision (color-blindness, blindness), hearing (hard-of-hearing, deafness), speech (speed impairments, language differences), mobility (physical challenges), and learning/cognitive (learning and reasoning challenges, including dyslexia, autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome).
A few of these–namely dyslexia, color-blindness, vision impairment, and autism are particularly challenging for kids and roleplaying games.
Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols. This is especially pertinent (and problematic) for roleplaying games, where the books are often beautifully designed, with elegant, complex fonts, dark or complicated backgrounds, and lots of small text, cursive, and italics. Unfortunately, these beautiful design elements can make it difficult for dyslexic readers to understand the text.
Choosing good font types, sizes, and contrast can all make reading easier, not just for kids with dyslexia, but for new readers or those who struggle with reading for other reasons.
Font Types: A number of studies have explored the best font choices for readers with dyslexia. So far the results vary in surprising ways. One article I read even reported Comic Sans as being the most dyslexic-friendly font. Here’s what a more recent study found regarding potentially good font choices:
Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern Unicode, taking into consideration reading performance and subjective preferences. On the contrary, Arial It. should be avoided since it decreases readability. Sans serif, roman and monospaced font types increased the reading performance of our participants, while italic fonts did the opposite.
So, there’s a lot of variability in what the research says makes a “good dyslexic” font, but it’s easier to tell what makes a bad dyslexic font: complicated and extraneous elements, italics, and all caps.
Font Size: Small font sizes and tight spacing between words and characters can make reading difficult. A 12- or 14-point font is recommended for adults. For kids that number is even higher.
Contrast: Dark backgrounds with white text or image-heavy backgrounds can also cause problems. A cream or matte white background with a dark, clear font seems to work well.
Game Elements: A common element of roleplaying games that can be especially problematic is charts and tables. Keeping these to a minimum is best. If you need them, designing them with lots of space and clear distinctions between rows and columns can help.
Color-blindness is an especially important concern in kids’ games, because many games use symbols and colors to help young readers who have difficulty reading. But if one symbol is a green circle and the other is a red circle, then kids who are color blind might not be able to tell the difference.
Choosing colors with color-blind players in mind, and using a variety of different shapes in icons and other symbols can go a long way toward clarity for struggling readers. The inability to distinguish between red and green is the most common form of color-blindness, so staying away from those colors within the same symbol set can help a lot. Blue-yellow color-blindness can also occur, as well as the ability not to see colors at all. This color-blindness simulator (and others like it) can help you see how your color choices will look to colorblind players.
Visually impaired players may have blurred vision, partial or total blindness, or other concerns that make it hard for them to see text and dice. For those players, having a PDF or other electronic document that can be read aloud by a computer makes a big difference. Adobe has some free online resources for making PDFs accessible and Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System) talking books is another popular option. Braille dice and overlays for accessories are also great for at-the-table use, especially to supplement the read-out-loud text.
For those with limited vision, print books with large, dark fonts on matte (non-shiny, non-reflective) paper makes reading easier. PDFs with the ability to zoom way in without quality loss are also helpful.
Autism and other cognitive/learning concerns, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, are perhaps the most difficult to design for. We still know so little about them, and every child’s experience is so unique, that saying, “Here is the right way to make a game accessible for kids with autism” is something of a pipe dream.
Accessibility in this case seems to be more about building appropriate options right into the rules. Make sure that games have the ability to be scaled up or down, that rules allow flexibility for a variety of attention spans and playstyles, and that parents and other adults are given the rules and tools they need to help players. But the rules should still have a clear structure; autistic children often need to know what to expect and to be able to anticipate what’s coming next.
Games that minimize loud or surprising sounds, allow for short breaks, and encourage, but don’t require, interaction can help set players at ease and allow them to play the game in the way that makes the most sense for them. Because many autistic players struggle with verbal communication, create rules that allow players to act out what their character does rather than talk about it. (Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the other hand, are more likely to want to talk about anything and everything; allowing them to speak in a robot voice or repeat a favorite phrase as part of their character provides a way for them to use their verbal skills within the context of the game)
Also consider having an ‘opt-out’ concept built right into the rules. If players know that they can say a word or make a gesture that will stop the game any time they feel scared or uncomfortable, it gives them a sense of autonomy and control. Most kids won’t need to use their opt-out; just knowing they have it is enough to alleviate that sense of tension and worry that can sometimes build up.
All of these elements are important first steps toward accessibility, but of course, they’re only small steps and there’s so much still to be learned. Every little bit helps, though. And the more we can do today to make games accessible to those with challenges, the more likely young players will be to grow up to love and work on games themselves. And they, in turn, could use their experiences to make games that are accessible to an even wider group of young players.
SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
AbleGamers (works to make games more accessible)
Game Accessibility Guidelines (geared more toward video games, but still useful)
International Game Developers Association (also for video games, but also useful)
64ouncegames (creates Braille overlays for games and supplements)
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In addition to the way that age does (and doesn’t matter), I think there are the other two important parts of designing games for kids:
EVERY KID (AND ADULT) SHOULD BE ABLE TO PLAY
It’s not possible to make a game that everyone excels at because everyone has different skills. Numbers will be the bane of some players, while writing is the arch nemesis of others. As a kid, I failed at any game that required me to stand up and do something in front of people, because I was incredibly shy. Games like Charades terrified me.
But it is possible to make a game that everyone is able to play and have a good time at. For kids, some of the biggest hurdles to game playing are the four “R”s — Rules, Reading, Writing, and Reflection. Taking a close look at these elements during the design process helps young players jump into a game quickly and easily.
The Rules: Rules should be accessible, necessary, and interesting. If a rule isn’t necessary, or takes a long time to explain, consider whether it’s vital to the game (or whether it’s just too detailed). To me, the goal of rules is clarity and guidance. If a rule confuses things, constrains the players for no reason, or stops a GM from saying “Okay!” then I think long and hard about whether it’s necessary.
Sometimes the rule is necessary:[combat] “I want to swing my sword and kill all the monsters in this room!”
Sometimes the rule isn’t necessary, because it would force the GM to say no to something fun for the players, even though saying yes wouldn’t impact gameplay:[combat] “I want my armor to look like a dinosaur and I want to yell Rawr! while I swing my sword!”
Rules are important, and kids will look for those boundaries and push them. The boundaries that matter should matter a lot. But once players understand those limits of the game, they should feel free to be as creative as possible inside them.
Reading: Some kids are fantastic, enthusiastic readers who will read entire corebooks for pleasure. Others will read the bare minimum for what they need to know right now. Others will do everything possible to avoid reading. This might be because they haven’t picked up the skill, they’re struggling with issues like dyslexia, or they can read but just don’t like to.
Ways to help this are by choosing easy-to-read fonts in appropriate sizes and colors (I’ll talk more about this in part 3, and talk about fonts, styles, and sizes that seem to be most accessible). Symbols, icons, color coding, and shapes are all useful cues for struggling readers. Additionally, using graphic elements to point out the most important elements on the page will help players focus in on what they need to read, and will allow them to skip the non-essential reading until they’re ready.
Charts, tables, and even dice are another important element of this. Lots of numbers, lists, and lines can be overwhelming even to good readers. Dice, especially, need to be easily readable, as there’s nothing more frustrating than rolling and not being able to instantly see whether you’ve hit your goal.
Writing: The same aspects of reading are also true of writing. Some kids love to write. Others hate it. It can be useful to give players the option to write if they want to—or to play the game without picking up a pen. Good character sheets with large and interesting writing and drawing spaces facilitate interaction for those who want to scribble, while easy-to-hold and use tokens, cards, stickers, and other elements provide non-writers with other ways to keep track of things.
Reflection: Reflection is the idea that you see yourself in a roleplaying game. This, to me, has two parts that are closely linked. The first is that you can see yourself as yourself in the game. The second is that you can see yourself as someone else in the game.
Seeing yourself as yourself means that there are images and characters that look like you (or that look the way that you see yourself). This means depicting characters with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, personalities, and outfits. This is especially true in a game with human characters. Most games that focus on non-human characters, say, aliens, show every alien differently. Blue skin, yellow skin, round, square, stick-like. But when you look at kids’ games with human characters, they’re often thin, white boys. (Not that there’s anything wrong with thin, white boys — they should be able to see themselves reflected in a game too). However, having more options means that more kids will find someone they can instantly relate to. Of course, you can’t make a reflection of every person who’s going to play your game, but making every character truly unique means that there’s a larger chance that kids will find someone they can really see themselves in and feel proud of.
Seeing yourself as someone else is the creative- and empathy-building element of roleplaying games. When you start playing characters who look and act differently than you do, you begin to understand them better, you move outside yourself into a creative space, and you start to develop human empathy that translates into the real world. Games can help players do that by providing a wide range of character options in terms of race, culture, personality, gender, skills and more (within the constraints of the game and the world, of course).
YOU’RE COMPETING WITH PUPPIES (AKA: DON’T BE BORING)
The number one thing I know about designing RPGs for kids might be this: Don’t be boring. Keeping kids at the table – both in mind and body – will be a difficult enough task for the gamemaster. Don’t make it more difficult with the game design itself. Anticipate that young players will be incredibly creative, incredibly smart, and easily distracted. If something isn’t the coolest, funnest, most interesting that you can possibly make it, then cut it or rethink it. When you’re doing playtests, watch for those moments when the kids get bored (or ask them — they will absolutely tell you, probably in great detail, about all of the most boring parts of your game).
When kids DO get bored and turn away from the game, watch what they do instead. If you’re in the middle of a combat scene, and the kids jump away from the table to act out that scene, that’s not boredom, that’s engagement. If they jump away from the table to start playing with the dog, that’s boredom (and the power of dogs). So just imagine that with everything you’re creating, you’re competing with the power of a cute puppy (or a video game or a TV show) near the table. Can you keep the kids’ attention (or at least some of it), despite the adorableness of the puppy? Is the game flexible enough to incorporate the puppy as a companion or an escort or even as a friendly helper? Does it allow the GM to give the kids some kind of in-game benefit if they spend one minute away from the table as a group to play with the puppy?
Focusing in on the right age group (without talking down to them), decreasing hurdles to play, and never, ever allowing your game to be boring: Nail those three elements and you’re well on your way to making an amazing roleplaying game for kids (and their families).
Come back soon for Part 3, where I look more closely at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I became a gamer because of my grandmother. A librarian and an avid gamer herself, my grandmother was smart, creative, and utterly ruthless when it came to anything involving cards, dice, boards, and even controllers (it was at her house that I played my first ever game of Frogger). Every time the family got together, she brought out a new game that she was passionate about and got us all to play it.
We played games designed for adults and kids, and while she made sure that we kids understood everything, she never treated us—or even the most kid-focused of games—as anything other than equals and utterly worthy of her time and (competitive) attention. If you wanted to win, your age didn’t matter, but your skills did—you had better be two steps ahead of her (I never was). But if she was on your team, she would take you into the fold and teach you all her winning secrets. When I lost, I learned to take it well so that we could play again. If I was on her team, I felt like her equal. And when I finally won a game against her for the first time, I had already learned a lot about how to be a good winner, after having watched her whomp me graciously for so long.
She was a stickler for the rules—and for finding all kinds of creative ways to bend those rules without actually breaking them. On the other hand, if she thought a rule was stupid or bad for the game, she would explain why and suggest ways to work around it or offer ideas for creating a different, more useful rule instead. She made up games, too. (Or at least, I think she did. We played things when I was a kid that I have never seen anywhere else.).
It was because of her that I started looking at games from a design perspective early on (although I didn’t have the words for what I was doing). Why this rule and not that? What happened when you tweaked one thing but not the other? How could you work together as a team to accomplish the goal?
My grandmother passed away last year. Even as I write this, she’s probably teaching the devil a few new tricks in his favorite game. I’m so glad that she got to see my early game design projects, and I hope she knew how much of an influence she had on my life and work.
Right now, I’m working on a game that I wish she was going to be around to see—and to play with me. It’s a roleplaying game designed for smart kids (and their families, of course), and I bet she could teach me all the best house rules. I think of her often as I work on the game, and of all the lessons that she passed along that I’m using every day.
This is a three-part look at designing roleplaying games for kids. Part 1 and 2 will look at some general game design concepts: Age Matters (And It Totally Doesn’t); Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play; and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 will specifically explore the ideas of designing for accessibility, including for players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
AGE MATTERS (AND IT TOTALLY DOESN’T)
When you set out to make a game for adults, you are purposefully aiming for a wide age range. A 15-year-old can usually play the same game as a 90-year-old. And that’s one of the points of the game.
Games designed specifically for kids are a different matter. One of the first, and arguably most important, decisions you have to make is “What specific age group is this game designed for?”
“Kids” is a big category, with a lot of variation. A game designed for 5-year-olds needs to be very different than a game designed for 8-year-olds, and by the time you get to 11-year-olds, it needs to morph yet again. Not just the rules and language, of course, but also the entire world aesthetic, the goals of the game, the pacing, pretty much everything.
Within your answer, you’ll also need to be clear that while you have a specific age (say 5-8 years old), the game will have a secondary group of players who are probably adults (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.) as well as siblings, friends, and classmates who might be outside that age range.
Using the age ranges described by books can be helpful for narrowing in on your target audience. While the levels have many names, they generally run something like this (with lots of age overlap to compensate for varying skill levels):
Ages 0-3 / Listening / Board Books
Ages 3-6 / Beginning Reading / Picture Books
Ages 6-8 / Reading With Help / Easy Readers
Ages 7-10 / Reading Alone / Chapter Books
Ages 8-12 / Advanced Reading / Middle Grade Novels
Books in these categories can help you gain a better understanding of good image-to-text ratios for each age group, art style, word choices and sentence length, complexity of concepts, and even font choices and size. But of course, every kid is different and their ages may not reflect their reading or comprehension skills.
Where age doesn’t matter is when it comes to treating the material and the players with respect. Try to stay away from art or language that talks down to kids, and always assume that they’re smarter and more creative than you are (they probably are). Respect every player fully for who they are, no matter whether they’re 4, 14, or 41.
This was one of the first lessons my grandmother taught me when I was a young player, and it’s something I try to carry over into both GMing and game design now that I’m an adult. I think a great game should be designed to make players of all ages feel smart, creative, and cool. And one of the ways a game can do that is to give them all the tools they need, and then assume that they will use those tools in brilliant, unexpected ways.
Continue on to Part 2, where I explore two more ideas: Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 (coming soon) will look at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I woke up this morning, and like that, I was 43 years old. I like to keep track of my years, my experiences, my growth as a person on this planet.
Some years, I am successful at this. Other years, not so much.
I wrote this post when I turned 41 and followed it up with a lot of writing and essays.
Last year, the year I turned 42, my grandmother died a few weeks before my birthday. I wrote about her death in March, and then I didn’t blog again until August, when my baby sister got married. That blank space of almost half a year between posts says a lot about my state of space during that time. It was a year that was filled with a lot of highs and lows, as every year is, but for some reason I felt the rollercoaster of it more deeply than I have probably since I was a teenager.
The highs: Numenera, the game of my heart, won a lot of awards and lots of people had a great time playing it. I love my job. I have a partner who makes me my very best self. We adopted an amazing dog. I lived for the first time ever in a house I owned. My life is full of amazing loved ones. My non-fiction book, “As Kinky As You Wanna Be” came out and is doing well. I had the opportunity to travel and meet some incredible, kind, wonderful people. My little sister, who I love with all my heart, got married and I was her maid of honor. My little brother is following his dream of becoming a police officer. My dad retired, finally, from his job as an engineer and is getting to do some of the things he loves best — being outside, building and making things, spending time with family.
The lows: The world is in a bad place–global warming, ISIS, wars small and large, discrimination and hatred and killings. The world is always in a bad place, I know, but this year felt particularly big and hard and unsolvable. The Internet, a place I loved, a place I felt at home in for so many years — is no longer a safe place for myself and for so many others. Shaming and blaming, dogpiling, lack of human empathy and understanding, death threats, and more have turned the Internet from a safe haven for misfits like me into an emotionally dangerous land. There was a lot of illness and tragedy and sadness among my friends and family this year. I lost far too many amazing people in my life to cancer this year. Fuck cancer so hard. This year, I dealt with some intense depression (which for me brings a binge-eating disorder and a lot of apathy along with it) — all issues I thought I had overcome long ago, but which reared their horrible heads in the midst of everything.
And I didn’t write very much, even though I promised myself I would. And that, right there, sums up the truth of the year for me. I didn’t write very much. That’s how I know my state of space is fucked up. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change the world for the better. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change myself for the better. It means I am not doing what I believe I exist on this planet to do.
Last year, at 42, I was supposed to be the answer to the life, the universe and everything. I’d waited a long time to turn 42 on 4/2/2014. The numbers promised so much. In the end, it turned out I was the answer to nothing. It was my year to be the question instead. Being the question is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just wasn’t what I was prepared for. I learned a lot, held my seat a lot, listened a lot. I fought hard, sometimes about the wrong things. And sometimes I gave up on the right things. Tough years teach us a lot, and one of things this past year taught me was that I am invincible, fierce, and powerful, even in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps especially so.
43 is a weird number, in the middle of things, half-prime, descending, the interrobang of numbers, sort of this, sort of that, a rhetorical exclamation. I am going in half-cocked this year, like a gun that’s stuck between the mantle and the hand that strokes it. I am going to live fast and dye my hair. I am going to bury the seeds of what could be with no expectation that they will grow. I am going to make promises I can’t keep, because I believe in the power of desires that extend beyond my reach. I will sing to the mermaids when they will not sing to me. I will measure out my life with kisses and coffee spoons and points of punctuation on the page.
Do I dare disturb the universe?
Yes. Yes, I fucking do.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).
At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.
But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.
It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.
Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.
The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:
a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.
b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.
c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.
Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.
One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.
Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.
In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.
And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!
My baby’s a superhero.
And Sweet Jesus, but she’s got her powers turned on tight tonight.
You’d think she was the only one up on that stage and not part of a five-man band, from the way she holds court, all but mouth-fucking the microphone. Girl’s got the biggest, plumpest lips you’ve ever seen, and tonight they’re the purple of just-ripe plums, of bruises, of that half-moon mark where teeth tighten together over skin.
If you can bear to take your eyes off her mouth, go down. Slow. Open neckline, dark blue curls falling against her olive skin. Hint of cleavage. Long vanilla scar down the top right of her breast. Black spandex that works her curves like no-man’s land, makes you just want to taste that shine with your tongue all over.
The band behind her, they’ve got capes over their jeans and t-shirts. But no cape for her. It gets caught in her heels, she says, but you know it’s really that it covers too much of her. She likes to show off those hot-damn hips, that fine-as-rain-ass, those missing legs that end in something different every show
Tonight they’re steel filigree from her knees down; leaves and flowers and a hundred tiny metal creatures tucked into the empty spaces. She’s got a thing for whimsy wrapped in an enigma tucked into a weapon. Her legs, her feet really, end in six-inch knifed heels that could kill a man. Probably have killed a man. I don’t ask most times, because I don’t need to know. Sometimes she tells me anyway. And that’s when I have to buy a bottle of fine-ass whiskey and walk away from her, go down to the strip where the boys play ball in corner pockets and they’re all-too-happy to wield a fist to a face, a paddle to a place where the ass meets the mind.
Up there, on that stage, she looks like she’s singing, but she’s not singing. What she’s doing is so far beyond singing there are no words. A place beyond thought and sound coming together. If I believed in God, I’d say she was making the world, one note at a time. She just opens her mouth and suddenly things are in the world that weren’t there before. You. Me. Love. The sound of your breath leaving you, never to find its way back. I guess you’d call that death.
She makes the sound that makes death and life and love and when she stops, the crowd becomes a room of silence. Waiting. Teetering. Here, she could utter one more thing and blow them all over, explode them apart. End of days and all these delicate bodies would go down smiling.
One of these nights, I expect her to do it.
Not tonight. She smiles. Takes a deep breath. Bows. Her legs shine fierce as roughcut diamonds, sharp as a hand of razor blades before the fist. Some fan in the front row reaches up to the stage and touches the very edge of her toes. The metal protects him from her, but not from himself. Coppery blood arches into the air, and he draws his hand back, clutching himself. Ask him in five years, after he’s forgotten what it was like to have a finger there, and he’ll say he’d do it all over again, just for a taste of her, just for a single life-bleeding touch.
Bloodspill raises the crowd one more notch, fists in the air, fists in each other’s faces. They’re chanting, “Val-tora! Val-tora! Val-tora!” Once in a while someone screams, “Woooonder Caaaaaapes!”
Valtora, that’s her.
The Wonders, that’s her superhero backup band.
They think she’s saving them.
No one’s cheering for me. They don’t know about me.
Valtora wasn’t always a superhero. She wasn’t even always Valtora. Life gives you letters and you make letternames. That’s the kind of stuff Valtora doesn’t say. She just does it. Survivors, we just do the things that other people mouth about.
First Valtora was Valentino. Italian mafia. Man of a hundred wives and a million hits. No one cut off any of his body parts.
Then she was Valerie. Beautiful girl with a beautiful mouth. High-class escort in the pretty city. Everyone liked her body parts. Even when they found out most of those parts weren’t original model material.
When the war blew into town, she became Val. You want a gender? Hers was tough-talk-no-takebacks and sly-in-the-night. Someone was slyer, though. Someone with a big blade and the desire to make her talk. You lose two legs at the knee, turns out the sounds that come out of your mouth aren’t words, aren’t song, aren’t nothing so much as a whole lot of fuck yous.
By the time I entered the big picture, she was already on her way to becoming Valtora. Bombshell. Vibrato. Superhero. Weapons of choice? Curves that’ll knock you sideways if you don’t look away quick enough, a voice that’ll devastate you right off a high cliff and a pair of legs that’d as soon fuck you up as run.
And me? I stand next to the stage and I get knocked on my ass by those goddamn curves. I open my veins and let that voice work its way inside me like a virus. I design those legs that’ll fuck you up. But mostly, well mostly, I save the world.
You want to know what she is, right? You’re thinking: Really a superhero? Some kind of immortal? Maybe that’s just a lie upon a lie upon a lie. Maybe she’s just a human who lost a pair of legs and a pair of balls in a suicide car over a bridge one starfucked night.
Or maybe the lie is the one you tell yourself, in those dark nights when worry and fear beats the skindrum of your ribcage and God’s on your side and there’s no such thing as devils or demons or even superheroes that can fuck you up with the slip of a tongue.
Those lies have no place in me anymore. Not with Valtora in my life.
[Excerpted from “Saving the World”, Geek Love: An Anthology of Full-Frontal Nerdity]. Read the rest of the story by picking up a copy of this beautiful book. It’s full of amazing stories of sexy, subversive geek boys and girls getting it on, all accompanied by art and comics. (As a point of trivia, the graphic design for Geek Love is by Bear Weiter, who is now the art director at Monte Cook Games. This was the first project he and I worked on together, way back when).