2023/2024: An End and a Beginning

Happy New Year 2024 image
Happy New Year, y’all!

2023 was a pretty good year for me. I know it was tough for a lot of people, so I acknowledge that if all you did in 2023 was survive, then I am glad for it and I am proud of you.

I submitted a lot of manuscripts in 2023: 100 total, in fact. Three of my stories were accepted for publication: “The Apocalypses of Cheryl Dean” appeared in Inner Worlds; “Flash Drive” was accepted by the Thirteen podcast for a Patreon-only release; and “Trying to Stay Dead”, a reprint, was picked up by Tales to Terrify, another podcast. I have no idea when the second two stories will come out or be available.

I wrote a few new short stories, but they will need some polish before I’m comfortable sending them out. I also worked on a pair of novels: And the Devil Will Drag You Under and Witness to the Scourge. Neither is ready for submission; I have a lot of revision notes for the former, and the first draft of the latter isn’t even finished yet. Still, I’m pretty pleased with the progress I made and I plan on finishing up Devil and sending it out to agents by the middle of the year. We’ll see what comes of that.

I also did a decent job of being less “precious” about my writing; that is, I didn’t take as much offense when stories were rejected by markets, and I think I responded better to critiques of my stories than I have. This is a thing I’ve been working on and improving on for years.

For 2024, I plan to: write a short story a week; work on daily pages for M. Todd Gallowglas’s Journalist Project; and finish up those two novels. I have other novel ideas brewing, including reviving an idea that I had a few years ago that I gave up on. Remember when I kept talking about a Big Secret Project? Well, that’s back on the table.

Oh! And I have a mailing list, which you can subscribe to above. I plan to post at least once a month.

So yeah. Those are my writing goals for the coming year.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, as I’ve mentioned before. But since New Year’s Eve is my birthday, and I’m a sucker for milestones like that, I do like to examine my focus and priorities and see what needs adjusting. I have written about this before, so I won’t rehash it all in this post. And I’ve already written about my writing plans and ambitions above.

Other areas of my life that deserve more attention include Health and Fitness (of course), Community InvolvementFamily and FriendsGamingReading, and, of course, Daikaijuzine. I imagine that I’ll be posting more about each of those in the coming year.

One of my favorite quotes in the world is this:

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

—Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I’ve tried to let that be my guiding philosophy for some time now, and I’ll continue to do so.

Anyway. That’s all for now. I hope you all have a good, safe, creative, and prosperous 2024.

Today’s recommendation is the Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin. It’s an amazing series, featuring world-building that blew my tiny little brain when I read it, deep and rich characterizations, and an amazing writing style. Buy it or check it out of the library. Point is, you should read this series.

Box set of the Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin


‘Tis the season for Holidailies, which is almost at an end. Happy New Year!

Being an Ambitious Writer

A dragon writing on a typewriter
Here’s a dragon writing on a typewriter

I asked on social media and in several of the writing Discord servers that I belong to the following question:

Do you consider yourself an ambitious writer? And if you do, what does that mean to you?

So I am interested in whether my writer acquaintances and friends consider themselves ambitious in their writing. I got plenty of answers, ranging from those who don’t consider themselves ambitious at all to those who write 3-4 novels a year and plan on making a living with their writing within just a couple of years. One respondent said they plan to “redefine the genre”, which is definitely ambitious.

I think about some ambitious writers in history: J. R. R. Tolkien was definitely ambitious, in that he redefined how people read high fantasy fiction. C. S. Lewis as well. Neil Gaiman expanded fantasy again, and though he is modest he definitely “redefined the genre”.

In general, the answers I got as to what ambition means in writing means pushing boundaries, doing things that other writers haven’t done, and so on. In short, having an original vision and putting that vision out into the world.

Of course, the definition of “ambitious” is different for different people. Other writers defined ambition in writing as aiming for awards (in genre writing, such awards include the Hugo, the Nebula, and so on) or higher pay for their work.

I don’t think I’m very ambitious at work. When asked in the interview for my current job where I see myself in five years I answered, very honestly, that I had no management or supervisory ambitions; my only ambition is to get better at what I currently do.

As far as writing goes, my ambitions are to write better than I used to be: to constantly improve my craft and writing ability. Of course I’d like money, recognition and awards as well, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I set goals for myself and do my best to achieve them, but I can only control my own output; I can’t control my sales or whether I get awards or not. I think that’s fine too.

Any thoughts, readers, on what ambition and writing mean to you? I have a lot more to think about on this, and probably at least one more blot post to write.

Today I’m recommending my friend Paul’s Fenway Stevenson series, a mystery/thriller series which begins with The Reluctant Coroner.

Cover of The Reluctant Coroner by Paul Ardoin
This is the book I was telling you about just now!

Paul is an excellent writer, and I find this series compelling and engrossing, even though I don’t often read thrillers or mysteries. Paul is also in my writing group, so I get to read early drafts of these novels, and I consider myself very fortunate.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


Shan MacGowan died last week, which is a shame and a tragedy for those of us who enjoy Irish/Celtic punk music. He was the lead singer for the Pogues, a brilliant band, and he did some solo work as well.

I’ve always liked Irish and Celtic music, but when a dormmate on the second floor of my dorm building introduced me to the Pogues album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash with its piratical tones and hardcore notes, I was hooked. I went out and bought several Pogues albums at the local music store, and loved them all; my favorite was If I Should Fall from Grace with God but Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash will always have a special place in my heart.

Of course, a classic song by the Pogues is their Christmas tune, “The Fairytale of New York”. Well, it may be a Christmas tune in the way that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, which is to say, only peripherally (I won’t get into that debate here, thankyouverymuch). Point is, it’s a classic tune. I’ve linked to the official video above. Be warned, it’s not safe for work or for children (which is why I was amused that it showed up in the soundtrack to Lily and Dash on Netflix a couple of years ago).

Is punk music part of your holiday tradition? I didn’t think so, though I certainly do enjoy this song as well as Dropkick Murphys “The Season’s Upon Us”:

My recommendation for today is, of course, the music of the Pogues. Check out Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, of course, as well as their other albums. Their music also shows up in the movie Lair of the White Worm.

Have a musical Holidailies!

How They See

Cover of An Immense World by Ed Yong
An Immense World by Ed Yong

Ever since I read An Immense World by Ed Yong (cover above), I’ve been obsessed with the term “Umvelt“. It’s a German word that, aside from the host of semiotically-charged terms in that Wikipedia entry, basically refers to how an organism perceives, interacts with, and navigates the world. It’s all about the senses.

We humans have five (well, a lot more than five, but we won’t get into that) sense: taste, smell, touch, vision, and hearing. With these senses we get all the information we need about the world around us in order to figure it out and what’s going on and how it affects us. Different people have different levels of access to different senses (e.g., a person who is blind or visually impaired has less access to the sense of sight), of course, so it’s impossible to say that any two humans experience the world in exactly the same way.

Animals do it differently. Dogs experience the world primarily through their nose, which is why it’s important to let dogs sniff as many things as they want when taking them on a walk. Cats are similar, though as apex predators (yeah, right, you five-pound ball of fluff trying to crawl up my leg) they also rely on their vision and hearing.

Currently, we have a foster kitten who is blind, and I’ve been watching her make her way through the world. When she’s walking around the kitten room, she uses her nose and her whiskers extensively. Sometimes she bumps her head lightly against the wall, but mostly her other senses serve her well; she can make her way around the room, bipping around obstacles she has memorized, playing with toys, and sniffing around the room to find water, food, treats, and the litter box. It’s actually rather astonishing.

Bright, the blind kitty
This is Bright, our blind foster kitty, who, along with her brother Merry, is available for adoption.

But a cat’s Umvelt is different than a human’s. We don’t rely on our noses and whiskers as much as they do. So there are differences.

Further away from us evolutionarily, we get bats who use echolocation to find food (contrary to myth, apparently, bats are not blind; they can see just dandy) and explore the world. Most humans can’t do that (though some blind people have learned to “click” and experience the world around them with that sort of echolocation). Some birds are able to sense gravity differently than we do, or the magnetic fields of the earth to figure out how their migration routes.

Whales, insects, birds, bats, cats, dog, even plants all experience the world and have sensory input from it. Every organism has its own Umvelt.

In critters that have brains, that brain is usually the central processing unit of all those senses; however, that’s kind of diffuse as well. An octopus’s brain is in its head, but each arm of an octopus has its own neural processing unit, its own brain, which can process the sensory input from that one arm and respond to it while sending that information on to the rest of the organism and… Well, octopuses are amazing and confusing animals.

There is evidence that much there are sensory inputs for much larger “meta-organisms”, such as a huge fungal distribution, or a colony of social insects, or even forests; Yong does not go into these so much, so you’d have to read another book, Ways of Being by James Bridle.

Cover of "Ways of Being"
Cover of “Ways of Being” by James Bridle

Ways of Being is a much more philosophical book, and I won’t go into here because even though I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I still have to process it.

What does all this have to do with Christmas and the holidays? I don’t know if it has anything to do with Christmas and the holidays. I just thought it was neat.

Today I recommend the Zombies are Human series of novels by my friend Jamie Thornton. I’ve maintained for a long time that it’s impossible to do a fresh take on the zombie genre, but Jamie’s done a great job of doing just that. The series starts with book zero, Germination, and goes from there. Read, read, and keep reading. You’ll enjoy these.

Germination: Book Zero of the Zombies are Human series
Germination: Book Zero of Jamie Thornton’s Zombies are Human series

Even zombies enjoy Holidailies.

NaNoWriMo 2023: How’d I do?

Covid virus
THIS is what I’ve been fighting all week!

Warning: This post is utterly unstructured. It’s rambly. Unfocused. Incoherent. Enjoy.

The first thing I want to say is that my short story “The Apocalypses of Cheryl Dean” has been published by Inner Worlds magazine, and can be found online. It’s one of my favorite stories, and I am so glad it found a good home. The other stories in that issue are all wonderful as well. Check it out!

Well, I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo this year, by which I mean I did not reach 50,000 words in my novel before November 30. Just after mid-November, I altered my goal, since I was sick, so I aimed for 25,000 words by November 30. I did not reach that goal either. I ended up with about 23,000 words on Witness to the Scourge because, well, I was sick. With COVID. Yes, it’s still out there, people. I’m glad I am fully vaccinated with all kinds of boosters, since I’d hate to think of how badly off I’d be otherwise. Instead it just settled in my lungs like a cold, and filled up my sinuses, and only gave me one night of shivering fever. I’m reasonably sure that I won’t end up with long COVID.

So, Witness to the Scourge will have to wait until I feel better.

My family celebrates Thanksgiving today, as well as my mom’s birthday. Unfortunately, I can’t make it, because, as I already said, COVID. This makes me unutterably sad. I am, of course, grateful for a number of things: COVID vaccines and boosters, modern medicine in general, and so on. My pulmonologist in particular has been very helpful. I have a birthday present to send to my mom, or to deliver on Christmas Eve, but I won’t say what it is here.

On writing in general, I wonder if I should strive to be a more ambitious writer, meaning that I should aim to write better, write more, write faster, and really push that publication agenda. I mean, I already write quite a bit, I submit manuscripts twice a week, but I tend to trunk my novels before actually finishing them (see my previous post on that, “The Trunkening“). I need to go in with a solid vision of the story, and, you know, actually finish them. I’ll come up with an agenda, suggested by my friend Theresa, and see what happens.

I suppose that’s all I’ve got this time around. I promise my next post with be more coherent.

So this time I’m going to recommend the Penelope Standing Mysteries by my friend T. M. Baumgartner, writing as Tess Baytree. I don’t read many cozy mysteries, but this series is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend them. Start, of course, with the first one, Death Walks a Dog, and go from there.

Death Walks a Dog
Death Walks a Dog by Tess Baytree

It’s Holidailies Time, but this year I have no penguin adventures to share with you. My deepest apologiest.

On the Trunkening

Terry Pratchett's Luggage
An illustration of the luggage from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels

I’ve been thinking about novels I’ve written and abandoned over the years, just as a sort of exercise in self-torture. I’ve written most of these for National Novel-Writing Month, but not all. Here is a list, probably somewhat incomplete:

2001: Unfallen. This was a novelization of a World of Darkness game I ran in late 1999/early 2000. Status: Trunked.

2003: The Outer Darkness. A space opera. Status: Trunked.

2004: The Road to Gilead. A post-apocalyptic cowboy novel. Status: Trunked.

2005: Fred Again. Some sort of contemporary fantasy with elements of cosmic horror and humor. I’ve worked and worked on this one, but I haven’t touched it for a couple of years. I did retitle it The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster, though. Status: In progress. Sort of.

2006: Code Monkey! A Love Story with Occasional Monsters. Another contemporary fantasy. Status: Trunked.

2007: The Return of Deacon Dread. Not sure how to describe this one. Contemporary fantasy with horror elements. Status: Trunked.

2008: The Lord of Nightmares. A sequel to The Return of Deacon Dread. Never finished. Status: Trunked.

2009: Iron Horse Apocalypse. A cosmic horror western set entirely on a moving train. Status: Trunked.

2010: Brought to Life. I felt like writing a modern-day Frankenstein novel set in America, with supernatural elements. Status: Trunked.

2011: Toymaker, Part One. A story about a Boston mage in the 18th century. Status: Trunked.

2012: Toymaker, Part Two: A sequel to Toymaker, Part One. Status: Trunked.

2013: Love in the Time in Cthulhu. A contemporary fantasy love story set in a world where Cthulhu has risen up and the world has fallen to the Old Ones. Status: Trunked.

2014: The Book of Jonah. A retelling of the Biblical story of Jonah, set in modern day America. Status: Trunked.

2015: Hashtag M for Murder. A sequel to Fred Again. Status: Trunked.

2016: Padma. A horror/fantasy/sci fi novel about a medical student facing the end of the world. Status: Trunked. For now.

2017: And the Devil Will Drag You Under. Status: In Progress.

2019: A Plague of Ghosts. A space opera historical novel, set in both a distant galaxy and on Earth during the First World War. Status: Trunked.

2021: The Afghan Code. A spoof of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Status: Trunked.

2022: The Outer Darkness I: Genesis. A re-envisioning of The Outer Darkness from 2003. Status: Trunked.

There are more, but those are the ones I wrote for National Novel Writing Month events. And even though I haven’t “won” NaNoWriMo since 2016, it still holds a place in my heart.

So why the trunkening? Why do I end up giving up on so many of my novels? I don’t know, but it is frustrating. Now, there’s nothing wrong with putting a project on “pause”, as several of my writer friends have pointed out to me, while you regroup and put together some more ideas for the project. So some of these projects might show up, emerge from the trunk like ghosts, but I somehow doubt it. Each time I finish something but don’t revisit it to revise/submit, I feel like a failure somehow. And if I give up on my current projects — Witness to the Scourge and And the Devil Will Drag You Under — I’ll feel like even more of a failure.

There’s certainly a part of me, that I can’t seem to shut up, that tells me I have to complete something before I die. I wanted to have a lot of completed, published novels under my belt by this point in my life, but that hasn’t happened, despite me wanting to be a writer and novelist pretty much all my life. So what’s the deal? Fear of failure? Of success? Laziness? I don’t think I’m a lazy person, for reasons I won’t go into here, so maybe it’s one of the other two reasons. Or maybe something altogether else.

Probably fear of failure, though. Each of these novels represented the best that I could write at the time I wrote them — this is important, because most of them were written during November, during National Novel Writing Month. But whenever I looked back at them, I saw nothing but imperfections and annoyances, and I got too overwhelmed to rework them and submit them. I didn’t want to face the fact that I could rework and rewrite them, only to end up with them still being imperfect and bad.

So for accountability’s sake, here’s what I plan on doing for the next few months:

  • Finish revisions to And the Devil Will Drag You Under. Then maybe shoot it off to some beta readers, and then query it.
  • Write and finish Witness to the Scourge. That’s my NaNo project for this year, as I’ve mentioned before.

Maybe after November is done, I will revisit some of the trunked novels I’ve listed above and see whether I can salvage them.

If you’ve read any of the novels I’ve listed here as part of one of my critique groups in the past or because I posted it online while writing it, let me know and tell me what you thought!

Today I recommend Wonderbook, a book on the craft of writing by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s got plenty of tips and ideas and essays and examples, is lavishly illustrated, and contains sidebars and essays by writers such as Neil Gaiman, Tobias Buckell, and more! I love this book, and I am always inspired whenever I read it.

Cover of "Wonderbook" by Jaff VanderMeer
THE best writing book I’ve found, bar none!

You can buy it here, or from Amazon.

So It Goes…

I swear I had the best of intentions when I said I was going to blog every day in August, but then… that did not happen. I’m not sure why not. Maybe I burned out on blogging. Maybe I was abducted by the Fair Folk and only now, four centuries later, returned to the mortal world (seems unlikely). Most likely, other things got in the way.

So how are you?

Banner image for National Novel Writing Month 2023
NaNoWriMo 2023 is coming all. Buckle up!

Anyway, I’ve decided to once again participate in National Novel Writing Month! I’ve committed to that before, but honestly my heart hasn’t really been in it since I wrote up the first few chapters of the first draft of my current work-in-progress, And the Devil Will Drag You Under (status of that, by the way, is that I’ve completed revisions on paper, now just need to input them into the document in Scrivener).

This year, I plan to write the first draft of Witness To the Scourge, a novel about refugees from the destroyed world of the Fae and the danger facing them in the mortal world. I plan on it being a little dark, a little funny, and a little bit hopeful. And, of course, very good, as most of my fiction is. Or so I like to think.

I’m not the regional Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo. I burned out on that back in  2017 after doing it for eleven years. I am, however, helping coordinate write-ins and what-not on the site for the Sacramento region since we currently have no ML, and that makes me sad.

That’s all I’ve got for now. If you’re going to be participating in National Novel Writing Month this year, I wish you glory!

This time I’m recommending this book:

Cover of the book "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibfram X. Kendi

I’m about 50% of the way through it, and it’s blowing my mind. It’s about how overcoming racist ideas, thoughts, tropes, and feelings is a life-long process of overcoming a lifetime of living in a racist society. I suspect I will have much more to say about this book when I am done with it.

On Self Acceptance

Accept Yourself
Accept yourself, dammit!

This topic was suggested by my mother-in-law, Janet Mueller!

I am not a therapist, counselor, or a psychologist, so I don’t know if I’m qualified to write this post with any authority. So I’ll write with without authority, and you can just accept that.

First, an observation. When I was doing an image search for the term “self acceptance” to use as the header of this blog post, I found a LOT of clip art featuring women, and only one or two featuring men. I don’t think that’s deliberate; I think that there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding the improvement of mental and emotional health, and that stigma hits men particularly hard. Real men don’t go to therapy. Real men don’t need to self-actualize. Real men don’t have to take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds. Real men work through it all; heck, I saw a Twitter X post from a “REAL MAN” (in his bio, along with the fact that he was a God-loving Christian) who proudly stated that when his father died, he didn’t even go to the funeral; he went to work. Is this healthy? I’m going to say no.

The point, though, is that I had to dig a bit to find a bit of clip art that I thought was gender-neutral enough to include at the top of this blog post.

Self acceptance is hard. We talk a lot about having to accept our limits when we consider our dreams and our fantasies about what we want to do and about the changes we want to make in the world, and this too is considered “self acceptance”.

I think it’s important to accept your limits, of course, but it’s also important to realize where your limits are. And they probably aren’t as nearby as you think. I probably won’t ever win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I may, if I try hard, be able to write a novel that features a post-scarcity, post-colonial civilization that is intent on making reparations to the peoples it has harmed. This is pretty ambitious. I’ve actually been thinking about this for several years as part of a Big Secret Writing Project that, unfortunately, never got off the ground. It still percolates in the back of my mind, but it probably won’t get written anytime soon.

So: accepting yourself means not just accepting your limitations, but also your possibilities. Acknowledge the things you can’t do, but also bear in mind those things you might do, if you wish.

As Marianne Williamson wrote, in a passage frequently misattributed to Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

This, I argue, is what self acceptance really is: the acceptance of your possibilities, not just your limitations.

Follow me for more wisdom!

Today’s recommendation is the movie Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead. I’m talking the live-action film on Netflix, not the anime or the manga. Jennifer and I saw this movie recently, and it delighted us both, and I loved its themes of self-acceptance, of friendship, and finding meaning in life, even in a zombie apocalypse. Plus, there’s no stupid love triangle or romantic subplot to distract from the zombie-squishing goodness! We saw the English dubbed version, but you can also watch it in Japanese with English subtitles. Highly recommended!

Post art for Netflix's Zom 100
Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead

Dreams and Writing

Rare photograph of my brain while I’m dreaming

This topic was suggested by Lynne de Bie. Hi Lynne!

Like most people, I don’t remember all my dreams, but I do remember plenty of them. And the ones I do remember are often pretty intense, both in imagery and in emotion. I remember one dream I had before I was ten years old which featured an evil floating carrot. I remember a dream I had a few years ago which featured time traveling pirates constantly asking, “What era of human history is this?” Last night I dreamed of a cafe I used to work at and the people there (more on that some other time).

Sometimes I have hypnogogic hallucinations, which are weird brain events that happen while you’re drifting off to sleep but haven’t quite made it there yet. Usually, I just hear three knocks on the wall behind me or at the door. I did a little research into this, and it turns out this is pretty common; so common that there’s folklore and superstition surrounding it. If you hear three knocks as you’re drifting off to sleep, it’s an omen that someone is going to die. I don’t believe in omens, but I do find it interesting.

Sometimes I have hypnopompic hallucinations, which are the opposite: weird brain events that happen as you’re waking up but haven’t quite exited the dream state and your body is still paralyzed from sleep. In these events, scary things can happen; I remember vividly having a ghost with a mirror for a face climb into the bed next to me and terrifying me. Usually when these happen, I spend a few seconds trying to talk but being unable to, until I’m finally able to let out a scream or incoherent words and startling both Jennifer and the cats awake. I don’t think they’re impressed.

Sometimes I will post my more vivid dreams on Facebook, recreating the people, places, and events to the best of my recollection (which isn’t always very accurate). Usually, a friend suggests that these dreams would make a great story or novel or at least a twist in my work in progress. And often I agree.

But it rarely happens. I mean, I’ve never written a story that features an evil floating giant carrot, I’ve never written about time-traveling pirates, and I’ve certainly never written about a ghost with a mirror for a face. I’m sitting here now and trying to figure out why I don’t do this.

Time Bandits with a map of the universe and its wormholes
Fry, Bender, and Farnsworth in a time machine

Part of this is that dreams are often derivative. Time traveling pirates who ask at each destination “What era of human history is this?” reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s fantastic 1981 movie Time Bandits crossed with the Futurama episode “The Late Philip J. Fry”.

I have occasionally dreamed of writing itself, though such dreams usually involve being unable to find a particularly brilliant story that I have written. How tragic! And some of those stories have magical abilities, too, such as being able to heal diseases in the people who read them.

So all in all… There isn’t much of a connection between my writing and my dreams that I am consciously aware of, though I am sure one exists.

Today’s recommendation is a television show, and it is a Korean action series called “Zombieverse.” It is about a bunch of reality TV stars who are trapped in a zombie apocalypse in Seoul and have to survive. It can be annoying at times, but on the whole I enjoyed it. Currently it is streaming on Netflix.

Gaming and Writing

Polyhedral Dice
Many-sided dice for funsies

Another topic suggested by Brian C. E. Buhl! Hello again, Brian!

First of all, a big welcome to the readers who came here from the Just Keep Writing podcast newsletter! And a huge thanks to the hosts of Just Keep Writing for linking to my blog! This podcast, in case you aren’t aware, is a great one for writers, with a diverse set of hosts and a wide array of topics. A few months ago, they did a read-along of Charlie Jane Anders’s wonderful Never Say You Can’t Survive; currently, they are reading along in Matt Bell’s Refuse to be Done.

You may have noticed that I don’t necessarily blog about writing every single day. Yesterday’s post on my favorite sandwich wasn’t about writing. I’ll do better at finding ways to bring writing into the day’s topic.

In today’s post, I use a lot of terms familiar to old-timey gamers, like Player Character and Non-Player Character, that may not be familiar to non-gamers. If you find yourself faced with one of these terms and want to know what it means, just ask me here or on Facebook, and I’ll do my best to enlighten you.

Gaming, when I was in high school and college all those years ago, meant primarily table-top role-playing games, such as Twilight: 2000Call of CthulhuBoot Hill, and, of course, the giant in the playground, Dungeons and Dragons. If you were a gamer, you probably played one of these, or maybe you played a Steve Jackson card game like Car Wars. These days, if you’re a gamer, you probably play video games, either on your PC or on your console of choice.

I use the first definition. I’m an old-time gamer. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in my junior year of high school, occasionally DMing a game, occasionally playing, but none of us really knew what we were doing. I really got into it in 1986 in my first year of college, with a couple of friends who were also heavy duty gamers. I started my first campaign in 1987, and ran it for many years; I’ve run several campaigns in Dungeons and Dragons, and later Pathfinder, since. Most of them were in the same campaign setting which I detailed in meticulous notes that I still have a thick black binder. My current game is set in the 18th century Caribbean and features pirates.

So, that’s the perspective I think of when I think of gaming and writing.

I know that lots of writers credit role-playing games (RPGs, or TTRPGs — Table Top Role-Playing Games) with learning the craft of writing. Playing a character in someone’s campaign can give you deep insight into that character and how characters in general are created and how they work, while running a campaign can give you the same insight (since you’re probably playing a bunch of NPCs —Non-Player Characters), as well as a deep dive into worldbuilding and story generation, especially if you run a homebrew campaign instead of a pre-made module.

For me, though, things were a little different.

My DMing style is what like to call “Reactionary Improvisational”, which means that I pretty much make up the storyline and the ongoing world in reaction to what the players do during the game and the questions they ask. I may create a puzzle without a solution, for example, and simply trust when I’m running the game that there would be fix or six smart players who would come up with a solution that I think works. Or, as my friend Dezzy once put it, I might have an orc in a battle with a halberd, and when questioned about it I would not only give a detailed and interesting answer, but I would by the next session have a detailed culture built for the orcs that includes their using their halberds as weapons of honor in certain types of battle.

It’s all improvisational, in other words. I mean, I learned much about worldbuilding, and happily created worlds and scenarios for games of all sorts. Did I learn about plotting and character? That’s a difficult question for me to answer, since everything I’ve ever done was pretty much improvisational. My games were led, plotwise, primarily by player actions, instead of having the plot guide the characters (but never forcing them onto a particular path, which is anathema to DMs). Thus, in my stories and novels, I tended, for a long time, to have passive characters who reacted to events around them rather than initiate them. I’ve definitely gotten better at this since it’s been pointed out to me by members of various writers’ groups and other readers and editors, but it’s something I still struggle with.

This is not to say that I regret in any way all that time I spent playing TTRPGs. I have friends I’ve known since high school that I wouldn’t have made without gaming, and I know that most people who played my games had a grand time (you can’t please everyone of course, and some people didn’t like them, which was always fine with me). And, of course, I have plenty of dear friends of over twenty years that I bonded with over our love of Dungeons and Dragons1, and I regret none of that. It’s also been pointed out to me that some of the puzzles I created for my sessions were deeply philosophical or moral ones, and the players really enjoyed solving them and learning from them.

So. Worldbuilding, yes. I learned a lot about that from my years playing TTRPGs. Characters with agency and plotting? Probably not so much.

Today I finished reading Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. I’ve always had a fondness for our Neanderthal cousins, whose DNA many of us share, and what the world was like for them. At many points it a dry read, and somewhat slow, but I recommend it highly if you’re at all interested in that sort of thing.