Back to Where It Began

Replaying on my XBOne means screenshots! Finally!

In many ways, my life started over in the spring of 2011.

I was three years out of an emotionally abusive relationship that left me questioning my worth, abilities, talents… everything. I was two years out from finishing my MFA, and the two years of that program, while amazing, were intensive and overwhelming and left me feeling burned out creatively. I was one year out from having purchased my XBox 360, and starting to rediscover my love of gaming. And it was that spring I was loaned a copy of BioWare’s Mass Effect.

Mass Effect engaged me in a way Halo and Left4Dead had not. While I loved the world and character of Halo, and quickly learned what it was to be in fandom again, the storytelling, characters, and world of Mass Effect engaged me completely. That particular semester, I had an end of day study hall duty that happened to be comprised mostly of gamers. We had great discussions about gaming, and at one point, a student, knowing my love of fantasy, suggested I’d like Dragon Age, since it had a lot of the same elements as Mass Effect. So I borrowed it. And it was just medieval Mass Effect.

Except… NOPE. It was so much more.

Alistair, Fianna, Morrigan, and Cat the Dog

In very little time I was fully immersed in the Blight-stricken land of Ferelden, and terms such as “The Maker”, “Ostagar”, “Orzammar”, “Circle of Magi”, “Andraste”, and “Tevinter” (eventually the most important of those!) became familiar. I fell into the plight of Ferelden and got to know Fianna Cousland, my Grey Warden, better than any character I’d ever worked with before. Her romance with Alistair (the first time I ever played) happened slowly, but also suddenly. It came unexpectedly, as did the relationships she forged with her companions. I was shocked when Zevran betrayed her in a back alley later in the game because I didn’t understand approval ratings. I struggled through the endlessness that was the Fade because I didn’t yet understand BioWare’s penchant for puzzles. I slogged through the Deep Roads because I didn’t yet know how much BioWare loves tormenting us (it’s okay, BioWare, I still love you).

I initially told Morrigan no way in the void was she going to sleep with Alistair. And then watched Riordan fall from Fort Drakon and realized Alistair or Fianna would have to kill the Archdemon, and reset to an earlier save.

In subsequent playthroughs I learned more about the mechanics and how to spec characters and build rapport so my team stuck with me. But a funny thing happened. I’d been so burned out creatively, but Dragon Age woke something up in me. These realized characters in this amazing world with its deep lore fascinated me so much, that I wanted to write about them. I hadn’t wanted to write in years, and, having received my MFA, figured if I did ever write again, it would have to be serious original fiction.

Fuck that. I wrote my first Dragon Age fic, “Beautiful Prison”, in June of 2011. It was a short bit about Alistair waiting to be recruited by Duncan. He tells your Warden the story in conversation, but I wanted to see the scene through his eyes, feel the tension in his mind.

Writing that piece felt like waking up to a new world. Possibly coming out of Uthenera, to use another DA word from their Dalish Elvehn culture. The words didn’t stop flowing. I needed an outlet and found a Facebook group dedicated to Alistair. I started finding friends to talk about DA with. I started crafting Dragon Age-themed things: from painting canvas shoes, to a fun little alphabet scrapbook, to my first ever cosplay, for PAX East 2012, where I got to meet the Dragon Age creative team. I met my best friend, who invited me to play D&D with her family and some friends.

So dragon. Much age. Wow.

A lot of people may scoff at the idea that a video game could change my life, especially when I was already in my thirties when I stumbled up on it. But through Dragon Age I branched out. I found a new friend group. Luna (BFF) invited me to her group’s annual Christmas party, where I met extended friends who weren’t in our D&D campaign. It felt nice to branch out and be creative. It felt nice to be social in different ways (though I totally loved my cats and my apartment, and did really enjoy going out with my work friends). But at that party, in walked my husband.

He wasn’t my husband then. Of course. Bard was one of the first to arrive after me. He was tall with dark hair and wide brown eyes and an adorable smile. We hit it off immediately and spent the next week chatting on Facebook. By March we were dating. By that July, 2012, we were engaged. By July 2013, we were married. In that time I kept writing, producing DA fanfic and articles for a DA fan site. I kept learning new cosplay skills and developing new D&D characters. Luna and I hung out a lot, and how cool was it that I got to move down the street from my best friend?

Much has happened in those intervening years: several PAX Easts are in the book, I have a sprawling Dragon Age headcanon with a huge series of fanfiction following my Inquisitor (Inqusition’s 2014 release changed even more!). I live down the street from Luna, and have made more friends through DA. I’ve tapered off my cosplaying some, but retain the skills I learned through sewing for it. Oh, I have a kid! In 2015 Bard and I welcomed our Smol Human. He started kindergarten this month.

And I’m still writing. In 2018 I got the confidence to try writing original again, taking inspiration from Dragon Age, Skyrim, and other games. I’m working on my series and loving it. Though I don’t always have a lot of time to work on it, I’m not overwhelmed or feeling disappointed or burned out by it. I’m creating again, I’m working with fantastic authors, and I feel alive in a way I didn’t before picking up Dragon Age: Origins in 2011.

I feel ya, Fianna. 2020’s been like that.

Earlier this month, BioWare released a teaser trailer confirming work on DA4 and the fandom went wild. It’s been six years since Inquisition, and to finally have more news (than just Solas’s voiceover with a graphic) sent us into an uproar. With that, I decided it was high time I booted up Origins once again and revisited Ferelden. Bard asked me if I’d play a different character and make different choices this time.

I see the appeal. But I wanted that feeling of coming home, of the Blight bringing people together, of waking up after a long sleep and coming to life again. I wanted to go back to where it started. Back not just to Origins, but the origin of where the last nearly 10 years have brought me, and that means playing Fianna’s story.

It felt good.

Like coming home.

Building a World? This May Help!

Background photo created by bedneyimages – www.freepik.com

I’ve been at work on the Ungifted series since early 2018. In that time Sneakthief has gone through four drafts (I’m on the fifth) and I have three drafts of Turncoat and lots of ideas for the next two books. But one thing I’d never done was organize all my thoughts about the world. I’d never really built it.

In a sense, I felt like I was discovering a lot as I went, which is kind of the hallmark of a pantser, and I make no secret that I’m a pantser to the highest degree. That worked for general plot, and for the characters, as I got to know them, but didn’t work so well for actually building my world and making it a unique place. The problem I found was that I couldn’t settle on an organizational system.

I have friends who swear by Scrivener. I tried Scriv, and its free counterpart Y Writer, when I was using a primarily Windows-based PC laptop. I just couldn’t seem to figure it out, or make it work for me the way I needed it to. I have friends to use Excel or Google Sheets (and my husband swears by Excel. You could say he excels at it. I’ll see myself out). I got a small binder with dividers and pages, and tried organizing it that way. Helpful, but still not what I needed. Maybe I’d just keep it all in my head and hope for the best.

I was fortunate to receive some amazing beta feedback that told me exactly what I needed to hear, and why it was important to not try to keep track of it all in my head. Around the same time I was fortunate to be getting Facebook ads for Scribe Forge’s Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook.

The Essential Worldbuilding Blueprint and Workbook was exactly what I needed to answer the questions my beta reader had posed and the advice they’d given me. The first section of the book discusses the different elements of worlds and worldbuilding, and things that must be considered when doing so. It’s structured to work for most speculative genres, including high fantasy, sci-fi, and urban fantasy. It covers everything from how to develop a planet, down to the legal systems of your world. And the best part is, you can pick and choose what works for you. What do you need to develop?

This is where part two comes in: an extensive collection of worksheets that ask the questions I didn’t even consider, or thought might have obvious answers, but didn’t. Again, you can use the worksheets that you need for your particular project. I spent quite a bit of time going through the worksheet section and filling in the gaps of my world, down to means of production, travel, and trade. And again, the aim of the worksheets isn’t for you to complete everything, but to do what you need for your project.

“But Jay, if you did the worksheets, aren’t you going to have to buy a whole other book when your next project comes up?”

Scribe Forge offers the hard copy book, or digital download, or a combo of the two. In this way you have the ability to work with fresh worksheets for new projects. I personally need to physically write stuff out, and I don’t have printer capabilities right now, so having the book was really helpful. But, I have the digital copy in case I want to find a way to print up fresh sheets. I’m a fan of options, and I’m glad that Scribe Forge had them! Additionally, there was a disclaimer that it could take up to 4-6 weeks to ship, however I think I had my hard copy in a week and a half or so. The digital piece was ready at the time of purchase, however, which was great!

Overall, for me, building my world required having the right tools, and it took me some time to figure out what that meant. In the end, it took Scribe Forge’s product to help me organize the information my beta reader recommended I include. It may not be for everyone, but if you’ve been working on worldbuilding and struggling with where to start, or finding a system to organize your thoughts or even force you to dig deeper into your world, I’d recommend this.

This post is not sponsored by Scribe Forge in any way; I have just really enjoyed using their product and felt it to be extremely helpful, and want to pass on why it’s worked for me.

What’s Going On?

Did you sing it in your head, too?

So I didn’t wake up this morning and go outside; I took some deep breaths, but didn’t get real high… but I thought I’d just take some time to say what’s going on in these parts!

Between COVID-19 and the the hard work that’s been going on for Black Lives Matter, there’s a lot that’s going on in the world. Our state has mostly opened up; life is starting to look simultaneously the same but very different. I’ve been spending more time educating myself on racism, listening to and reading Black voices, and looking at what I can and should be doing in myself and in my community to promote equality and squash racism.

I’ve been teaching two classes on top of my full-time day job; one of them is creative writing, and I’ve taken a very different approach to how it had previously been taught. It’s been really eye-opening and my students have impressed me with how eager they are to push outside of their comfort zone and learn to trust themselves and the process. I’m teaching it again come summer term, so I’m working on updating the class to be taught in 10 weeks, rather than 12.

Sneakthief is now with my beta team! I’m hoping just one more pass before I send it to my editor at SKOLION. I should be diving into edits on Turncoat, but that’s stalled a bit–which is fine! I’m kind of picking away at another Dragon Age fic that I started a while back, and my GreedFall fic needs updating and finishing; I’m about 2/3 through that one.

I commissioned a render of Nicholas!

Nicholas Alcyon – 3d render by Verfallen-02

And with that, I’ve learned about artbreeder.com, where you can merge images to create portraits! By combining many features, you can create portraits… and I have created my whole cast. Oops. I’m thinking of starting to post the images and short character bios in the Ungifted section of the site!

I’m enrolled in Mark Dawson’s Ads for Authors course, and am hoping to up my promotion game and improve my platform starting this summer. I mean, I know it’s summer as of today, but yeah. I want to finish up my work with my classes, organize myself a bit better, and then figure out my aims and what’s realistic for me.

I know newsletters are a good way to do things; if I were to do a newsletter, what might people like to see? I’m thinking just once a month, and providing content that my audience might enjoy. Drop a comment to let me know what sounds good!

Finally, I got a simple Kindle e-reader; Smol Human gets the Fire, and now I have a device just for reading–it’s great since I get easily distracted. I finished Yolandie Horak’s A Study of Ash and Smoke, and was blown away by how GOOD it is. You can read my Goodreads review here.

So that’s what’s going on in my corner of the world… what’s been occupying your time?

Coming to Life

As an author, I constantly have images going through my mind: what my characters look like, how my world looks, how my characters look in that world… you get the idea. Mental images are cobbled together from the many references I’ve stored up in my mind over the years. For settings, that’s not really an issue. But for characters, it’s another story (no pun intended)

Sneakthief started with a character: the Sneakthief. I had a vague idea of him: his role, his talents, etc. It literally came from playing a sneaky archer thief in Skyrim (I know I know… but is there any other way to play?) and a guard said, “Hands to yourself, sneakthief.” And it all began to spiral from there.

Once I had the general idea of the character, more started falling into place: his background, his place in the world, his relationships, his desires, his fears, his looks.

Theodore Tolliver has lived in my head for over two years now, and I’ve always been able to generally describe him. I’ve had to, since I’m writing his stories! But I’m not an artist, and lack the abilities to craft a visual representation of the character.

Enter Verfallen. Also known as Schattenriss on Archive of Our Own, Verfallen is a talented author, as well as super talented with Photoshop and most recently, Daz 3D. He opened up a Ko-fi this week and has commissions open, so how could I pass up the opportunity to bring Theodore Tolliver, my Sneakthief, to life?

Theo, as he appears in Sneakthief. A little roguish, a little younger, longer hair, just doing the best he can.

And then:

Theo in Turncoat. He’s seen some shit by this point, chopped a lot of his hair off (though not all… but I saw a model of him with no hair and he looked pretty good, so we’ll see what happens!) He’s had enough of being controlled, and he’s about to start fighting back.

I can’t really explain what it’s like to see my character come to life like this. He’s not just a description anymore. And when I write him, I’ll have an even clearer picture of what he looks like in mind.

If you’re looking to get a render of your character(s), I really can’t say enough about working with Verfallen. He’s put a lot of time into getting models and renders of his own character, Kai, down perfectly, so he understands what it’s like to want to see your beloved character come to life.

And now back to editing!

Out of the Comfort Zone

Some years just stand out as being big years: transformative years, that mold you and shape you. 2001 was one such year: I went through what was, at the time, a traumatic break-up; I made the choice to live on campus over the summer, and work for a publishing company (it was data entry for EBSCO, so no visions of glamorous publishing internships in Boston, plz). 9/11 was months on the horizon. And in between working and figuring out who I was and what I wanted, I decided to go skydiving.

It was something I’d always wanted to do, and when the opportunity presented itself, I eagerly accepted. I won’t go into the whole day (which I remember so clearly). What’s important here is when I finally got up in the plane. I was doing a tandem jump. They’d assured us that if we got to the drop zone and didn’t want to jump, we didn’t have to. Everyone ahead of me slid up the bench to the doors. We slid up until I was staring into nothing but sky. My pro asked, “Are you ready?”

In that moment I could hold back. I could stay in a perfectly good airplane that would set me safely back on solid ground. I’d never know what clouds tasted like. There would be no refunds. I stared out at the infinite sky above and all around, and the ground, 14,000 feet below. “I’m ready.”

It still ranks as one of the best things I’ve ever done.

This weekend I had another ready moment. While it’s not quite as sweeping as jumping out of an airplane, it’s still a huge leap outside of my comfort zone and the next step of what has been a very transformative couple of years for me. This weekend I pressed ‘send’ on the first group of chapters for Sneakthief’s beta team.

And today I got back a first round of feedback, and I have to say, it’s all WONDERFUL. It doesn’t make me feel daunted, and afraid of going back. I’ve put a lot of work into the writing and rewriting, and feedback is only going to make it better. I’m super excited to delve into the next round of edits based on feedback… and this is just from one person.

That jump in 2001 showed me that I could do it. That risks were worth taking, and I was strong enough to take them. I took a huge leap of faith in 2019, and it turned into more than I could have expected, and it’s empowered me to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and publish a book. And with all the help I’m getting, it’s going to be a good book.

Maybe pressing ‘send’ isn’t jumping out of a plane, but it’s out of my comfort zone, and instead of being nervous or wracked with anxiety that makes me sick, I’m excited, because it can only improve my work. And that’s so worth it.

rEaL wRiTeRs

rEaL wRiTeRs

First off, a confession: I’ve never seen a full episode of Spongebob Squarepants. It came out at that strange time of my life when I had just started college, and we didn’t have cable TV, let alone streaming (it was the dark times, the old times). But I’m familiar enough with it, and feel like I speak memes and gifs as another language. Still, if I don’t know the exact source material, does that make me a real fan of the meme?

Okay, so that was a bit of a stretch to get into this. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is to be a Real Writer. A real anything, really. Thinking back to Pinocchio, what did it mean for him to be a real boy? When he could talk, he wasn’t real; when he had no strings, he wasn’t real… what did that weird Blue Fairy do to make him Real? For the Velveteen Rabbit, only true love made it real, and it was Real only after it had been rubbed raw, hugged to pieces, stuffing coming out of burst seams. So it seems like there’s definitely something to say about experience (and not all of it pleasant) feeding into being this idea of Real.

The other night I found a tweet from someone who’d joined an area writers’ group. This was her tweet

Fifteen thousand words a month. Anything less than that means you’re not a real writer. You don’t take it seriously enough. If you can’t crunch out fifteen thousand words each month, you’re not a real writer and are unwelcome among this group of writerly paragons. I’ve done NaNoWriMo in years past, and that’s 50,000 words, but that’s one month, and those haven’t been the healthiest months to be honest. A lot of people plan very carefully to get those fifty thousand down. They clear schedules, make outlines, do sprints, set daily goals. And in non-NaNoWri-Mos, they probably do similar things, but at such a pace that’s more sustainable. The years I successfully completed NaNoWriMo were years when I was teaching, and when you’re teaching, November is full of days off that I totally used to maximize my word vomit. But those were the years I was single with cats. My time was my own to do with what I pleased, and I was pleased to stay up til all hours writing a novel.

I spent a lot of years wondering what it meant to be a real writer. I always enjoyed writing, and it was always a big part of me. When I finished college and came home I discovered the myriad ways the internet could connect me with fandom. I discovered fanfiction. I wrote fanfiction. It was an outlet with zero pressure.

But it also had a fair amount of derision directed at it. Arguments include that it’s derivative (as if Paradise Lost wasn’t?), it’s the mark of a weak writer, it’s lazy, there’s no quality control. It’s a waste of time. Fanfiction will always be a source of disagreement. Sure, there’s poor quality work out there, but there’s also really well-written work. There’s also the point that fanfiction should not be making money off of a pre-existing work, and if you can’t make money writing, are you even a Real Writer?

I really wanted to be a Real Writer, so I decided maybe I would get my MFA. I’d write a book. I’d learn more about the craft. I’d work with other writers. I’d be real.

Much like that strange time gap I experienced with Spongebob, I entered into my MFA when emphasis was still on traditional publishing, complete with querying agents nonstop and signing with houses. We were encouraged to query. Our advisory board was comprised of agents, editors, and publishers, and it was a great experience. But the metric for being a real writer still fell heavily in favor of the traditional route. Self-publishing existed, but there were no gates to ensure quality, so why would anyone go that route? Real writers queried until their fingers bled and read rejections until their eyes were raw and their hearts were stone.

Are you even a real writer if you don’t put that work in? If you can’t write 15,000 words a month, can’t query ad infinitum (wait–do those 15,000 words include the number of words in your queries and accompanying synopses?)… If you have a job that’s not writer? If you have a family? If you have shhhother hobbies?

I spent a couple of years after finishing grad school just sort of… meh about writing. My thesis novel needed some more work, but I didn’t know what kind of work, wasn’t sure where to find another group of writers to work with, and was really just burned out on that particular story. But I had no other ideas for other stories, and that’s where I think I started feeling like maybe this idea that I could be a writer was a silly dream. And at least my school district considered my MFA and I got bumped up the pay scale. Or as bumped as you can get in that district. I drifted. People asked how my writing was going, and it just wasn’t. Forget 15,000 words a month, I wasn’t getting 1500. Or 15.

In the end, it was Dragon Age that saved me. Okay, that’s dramatic. But Dragon Age has done a lot of good for me, and in this case it was no different. In 2011, after two years of not writing, I finished Dragon Age: Origins and was so taken with the world and the characters and the story that I wrote. I wrote fanfiction. I posted it. I started writing more and posting more. And more than that? I stopped caring if I was a real writer or not. I was just writing, and that was all that mattered.

It was healing, in a way (as I discovered during a 3am chat with Schattenriss the other night when Smol Human decided we needed to get up and sit, screaming, on the living room couch from 3-5am, and we were discussing the Writers’ Group from Hell tweet). With DA fanfiction, for the first time in a very long time I was writing because I loved it. Because I enjoyed what I was doing. I was writing for the sake of writing. I was improving my craft and experimenting with style and voice and creating stories for characters I loved, and I was doing it because I wanted to. Maybe some months I churned out thousands of words, I don’t know; I didn’t really keep track, to be honest. There was freedom to write for the sake of it, and it was a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time.

It’s been over ten years since I finished my MFA, and I’m not published (yet). I’ve written copious amounts of Dragon Age fanfiction, and I have no regrets. I have a family, including a wild Smol Human who is a wonder to watch grow (and a handful and a half, but he’s still amazing). I have a job I love. I definitely don’t have the ability to commit to 15,000 words every single month. Some months I’m churning out the words, and others I’m revising and editing. Still others I have other things going on and am lucky if I get significant writing done at all. Am I any less of a real writer?

I don’t think so. Everyone has a different pace and different path toward reaching their goals. For some it may be 15,000 words a month, but to impose that upon everyone who wants to write with you, and worse, to insinuate that if they can’t or don’t want to do that, they’re less of a writer or don’t take writing seriously enough?

Well, that’s when I suppose Spongebob memes are going to have to suffice, because dignified responses just won’t cut it. They’ll also be less than 15,000 words long.

Opportunity Knocks (and I answer)

Opportunity Knocks

(and I answer)

It’s been just over a week since I got word about Sneakthief, but it’s been a good several days nonetheless. I thought that the ultimate decision to reject the MS would kill my confidence, but if anything, I feel even better about my trajectory as a writer! Part of that is the support I’ve found in the writers’ group I belong to, another part of it is the support and encouragement of good friends and family. And another part of it is just… me! I feel like the experience helped me grow and develop, and I feel like what I have is on its way to being good enough to show the world.

The house I submitted to titles their open submission period “Open the Doors”, and overall, that’s what this did for me. Not only do I have an open door there now, for future potential projects outside of the Ungifted Series, but, and this is my super big exciting announcement…

I’ve joined the authors’ collaborative Skolion! Many of the members of Skolion are part of the Facebook group I joined a couple years back. Their founding member, the talented Nerine Dorman, encouraged me to take a step outside of fanfiction, join the FB group, and even submit to the Open the Doors submission call. Her writing is just gorgeous, and so is everything by everyone else that works through Skolion. Joining up gives me the opportunity to beta read, edit, and work with many talented authors and artists.

Other story ideas are starting to work their way into my brain as well! I’m considering overhauling and rewriting my contemporary fantasy that I worked on for my MFA thesis over ten years ago, and I have other ideas based on Romantic era poetry, which is some of my favorite material in all of literature. I’m connecting with Luna, my BFF, to do a little work with How I Nerd.

I’m over 12k words into Scapegoat’s first draft, and ready to start Sneakthief 4.0, which will, I think, be much better in how it connects the other books together. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise that it didn’t get picked up as-is, and start the revising/editing process for mass publishing. That’s an opportunity for which I’m grateful! I’m excited by the prospect of what it can become as a result; sometimes the thought of rewriting is dreadful. It’s like when you finish sewing something and realize it’s wrong, so you have to get the seam ripper out and start in on it, snapping the threads that are in the wrong places, while not damaging the pieces themselves, salvaging what you can. But in this case, it’s more altering what exists; adding trimming where necessary, maybe replacing one part with nicer materials (I like this analogy; maybe next I’ll write about remaking one of my favorite cosplays…)

But yes. Many opportunities are presenting themselves, and I feel excited about it all. I don’t feel anxious (about this anyway!), and I feel validated. I feel like part of something. I don’t feel like doors closed; they opened, and opened to more doors! So here’s to being open to opportunity, both in seeking it out, and accepting it when it presents itself. Here’s to opening the doors.

Give It Time

For writers with manuscripts out to agents, editors, or other high-stakes readers, waiting for feedback–whether it represents a publisher’s acceptance… is not only hard, it is also a twenty-four hour job requiring your undivided attention. When you are waiting, you must concentrate all your energy on not calling the feedback provider to “touch base.”

Joni B. Cole, Toxic Feedback

I’ve done a lot of waiting over the last several months. In a few of my other blog posts I’d alluded to Sneakthief ‘sneaking around’, and now that it’s resolved, I can talk about it a bit more in detail. But this post isn’t really about that, so much as it’s about what I’ve learned through the process.

Back in May, a sci-fi/fantasy publisher held an open call for submissions. They asked for the first three chapters, a synopsis, and an introductory letter. Since I had Sneakthief pretty much done, I decided to submit. One, I had nothing to lose, and two, I just needed to do something with it, if nothing else, to say I did. The publishers said they’d have gone through the submissions by the end of July.

Having that time frame was fine, because I didn’t have any expectations, and I had a bunch of other things to do. Turncoat wasn’t behaving, we were in the process of getting Smol Human’s diagnosis, work was crazy, and a couple months just wasn’t a big deal. But when August first rolled around and I got an email requesting a full manuscript, that’s when the waiting game kicked in.

I’ve never been good at waiting. My parents tell me a story about when I was very young, and they said we’d be going somewhere “this weekend” or something like that. Apparently I was a terror asking if it was the weekend yet. I don’t like surprises; I have a hard time with the anticipation, and like to know what to expect. I helped my parents plan my own 30th birthday bash ten years ago, to the surprise of the party planner at the venue. When we found out a Smol Human would be joining us, I needed to know the sex, needed to get everything in order in his room, had to have the name picked out. I think a lot of this stems from my anxiety; I have a need to control things because then I know what to expect and can deal with it. When I don’t have a plan and a few contingencies, I’m uncomfortable. One thing I love about my job now is that, even though there are surprises here and there, we have a LOT of SOPs, templates, processes, etc. We have a great CRM program and Outlook, so I have my tasks and everything laid out. While there are still adventures, it’s predictable to an extent and I like that.

While my autumn was pretty full and I was working with a lot of different things that kept me occupied, it was always in the back of my mind: what’s going on with the book? Do they like it? Are they laughing at it? Shit, I should have fixed this plot point (side note, the more I got into the Turncoat rewrite, the more I started to think of things that needed to be reworked in Sneakthief and that made me anxious too). Dammit, I missed that typo! All sorts of little things nagged at me. I didn’t realize just what a constant nagging feeling it was. Or I did, maybe I just didn’t realize how much it was impacting me.

My initial reaction, when they’d asked for the full, was to wait on the edge of my seat, heart skipping and blood pressure spiking whenever I saw a tweet from the publisher or an email come through. It did take time for me to realize that was an unsustainable way to exist, so I had to learn to wait.

Publishing is a business, and it’s a business that takes time. Editors have their regular list and clients to work with, and Sneakthief is about 100,000 words. They have lives and families outside of publishing. Sneakthief may have consumed me, but I cannot expect it to consume others because that’s unrealistic and unfair. So I had to figure out what to do in order to manage the waiting game.

Turncoat’s rewrite helped quite a bit; I tried doing some work for NaNoWriMo, and that helped a little because I was still writing. I played through GreedFall, and wrote fanfic for that, which helped a lot–I got great feedback on it when I posted it, and it felt good to have story feel like it was flowing, when Turncoat was being so obstinate. The holidays were looming, so that definitely helped! I did a lot of sewing and bingeing Netflix and Prime Video (Good Omens, She Ra, and Dragon Prince are favorites), which helped let me creative mind wander. And on December 18th, I got the email that they’d like to take Sneakthief to the next step: an acquisitions meeting in early 2020.

If I was anxious before, it was in high gear now. This time I had a timeframe, which helped: end of January. Which of course has meant that the first month of the year was anxiety-inducing and kind of messy. I had NEVER expected my book to get to a point like this, and if I’d been panicked about emails before, now was exponentially worse. I’d managed to finish a Turncoat draft I was happy with by December 31st, so I tried diving into Scapegoat. Still working on that one. I played games: Skyrim is always familiar and good for mindless play, wandering around, etc. I did another no-kill Dishonored run, which was fun.

With something this big on the line, it’s hard: I’d be lying if I said a huge part of me was hoping for the best: an acquisition and contract. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of the worst: nothing, and they hated the book. I started sniffing a LOT of lavender.

What did end up happening is somewhere in the middle: the final answer was a no, but not because they didn’t like my story or my writing! It was a timing issue, which I know is a reality of publishing. It’s a business and they have lists and clients and a lot of moving pieces, and the ultimate decision isn’t a personal judgment of me or my writing. Some other good came out of it, so overall, I call the journey a win.

So I’m not getting Sneakthief published yet–so why a win? Because I learned about how to wait: how to occupy my time and my mind, how to focus on the present and not worry about an unknown future, and to not pause my work because I’m waiting. If I’d waited to move forward with any of my work in those few months, I wouldn’t have what I do now. So much other good came of it: community, and the opportunity to work with people I respect. I couldn’t put my life on hold, going day to day without doing anything else. I’m rereading Joni Cole’s Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive for the creative writing class I’m rebuilding, and that quote about not using all your energy really hit me.

Things take time, and waiting is hard. We’re in an instant culture where we get search results in fractions of seconds, and Instant Pots can cook a roast in minutes instead of hours (I love my Instant Pot, don’t @ me). Continuing to create, to push forward even when what’s forward is unknown is hard, but so worth it. And when all else fails, sniffing some lavender doesn’t hurt.

Needless to say, a huge burden feels lifted. I wonder how I would have managed finishing the course rebuild, and then teaching it, while having to revise a 100k word manuscript on a deadline. I wonder how I could have managed a lot of other things, and think that just maybe the timing was off for more than just this particular publisher. I don’t feel anxious (well, about that) anymore. I can breathe. I can focus on the next adventure, which has already started, and feel really good about it.

And I do feel good. I just had to give it time.

New Year, Who Dis?

New Year? That happened quickly!

I could start off by making a corny joke about having 2020 vision. I could list my goals and resolutions. I could apologize profusely for not having updated since… November-ish? Definitely since last year. I could wish I had some champagne right now. Or I could just write.

I think my supervisor put it best when she said, during my annual evaluation, that I’d had a tough year. It didn’t impact my work at all–contrary to that, my performance at work is great. I love my job and the work I do and the people I work with. But that doesn’t mean that 2019 was actually kind of tough in a lot of ways. I guess this is where that corny 2020 pun comes in?

The last couple of years have been a whirlwind. Or several different whirlwinds; one picks me up, sets me down reeling, and another comes along as I’m trying to recalibrate. In early 2018, Sneakthief took over my life, and quickly became an idea for a series. The story woke me up at night. I dreamed of my characters. I wrote whenever I could. I finished a draft and started the next draft of the next book. 2019 started off with major revisions to Sneakthief while its sequel, Turncoat, percolated. But 2019 also kicked off with a pretty horrible strep strain that went through our house; husband and I were both horribly sick. I remember vividly because I left work early after getting the diagnosis at urgent care, and realized, when I got home, that my note cards had fallen out of my bag and were likely in the parking lot, and husband went out to find them for me. The short story is, he did, and he saved the Sneakthief revision.

But it just sort of kept going from there. We were finally able to get our Smol Human’s autism formally diagnosed, and then started the journey to get him services. It wasn’t that I had to fight for it–I just had trouble knowing where to start and how to go about things. But once we did, it was helpful. Of course it’s not quite that simple, because then other things kept coming up, but Smol Human is getting his services and therapies and he is thriving. He also had adenoids out, which is a huge help as well!

Between that, I’ve been working; teaching online on the side; rebuilding a creative writing class; and yes, writing. Sneakthief is sneaking about and a large part of my anxiety has been a result of that, but I know what I can and can’t control so I’m trying not to worry. I also completely overhauled and rewrote Turncoat, and it’s a much more cohesive novel. I think realizing what was wrong with it, structurally, and committing to basically rewriting it, was really helpful and I really feel good about the draft. I finished it at 11:11pm on 12/31/19. My goal was to finish the draft by the end of the year. I did it with 39 minutes to spare (and the final clocked in at 111,111 words!)

I’m still revising it, but feel pretty content. And I’ve started work on draft one of Scapegoat, the third book! I’m happy with where it’s going and feeling good. Something about getting through Turncoat and resolving it in a way that feels structurally sound makes editing it feel more realistic.

Do I have goals for 2020? Sure! But I’m also trying to be realistic about my bandwidth and responsibilities. I have books I want to read, but I haven’t set a number. I think writing-wise my biggest would be to really polish up Turncoat, and finish the first working draft of Scapegoat. I think overall, continue to drink lots of coffee and maintain my sanity and not stretch myself too thin. Lately I’ve felt like 4-way stretch Lycra pulled between two too-far-apart seams (seams–oh yeah, I’ve been sewing more, too). I have to figure out what is work, what feels like work and should be fun, and what is fun and feels like fun.

And I want to blog more. I have a lot of things I’d like to write about, but they’re piling into a backlog where I feel like I have to start chipping away at it, so just writing this has been cathartic and helpful. It’s a blog post. It’s not a review of a game or a movie or a book; it’s not an analysis of writing and characters and such. But it’s a post, it’s on a blog, and that’ll do just fine for now.

2020: Yes, I have vision and goals, but I need to just be fine for now.

Life, Love, and Dragon Age

Today is the unofficial Dragon Age Day in the community! Though I’ve made some posts and tweets about how it’s impacted me, it’s also been a long time since I blogged, so how better to get back into the swing of it, than to blog about how a little video game completely changed my life?

The year: 2011. My cousin had loaned me Mass Effect, and I was really enjoying it. I got (and sunk a huge chunk of time into) Mass Effect 2, and was really loving the writing, the story, characters, and music. That year I had a great study hall duty: in my classroom, last period of the day. It ended up being a bunch of gamer kids, and one day I mentioned I was really into Mass Effect. One student said, “Oh, if you like that, you’d like Dragon Age. Want to borrow my copy?”

Of course I said yes.

My initial impressions were that it was a Medieval Mass Effect, and I wasn’t initially sold. It was enjoyable enough… so I kept playing. And played some more. Other than my students, no one else I knew was into the game, so I took to the internet. Dragon Age began to dominate my thoughts. I started wanting to write–

–This was the biggest thing. I’d finished my MFA a couple years before this, and since finishing that degree, aside from a NaNoWriMo, I was feeling kind of burnt out on writing. I just felt like I didn’t know what to write. Before my MFA I’d been really into fanfiction. The Dragon Age world was worming into me in a way a fantasy world hadn’t since Tolkien. I loved the characters and the world. The dialogue. The voice acting. The story. The fact that my Warden could essentially be who I wanted her to be…

This was one of the first ways Dragon Age changed my life. I started writing again. I felt like I had stories to tell, a feeling I hadn’t had in years.

Of course, finding a community of other DA fans was the other major impact. I joined a Facebook group, fans of the character of Alistair. Through that, I met many people I am still connected to today, and am pleased and privileged to call friends. I also met my best friend (I’ll call her Luna). Luna and I clicked; we messaged each other and found out we only lived an hour apart! After several months of chatting, she invited me to her home to join a D&D campaign. I’d never played D&D before, but I also was looking for a new social outlet, and gamers were my people. I accepted.

I cannot fully express my gratitude to Luna, even now, for trusting me enough to invite me into her home, to meet her family (including her then-toddler daughter) and friends. Dragon Age introduced me to my best friend, and that started another snowball of life-changing events.

I kept attending D&D at Luna’s. It was the highlight of my week! And then Luna invited me to their annual Christmas party, which was our D&D group, and their extended friends group. It was December 18th, 2011. I always remember that date, because that was when I met my husband.

I’d gotten out of an abusive relationship three and a half years prior to all of this, and had pretty much sworn off dating. I was happy with my cats, my games, my D&D, my Dragon Age. But I chatted with future-husband at the party (and thought he was pretty cute). He and I found each other online that night and spent the next week chatting. And… we just didn’t stop chatting. We started hanging out more in early 2012; I’d spend time with him before D&D at Luna’s. Sometimes he joined in as an NPC. By March 2012 we were officially dating. By July 2012 we were engaged. By July 2013 we were married… and now I lived about a mile away from Luna!

In that time Luna and I started going to PAX East (husband came too). We started learning more about cosplay. We played Dragon Age 2, and were there when Dragon Age 3 (which became DA: Inquisition) was announced at PAX East 2012. She and I have pictures of us with the developers and writers. We’ve gotten signatures.

When Inquisition came out in 2014, things changed again. The characters, story, and world of Inquisition swept me into the thrill of Thedas once again, and the sheer amount of writing and DA crafting that came as a result still boggles my mind. I cosplayed for PAX East 2015. I bawled my eyes out when Trespasser came out. That was the year I also had my son, and the following year for PAX East, I dressed him up as a nug. It was hard to get time in to play the game between work and momming; but always worth it when I could.

The writing continued, and I’ve made more friends through DA fanfiction. Through that community I’ve joined others who are writing and publishing and in 2018 my friend (who goes by Schattenriss on AO3, so I’ll just refer to him as such here–he’s a FANTASTIC writer btw) and I made a pact: we would take our talents and each write a book in 2018. And we did! And 2019 we were writing the drafts of the sequels! While neither of us are published (yet) we’ve been making strides toward that. Just this year I submitted to an open call for submissions, and got a request for the full manuscript. It was the most validating experience in my writing life thus far.

But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point if I hadn’t started writing DA fanfiction, and found such a great community of writers. I wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t met Luna, if I hadn’t taken a student up on his generous offer to let his geeky English teacher borrow a game. I literally would not be in the life I have now if I hadn’t played Dragon Age, and honestly, it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me–because from that, so many other amazing things have come.

Thank you BioWare, and the hundreds of people who have worked on all aspects of the Dragon Age franchise. For the tie-in materials that make the world bigger and deeper and more real. Thank you Luna for your friendship and love and support. To my husband and the Smol Human, for being my family. To Schattenriss, to Nerine, to Tallulah, for their encouragement, for pushing me to go beyond Thedas.

A popular line in Dragon Age: Origins is “Funny how the blight brings people together.” It is funny, but it’s also wonderful, and I will always be grateful for it.