Month: October 2017

Semi Related Writing Thoughts From Today (expanded from tweets)

1. Writing RPG text is as much about educating GMs about how to do their job as it is about rules. I think about this a lot as I’m writing instructions for Game Chiefs.

I have to remember that some of them are super expert and can make a good game out of any material, but they appreciate material that makes their job easy. Others of them have never run a game before they picked up Planet Mercenary. For them, we include educational components that might feel like obvious review for more experienced Game Chiefs. I suppose in this I’m heavily influenced by the first RPG book I ever worked on (Xtreme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy Hickman & Curtis Hickman). That entire book was about teaching people to be good game runners. So some of that philosophy spills into all the game text I write. Educating the GM (person who runs the game) is the most effective way to ensure that groups have fun while playing. Of course educating players helps too. I have to balance education with not bogging down text. Lots to consider as I’m writing.

2. In order to do right by the GC Secrets PDF I have to do more writing than I thought I would. It keeps expanding.

I’m adding words to help out those less experienced game runners and the less experienced players. I’m adding words to answer specific questions that people have asked, which helps fill in the gap between what is in the head of the game writers and what we actually put on the page in the printed book. I have to battle with myself over how much to add. Part of me wants to make sure that this is the very best and most comprehensive document that I can make it. Part of me really wants to get this document done. It is the last deliverable for the Planet Mercenary project. The last lingering piece of a giant set of tasks that has taken over my creative life for two years. I’ve loved it. I love the writing I’m doing on it right now, but I also want to have it done so that I can declare the Kickstarter officially complete. Then I can have a break of several months before I need to start thinking about what Planet Mercenary release we want to have prepared for next summer.

3. I really wanted to have GC Secrets completed before I leave for my writing retreat on Thursday. I wanted brain space for something fresh.

For the last eight months I’ve been looking ahead to this writer’s retreat as an oasis. It was a reward that I would get to after all the things were done. It is discouraging to realize that I didn’t get all the things done. So instead of having several weeks of clear brain with which I could decide what to write at the retreat, I have this lingering writing assignment that will have to be packed along with me.

4. Brain space for something fresh isn’t going to happen unless I create that space with a crowbar in between writing GC Secrets.

I’d thought about using the retreat to write the picture books that have been niggling at my brain. Maybe I’d write some essays. Maybe I’d pull out my years-neglected middle grade novel and see if there is still something there I feel excited to write or if the project died while gathering dust. I can still do some of these maybe, but instead of having glorious space, I will have to steal that space from writing that is long overdue.

5. Ack! In 2 days I’m leaving my house and going to a place where I don’t know all the people already. Cue social anxiety.

The anxiety has been percolating slowly all month. Early in the month I ordered some Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade so that I would have an interesting drink to share while others were sharing whiskeys and wines that I don’t drink. It was comforting to think I could contribute something to that social portion of the retreat. But the package got broken in transit, and the shipping company didn’t inform me of this until after it was already too late to re-ship. And now there is a weird portion of my brain that whispers why am I even going when I have nothing to offer. Apparently part of me believes that, unless I’m able to provide some tangible item or emotional service, others won’t want me around. Classic social anxiety. So I went out and bought gourmet chocolate that I can pack along in my suitcase. It isn’t the same, but it is something. (And yes I know that I was invited and my friends have expressed delight that I’m coming. I’ve been nothing but welcomed. Social anxiety makes noise anyway.)

6. Yay! In 2 days I can put down all my house and business responsibilities to just write. Maybe I’ll have brain space after all.

Up above I mentioned oasis. I am so very looking forward to escaping the constraints of my regular life. I want a chance to unwind and re-set so that when I come back a few days later I can be glad to pick up all my regular things. I love this life I’ve built, but even things we love get heavy if we never take a break from carrying them.

7. This week I read an article about how social media is a productivity killer, yet here I am tweeting about writing instead of writing.

I read this one: Why Idle Moments are so Crucial to Creativity
And this one: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Which I blogged about here: Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

Those articles, combined with all the evidence that social media and fake news have led to sweeping changes in the political landscape of multiple countries, has me being a lot more conscious about the time I spend online and what else I could be using that time for. Throw in a dose of Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): specifically the chapters where she talks about losing two years of creative life to World of Warcraft. The point is driven home. Less internet = better balance of life and probably more creativity. Something for me to work on.

8. Back to the word mines.

Sort of. I wrote up this blog post, which is writing, but isn’t me working on GC Secrets which was the writing I ought to have been doing. Except maybe this is equally as important…and I’m going to stop the brain spin there. GC Secrets will get done, and this post was worth writing. No need to pile guilt into the thought-mess that already exists in my brain.

New Task Prioritization Strategy

Last Wednesday evening I was feeling cranky and out of sorts. When I sat down to figure it out, I realized that much of it was that I felt conflicted about how to spend Thursday. Thursday was a week day and I had lots of work priorities that are up against deadlines. I should spend the day getting those things done. However Thursday was also my kid’s first day of Fall break. That mean regular rhythms were disrupted and perhaps I should spend the day in weekend mode, doing house and family things. As I thought it through, I realized that I was surrounded by house tasks that have been bugging me for weeks (or months) and which I’d kept shoving aside because of pressing work deadlines. It was time to let house and family shove aside work. So Thursday was a house day.

Next came the question of how to pick which house chores to do. There are far more than could be accomplished in a single day, but none of them had attached deadlines therefore I couldn’t sort-by-deadline the way I often do with work tasks. Also I was tired of chasing deadlines and following long lists of To Do. I decided to just pick whichever task was bugging me most, or whatever I felt like doing next. Then when one task was done, I would take a break while picking the next one.

The first thing I tackled was finishing the paint in the kitchen. I began painting the kitchen almost a year ago, because I was really tired of dingy white with dirt streaks where grime accumulated on the studs.

But when I got to the space over the cupboards, a confluence of circumstances (I needed different tools, reaching over cupboards was more awkward, Planet Mercenary started demanding full attention) meant that I painted some of the edges, but not the entire area. I don’t have a picture of this partially painted state, but it was the worst of both. Painted sections looked sloppy/unfinished, while unpainted sections still sported dingy white and dirt streaks. It sat that way for ten months. Until last Thursday when I hauled out the ladder and paint supplies. Within two hours I had this instead.

The kitchen still needs a lot of work. A full remodel is in the planning stages, but this small piece of it is done.

A related task was started last December and had also been stalled since then. As part of our proposed remodel, we wanted to remove a closet. This one:

It was basically a box near the front door where we shoved all the things we didn’t have places for. It was always cluttered and unusable. We wanted to open up the space. Last December I dismantled the closet, painted the wall, and put up coat hooks.

Then I ran into a problem. One post from the closet ran all the way up to the ceiling. We were pretty sure that it wasn’t a load bearing structure. Other houses in our neighborhood with the exact same floor plan, didn’t have posts. However, I wanted “pretty sure” to be “absolutely sure” before I took it down. So the project stalled. And I stared at bare studs and an ugly post for ten months.

I finally got out the ladder and climbed into the rafters of the attic crawlspace. Using a flashlight and taking care not to step on anything except solid rafters, I measured to where the post was. I discovered this sticking up from the insulation and sheet rock.

Definitely not a load bearing structure. I didn’t tackle the removal on Thursday. I still have research to do on how best to remove it. I’ll probably need to rent tools. But that post is now doomed and the project can proceed.

Other things I accomplished on Thursday:
Taking a pile of unwanted clothes and things to a thrift store
Scouring out a bathroom that had become disgusting
Vacuumed several rooms
Reorganized a linen closet (thus acquiring a new pile of things to donate)
Turned a jumble in the garage into a swept and usable space

At the end of the day I’d done many tasks that had been niggling at my attention for a long time. A new set of household tasks is now jockeying for position, because that is the nature of houses and tasks. But I feel better about my house than I have for ten months. It feels like house projects can move forward instead of being perpetually shoved aside or stalled.

Friday I spent six hours driving to retrieve college girl from campus. She has fall break this weekend.

Saturday I had to decide whether to re-shoulder the burden of my work To Do lists or to continue focusing on house and family. I picked a middle ground. I did work, because those deadlines really do matter and I couldn’t feel good about blowing them off completely, but I didn’t sort tasks by deadlines. Instead I did whichever work task was bugging me the most. They’re all the same tasks, just sorted a bit differently. I got quite a bit done. There is still much more left to do.

Here at the beginning of a new week, I know I have deadlines to meet before Friday. So I’m going to have to do some deadline based prioritization, but it is nice to have another strategy available so I can switch things up when I get worn out. I get worn out a lot lately. I’ve been under deadline pressure since late 2016, which is a really long time to carry that weight.

End of Term

It feels like Friday even though today is Wednesday. This is primarily because Fall break begins tomorrow. It is also because today was the last day of the term, which meant Monday and Tuesday were spent with last minute scrambles to turn in work and not fail classes. But now we’re in the afternoon. All the assignments are turned in. Classes are complete. No one has to get up early tomorrow. So it feels like Friday.

In this drifty free-from-deadlines afternoon, I’m pondering how my kids are beginning to be self steering. College girl has known her life path for six years now, but the other three have been lost and floundering. They’ve been in that space where childhood is over and they desperately need a focus, something to motivate and provide identity, but they don’t know what it should be. As of this month all three younger kids have found a focus and a way forward. They each came to it in their own way and in their own time. Mostly without fanfare, just an “oh by the way mom, I want to be a ________.” For the two in school, the change is subtle, but profound. Their dreams depend on attending college, so all classes matter a bit more than they used to. This doesn’t make getting things done easy. The struggles are real, but it does mean they’re engaged with the struggle instead of trying to dodge it completely. They’re starting to steer, and that is wonderful.

Today is a one of those small triumphs that pass unnoticed. They succeeded at end-of-term push. They’ve kept up with their online classes. There is measurable progress. There is more to do. We have more terms ahead of us, more work to manage. But I can let today be calm and quietly triumphant.

Challenges of a Variable Income

I have lots of creative friends. They are mostly writers, but I also know artists, musicians, editors, jewelers, etc. Many times I hear my creative friends express the dream of being able to do their creative pursuit full time. There is an entire discussion to be had about whether that is the right choice for emotional reasons as well as financial, but that is not the discussion I want to focus on today. Particularly since the “right” answer depends heavily on individual circumstance. What I do want to provide is some information about the realities of living on a variable income, because when most of my friends say they want to do full time creative work, what they mean is that they want to freelance and be their own boss. Freelancing and owning your own small business rarely come with a regular pay check, particularly at first.

The concern that most people have and fret over is that their creative work will not bring in enough to pay the bills. This is the primary problem that people have to face when launching a full time creative career, but what most people don’t wrap their heads around is how a variable income requires different handling and provides challenges even when you are earning enough money. Looking at the particular challenges of a stable, but variable income is something that creative people should consider when deciding whether full time creative work is right for them.

1. You can’t treat a large lump payment as bonus money. Unless you are a freelancer with a long-term, steady assignment, most of your income will come in lumps. They might be small, regular lumps, or giant lumps at irregular intervals. Managing lump payments can be a hard adjustment for a person who is used to budgeting on a steady income. When you have a big chunk of cash sitting in the bank, the temptation to splurge is strong, there is so much money right there. Except that money has to cover bills for six months or a year (or three years, or five years.) If you splurge when the money arrives, then you’re in trouble later. Many creatives temper this by having multiple checking accounts and paying themselves a reasonable “salary” at regular intervals. Or they incorporate as an LLC or S Corp to do the same. This restores the ability to budget on a monthly/ weekly basis. The advent of patronage platforms, such as Patreon, also provide tools to even out the gaps between payments. If you have creative work that earns royalties, then ongoing payments of those royalties can also provide stabilizing payments.

2. Large lumps of money have tax implications. If a large payment comes in December, then at the end of the year it looks like you made a really good living. You will be taxed for all of that money sitting in your account as if it is all profit. The lump of money may even push you into a higher tax bracket. This frequently happens to people who run Kickstarter campaigns where the money arrives in one year but the expenses (printing, manufacturing, shipping) are paid in the next. As far as the IRS is concerned, cash in the bank is profit and should be taxed. This can be offset by changing to a form of accounting called accrual accounting, but once you make that change, you can’t switch back and there is additional paperwork forever. Most creatives just take a tax hit on the years they make a lot, and file a loss on the years when they make less. Unfortunately this often means that the big tax bill lands in the year after the prosperous year and contributes to making that next year into a financially lean one. Boom and bust.

3. Credit and loan application systems are confused by variable income. Most systems use last years tax returns as a predictor for this year’s income, which is not accurate if you’re living the boom and bust cycle seen by many creative folks. Financial institutions also expect to see a bi-weekly or monthly pay stub and use that to calculate monthly income. If your income is variable, it is likely you don’t have any pay stubs. So any time you apply for a loan or credit, you end up having to explain (over and over) where your income comes from, why you don’t have regular pay stubs, and how you are a responsible adult who will be able to pay back the money. You’ll have to dig up additional paperwork and proof of income that folks with a pay stub don’t have to deal with. So make sure you keep documents of your income with invoices and 1099s. You might need proof of income later.

4. United States Healthcare tax credits expect stable income to calculate how much subsidy you get. If you’re going to be a full time creative, you probably won’t have employer-provided health insurance. Right now this means signing up via the independent marketplace. (Who knows what it will mean next year or the year after that, US healthcare is in flux and I’m writing from a US experience base.) Most of the math done to decide if you qualify for a subsidy depends on you having a good estimate of what you’ll make next year and that income being approximately what you made the year before. If you underestimate your income, you may be charged a penalty for taking more credit than you should have. There is no penalty for over-estimating income. Many creatives avoid penalties by never taking a monthly subsidy. Instead they pay out the full premium amount and wait until tax time to get refunded for whatever the subsidy would have been. However this means that in a bust year, when money is tight you have to shell out for those monthly premiums and if your prior year is a boom, you won’t have any medical refund to help pay for those premiums. The refund comes after the year when money was so tight you needed it.

5. Your tax returns affect United States federal grants for higher education. A financial boom year means that you look rich when filling out the FAFSA. It means that during a bust year, when you could really use the financial help, you may not get it because of a prior boom year.

6. Items 2, 4, & 5 serve to exacerbate the boom and bust cycle that often happens in creative work. This means that a big lump payment is cause for trepidation as well as rejoicing. A large payment that isn’t carefully managed can guarantee a complete crashing of finances only a year or two later if the next large payment doesn’t arrive in time to rescue things.

Living on a variable income can be challenging, but if you’re fully aware of all the potential complications and how to buffer them, a variable income can be just as viable for ongoing living as a regular paycheck. For some people the anxieties and uncertainties of irregular pay days are preferable to the anxieties and uncertainties of potential layoffs or having to work with people who are chosen for you rather than whom you choose. Other people do better with that predictable paycheck while pursuing their creative efforts in the hours not claimed by their employers. The challenges listed here are not the only ways that living on a variable income is different than regular income, but they are some important points to consider when deciding if full time creative work is right for you.

Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

I’ve seen this article being linked from social media: Have Smart Phones Destroyed a Generation? I have an immediate negative reaction to the title, because I think it is a harsh judgement to call an entire generation “destroyed” when the oldest of them is a mere 22 years old. We should probably allow them to exit adolescence and become in charge of their lives before we can make sweeping judgements.

Fortunately the content of the article is far more in depth and less inclined to make sweeping judgements. It has data as well as anecdotes and is cautious about drawing conclusions based on that data. However one point it does make very clear: teens who are on their screens more are less happy and teens who are on their screens less are happier. This fact automatically puts me on the defensive because my kids are on their screens a lot and the implication is that if I would just limit their screen time we would have less trouble with mental health issues. (My brain therefore comes to the “obvious” conclusion that it is All My Fault because I was not a good enough parent.)

However, one thing that the article fails to acknowledge is that correlation is not causation. Are the teens less happy because they’re on their screens more or are they on their screens more because they were already less happy and screens are a safe retreat? I don’t think there is a clear causation either way because it depends on the teen and it depends on the day. I know that when my teens emerge from depression they automatically reduce their screen time without any intervention from me. So I’ve come to rely on screen time as an indicator. It is a piece of the puzzle as we’re trying to help everyone find a balanced life that is basically happy.

I talk to my teens about all of this as we’re discussing how to improve their lives. We also discuss Point of Diminishing Returns. Because I believe that short exposures to social media add to my life and make it happier, however prolonged exposure ends with me having wasted time and probably lowered my mood. The goal of these discussions is to teach them how to self regulate. I’ve never found much success with imposing limits on screen time. I fail at it because I can’t stay consistent. I’ve done much better when I focus my energy on luring them out into non-screen activities, reminding them of the things they enjoy doing when screens are not available.

Ultimately the generation defined in the article is going to find its own way forward. They will be different from their Gen X parents, just as the Gen X generation was different from their Boomer parents. Right now they struggle less with addictions and teen pregnancy, but more from mental health issues. All life choices are trade offs and it is up to individuals to find their own balance in life.

About the Missing Nicknames

The question was posted in a comment: “I’ve just noticed that you’ve stopped using the children’s code names (Patch, Gleek, Link, Kiki). Deliberate decision as no longer appropriate, or just a change in writing style?”

I posted a short answer in response, but decided that a longer answer was merited.

As my kids have entered their teen and adult years, their stories have started being more their own and less mine to tell. Details that are merely entertaining when told about young children become betrayals of trust when told about a teenager. My teens tell me things that they don’t share with the world at large. They depend on me to hold these things in confidence, and I try to. This means that sometimes I begin to write a blog post and part way through I hit a point where I wonder if the story is fully mine to share, if it will do damage to the person in my house who is searching for identity and direction. The well being of my children comes before the telling of the story. Always.

But this is a hard thing because, while the stories belong to the children, there are portions of them that are uniquely mine. I would like to delve into my thoughts about dealing with some of the challenges my kids have presented me. Yet if I try to tell my portion without their portion the story becomes so vague that it looses value and coherence. All of this has been happening for years now, and before I was consciously aware of it, I stopped using the nicknames as much. Not naming the person added a layer of anonymity which allowed me to tell some stories which I couldn’t otherwise tell. Other stories sit untold because they can’t be anonymized.

Once I became consciously aware of the shift, I decided it was a good thing. My children live in a world full of social media. Having their mother’s stories about them easily searchable by a single term (their nickname) seems not-so-wise during the potentially perilous waters of high school.

And then there is the fact that the nicknames fit the children they were, but aren’t good matches for the teens and adults that they’ve become. Three out of four have chosen their own online handles that bear very little resemblance to the nicknames I bestowed when they were 8, 6, 3, & 1.

Some of the stories that I hold in confidence, I will be able to tell late once the kids have grown far enough past a particular challenge that the telling of it isn’t threatening or embarrassing anymore. I’ve taken notes. There are dozens of partially written blog posts that I may get to finish one day. I would like to. I would like to tell the stories so that some other person who struggles with these things will at least know that they are not alone. I would like to tell them because writing these things as a story helps me define them and comprehend what happened.

Until the day when I can tell more of the stories, I have to muddle through and find ways to write that explore my thoughts and don’t betray confidences.

An Accumulation of Small Hopeful Things

Yesterday was a rough ride on the parenting front. Today there was a series of small things that gave me hope that my kids are growing in the directions they need to go.

Homeschool was accomplished without drama and for once we got through all the tasks I’d hoped for.

I took two kids to an archery range and they enjoyed it so much that never-leave-the-house boy is interested in going back once per week.

Never-leave-the-house boy has also joined an after school game club where he’s acquired an interest in Magic: The Gathering. Suddenly we have an incentive program for accomplishing school work as he wants to acquire more cards.

There was spontaneous showering and laundry washing by children who used to not care nor change clothes ever.

High school girl is managing school without meltdowns and has been actively engaged with all of her classes.

Twenty year old made an appointment to go play racketball with someone who does not live in our house. He’s going to get to go out and do a social thing.

Twenty year old has also identified an educational program that may enable him to reach for his long-term goals. We’re touring the facility next Tuesday.

College girl has been sailing through her last semester and has taken on a leadership role among her peers in a studio class. She’s working hard, but enjoying the effort.

None of the kids are where we hope they will end up. (Though college girl is closest, only lacking an independent income.) I would like for never-leave-the-house boy to be able to speak to people at school and engage with his classes and peers. I’d like for high school girl to find some regular social activities that connect her with people and some ways to serve that help her have meaning in her days. I’d like for twenty year old to learn enough of the small adulting skills that he can live independently. We can’t do these things yet, and that is discouraging. But we spent several years where I watched them all get smaller and smaller. Where everything was getting worse and getting harder. Now we have hard days, but I can tell that the shape of the difficulty is about growing. Growth is rarely comfortable. After a day with crying, it is nice to have a day with hope.

A Pause for Feeling Overwhelmed

Some days it hits me. I have a moment when I can clearly see the vast array of my responsibilities to my kids, to Howard, to myself, to my communities, to the world at large and I can also clearly see my limited allotments of time and resources. There is no way that one can adequately cover the other. I simply can’t do everything. Every good thing I do comes at the cost of some other good thing that I could also be doing. Sometimes I can also see how very far my family has come while also seeing how much further there is to go. That moment is overwhelming, because I remember how hard it was to get from where we were to where we are. The thought of expending a similar quantity of effort again makes me want to sit down and give up for a while.

Even in “giving up for a while” I have no peace, no pause. My thoughts swirl around me whispering all the things I should be doing right this moment. How dare I rest when there are important tasks to be done. If I had not rested six months ago, a year ago, 3 years ago, perhaps I would not still have so much ahead of me. Therefore if I rest now, it is at the expense of some future goal not met.

My brain is a real jerk to me some days. Particularly on a day when I meet with my kid’s teachers and we can all clearly describe the problems my kid is having yet not one of us has a solution for any of it. And all of us are concerned about what will happen when he switches over to the high school campus next year. And the real solution is a transformation that has to take place in the kid’s brain where he decides that he wants something that education has to provide. He has to want connection with peers enough to speak to people. Right now what he wants most is to be left alone with comfortable things and to never have to do anything difficult.

Then, after I’ve paused long enough, the noise quiets down. That is when I remember that miracles do happen. What once seemed insurmountable becomes simple. Not quickly, but eventually. I remember the years when I wept over kids sleeping through the night. I used to have to sit in the hallway outside their rooms for hours waiting for them to fall asleep. Yet now I live in a world where the house gets quiet because they spontaneously put themselves to bed on time. I can’t tell you when the change happened, just that it did. This growth will also come. I just have to get up and do the next thing. I can’t do all the things, but I can do the next one.

Thinking on Cultural Traditions

I was perusing Facebook when I saw a photo set from a friend talking about building their Sukkah. Not being Jewish, I went down something of a research hole learning about Sukkah and Sukkot. I’ve only been connected on Facebook with this friend for a year, but it has been lovely to catch glimpses of her family’s religious observances and cultural traditions. In this case I flipped through the pictures of them building with their two young children and I thought about how the building of the Sukkah, and religious observances in general, create a shared familial experience. It requires taking time out from regular life and doing something inconvenient. I could see that they had made this a fun family tradition, using the inconvenience as a shared bonding experience.

Once I emerged from reading and looking at pictures, I started to mentally bemoan the fact that I don’t have any religious traditions like that one. Mine is a very practical religion with a very short history in comparison to most religions. It hasn’t accumulated much in the way of religion-specific holidays. Then I had to stop and laugh at myself because I just had General Conference weekend, which is when Mormons spend an entire weekend listening to 10 hours of religious talks. It is absolutely a cultural tradition and my family arranges our entire weekend around it. We gather together and have a shared cultural/religious experience. Even my son who doesn’t come to church with us and who tuned out most of the talks, still participated in the food and togetherness aspects of the weekend.

Once I started to think about it, I realized that I’m surrounded by cultural traditions, but I’m so embedded in them that I don’t even notice them any more. I have no idea which parts of my life would seem fascinating or extraordinary to someone from a different cultural tradition. So that is another gift of glimpsing my friend’s traditions, it helps me gain a better view of my own.