Work

Working in the Warehouse

The shipment is expected the first week of January. Two pallets, one thousand pounds. It is a small shipment by our usual standards, but the warehouse space wasn’t organized to receive it. I still had four pallets of Force Multiplication sitting in the middle of the floor. They needed to be combined into two pallets against a wall. Then there were the slipcases, four pallets across, three pallets high. All of those slipcases needed to be relocated into the upstairs section of the warehouse. They’re the only thing we have which is light enough to go up there. Even with light boxes, the work piles up when there are 400 boxes and a set of stairs involved.

I drafted my children. These days they are all adult sized. I’ve arrived at a point where I house my own work crew. I could have just said “this business pays our bills, you will help.” But I sweetened the deal by offering to pay them all by the hour. Saturday around noon, we piled into the car and set to work.

The first twenty minutes are always full of squabbling. They don’t squabble with quite the vigor that they used to, but in the opening minutes of a job like this, no one quite knows their job. People get into each others way and they grouch a bit. During those twenty minutes, I sometimes wonder if I would have been better to get outside help. Then they found their rhythm. They began to daisy chain boxes to the bottom of the stairs. Then daisy chain again to get them up and stashed. They learned how to toss boxes and catch them. They challenged each other, trying to work faster than a sibling could keep up. They laughed. When physical limitations made the work end before all the boxes were moved, all the kids said they wanted to come back and finish the job.

We went again today. Again it took twenty minutes to find our rhythm. And for the warehouse to warm up enough that they stopped complaining about the cold. Kiki had showered right before, so we had to take an old Schlock shirt and tie it onto her head as a makeshift hat to keep her head from freezing. Gleek decided that merely stacking boxes wasn’t quite good enough. So I now have a lovely box fort upstairs. Patch even made a cannon from an old piece of metal duct that was laying around.

At the end of the work, we could all see how much space we’d made. I’ll have plenty of room to receive my pallets of books, and the second (much larger) shipment that is due in February. The next big task is to get rid of thirty wooden pallets that we have stacked on the floor. That’s a job for a truck or a trailer.

Moving all the boxes inspired the kids. All four of them jumped on their computers to play a shared game of Minecraft. They’ve been at it for four hours now. I can hear them calling out to each other and laughing. Playing together comes easily and naturally for people who have worked together. I keep forgetting that. My kids are likely to be conscripted as work crew more often. I think they’ll be good with that.

When a Project Doesn’t Work

mistakes

We made a really hard business decision this week. I’m still sad about it. Short version: Although I tried hard for more than six months, we can’t make the version of the Seventy Maxims books with handwritten annotations look anything but cluttered. The maxims get lost in the multi color handwriting and that is a problem because the maxims are the heart of the book.
Full backer announcement can be seen here:
Kickstarter Project Update #36

I’m sad because I fell in love with the stories and jokes created by those notes. I’m sad because I know that this decision disappoints some people. Yet I know that the clutter of notes would have frustrated and disappointed other people. I like the idea of creating clean, crisp books so that fans can add their own notes and experiences. I’d love nothing more than to see books that had been lovingly aged, scribbled in, and turned into expansive lists of additional notes and corollaries. Perhaps we’ll even set up a gallery so people can share images of what they have done. I’d kind of love that. There may be a time out there in the future where I’m able to be nothing but happy about the decision, but today I am sad.

Disappointing people is very hard for me. It punches huge anxiety buttons, or maybe very small buttons that are hooked up to giant, churning anxiety generators. I’ve spent a lot of energy in the past couple of days just trying to quell anxiety so that I can function. I’m also trying to figure out what I actually think and feel over the cacophony of “you have completely failed, you always fail, everything in your life is now permanently doomed.”

When I was talking with my daughter Kiki about this during one of her college check-in calls, she asked “Are you okay? I know how much time you spent on this.” And she is right. I spent more than a hundred hours getting all the handwriting, putting it into place, re configuring it so that I could hand it to our book designer (“re configuring” involved scissors, tiny pieces of paper, and double sided tape), then taking it back from the book designer when I realized the quantity of back and forth that Howard and I would need to do. There were the hours I spent prepping pages and sitting with my handwriters so that they would know what to write and where. I had each note written multiple times in different ways so that I had options for editing. After scanning the handwriting, I spent hours tweaking images for readability. I increased spaces between words, or decreased them. I replaced letters (or entire words) that were illegible with another version of that word written by the same person. I then went back to some handwriters and had had them re-write words, draw arrows, or write additional notes. Repeat all the editing steps. There are 320 images for those handwritten notes, each edited and placed individually.

So much work. Maybe I’m a little sad about those hours, but the thing that eats at me is we could have sent the book to print months ago if only we’d been able to see the solution before this week.

Ultimately the requirements of the project weren’t compatible with each other. We needed real handwriting because handwriting fonts are more sterile and far more difficult to tell apart. Unfortunately real handwriting always has readability issues. We needed multiple colors of pen so that readers could tell which character wrote what. But the multiple colors make the pages look jumbled up so that readers don’t know where to start. No matter what we did, we couldn’t make it so that the maxims drew the eye first. Which meant that people would read the handwriting before they’d read the text that the handwriting was responding to. Even while editing I had to train myself to read maxim first, then commentary, then notes. Some of the pages worked beautifully. Some were a mess no matter what we tried. Yet we couldn’t just eliminate the messy pages because some of them were key elements in a story through-line or a set up for a joke later.

Fortunately, all of the hard work is not lost. We’ll release a PDF version to our backers so that they can see what might have been, if only we could have made the different elements of the concept work with each other instead of against each other. And some of them will say “yeah, I can see why you chose not to print this.” Others will say “I’m so sad you didn’t print this, it is exactly what I wanted.” Both of those people will be right. This decision we’ve made is simultaneously exactly what needs to happen and also a disappointing creative choice. My brain keeps telling me that it is so close, surely if I just worked at it for another hundred hours I could make it brilliant. I don’t have those hours. I don’t have that energy. And the backers have already waited far past the delivery date we originally announced. I have a huge responsibility to deliver to them. I can’t let them down. Which means we’ve chosen the best path forward. I’m just sad that I couldn’t force there to be a better path.

On the Third Day of School

Yesterday I cleaned my desk, both the physical one covered in papers and the electronic one that was littered with files. Last week I had a vague awareness that things were messy, but I couldn’t even see the mess for what it was. Yesterday I didn’t even think about it. It was just obvious that this paper needs to go there and that file can now be thrown out. As easy as breathing I restored order, where over the summer the task would have been overwhelming. Obviously the difference has a root in the beginning of the school schedule, but it took me some thinking to figure out why. Just like putting an organizer into a junk drawer makes it easier for me to sort junk into useful categories, putting a school schedule into my week creates compartments of time and allows me to better separate out the different roles I need to manage. I always forget what it is like to have my days organized. It gets jumbled so gradually as my intended summer schedule melts under the pressure of late nights and the knowledge that since the structure is mine, I can alter it at will.

This is day three of the new schedule. My two live-at-home school kids have now been to all their classes. (Kiki has too, but I don’t expect daily reports from a college-going adult.) We’ve had first assessments of teachers and the result is 3/4 positive, 1/8 wait and see, 1/8 probably needs to be altered. That is a good mix for starting the year. Of course, day three is when getting out of bed begins being harder. My first thought this morning was “Ugh, I’m going to have to do this all year. It is going to be a long year.” Except that getting up early becomes less difficult when it becomes routine. And I do love getting to 10am with lots of work already done.

The 70 Maxims book project has developed momentum. I’ve been working hard to get it all done. The designer has done some amazing work for the cover. I’m excited to get to show it off in a few weeks. I’m also hugely relieved to have this project so close to going to the printer. Unfinished projects loom in my brain.

The Seventy Maxims Book

There is a momentum in book projects. I always feel it in the run up to sending a book off to print. Things happen more quickly and with more energy. I can feel that momentum building on the Seventy Maxims book. Howard has it mostly drafted. What follows will be iterations. This book is particularly complicated because in addition to the maxims themselves, there will be scholarly commentary about each maxim. Each page will also have handwritten notes from various characters. There is a timeline of when each character has the book. There are stories in and around some of the comments. These stories can’t be told in full with this format, but they need to be sufficiently there to be interesting, not frustrating. In order to get everything right, we’ll have to do lots of iterations.

1. I throw all the text and commentary onto the pages so we can see if it will fit.
2. I print it out and write a bunch of critique notes.
3. Howard takes my notes and edits text to make everything tighter and funnier.
4. I put the new text onto pages so we can do another read through.
5. I pull all the commentary off the pages so we only have the maxims and the scholar’s text.
6. Howard and I edit and fine tune the layout and placement of this text.
7. Repeat 5-7 until we have a print ready book. Copy editing of text probably fits in this loop somewhere.
8. Print out the pages and have the person we’ve picked for Karl’s handwriting put all of the young Karl notes on the pages.
9. Fine tune placement and text for Young Karl’s notes.
10. Print out pages with young Karl’s notes in place. Write in Middle Karl’s notes with a different pen.
11. Fine tune them so they are placed correctly on the page and say what they need to say.
12. Print pages with both Young and Middle Karl’s notes. Write in Old Karl’s notes. Make the handwriting just a little bit wobbly, but still readable.
13. Print pages with all Karl notes. Write in Kaff notes responding to Karl notes. A different person will do this writing so that the hand is different. And the pen is different. Fine tune.
14. Print pages with all of Karl and Kaff notes in place. Have another person write in Murtagh notes. fine tune.
15. Print pages with Karl, Kaff, and Murtaugh notes. Have a different person write in the Schlock notes. Fine tune.

And those are just the iterations I can think of. We’ll likely need to repeat steps. It is a complicated process, but it is the only way we can think of to get the quality and effect that we want for the book. You can see that I’ve just completed step 2.
70 Max edits

By leaving the manuscript out on the kitchen table, Howard wandered by and his brain began to work on layout problems. One of those pages has a diagram for the new page layout on it’s back. Monday or Tuesday Howard will sit down with my notes and refine his text to be better. In the mean time, I’ve been testing pens.
Pens
Lots of pens. We’re testing for line weight, bleed, and solidity. Each handwriting will be written by a different pen and in a different color so that readers can easily tell who wrote what.

I’m excited to see the finished book, which means I need to get to work and make it happen.

Good Work Day

I’ve had a couple of really fantastic work days in a row. I want dozens more just like them. Unfortunately I have to make space in my day tomorrow for an urgent dentist appointment. The tooth is only hurting mildly right now, but the way in which it is hurting and the swollen lymph nodes suggest that it might suddenly begin hurting a lot. I have to get it taken care of. So, alas, I will not have an uninterrupted work day tomorrow.

But today I did preliminary layouts on several sections of Planet Mercenary. I also did the next layout iteration for the 70 maxims book. Tomorrow I need to go pen shopping and I need to find handwriting matches for Karl Tagon, Kaff Tagon, and Murtaugh. We already found the right handwriting for Schlock. Howard is almost done drafting the words. It’ll all need to go through copy edits and then the handwriting bits will have to be done. But we’re on track to send it out for print in June. Tomorrow I’ll finish up the second half of the layout iterations. And I need to get started on the cover as well.

On Friday I’m hauling Kiki and Link over to the warehouse. It needs a significant cleaning and organization effort. I’ve got to make space for the incoming Force Multiplication books. I’ve also got to clear space for the dice, cards, and tokens from the Planet Mercenary Kickstarter. Those will likely be arriving within a week of the Force Multiplication books. We’ve reached the part in shipping where I eye space and fret that I won’t have enough. If I have to, I’ll rent a storage unit and re-locate stacks of slipcases. Or maybe I’ll run a sale on slipcases and book sets to clear space for incoming inventory. Because I’ll ship out some of the Force Multiplication right away, but much of it will just be stacked in the warehouse. And we’ll need space for 70 Maxims books, and then for Planet Mercenary books. After which we’ll ship out many things and I will have space again.

It is nice to have a day where the challenges feel interesting and doable. Much preferred to the days when everything feels overwhelming and doomed.

We have a strange job

“I just need you to verify information on some people you made payments to.” The guy asking was from the Utah Department of Workforce Services. His job was to make sure that I was paying Utah unemployment taxes for any Utah residents who might be considered employees.
“Who is X, and what does she do for you?”
“Ah that’s one of our artists, we contract work from her. She lives in Canada.”
“Okay.” He checks her off the list. Not a Utah resident, not his concern. “Tell me about W.”
“He’s an editor we hired to help with a book. He lives in California.”
“What about G?”
“He helps us with website design and management. He lives in New Zealand.”
“Oh.” This time there is some surprise in the man’s tone. “And K?”
“Artist, lives in China.”
“M?”
“Artist, lives in Brazil.”
The man paused. “Wow, you really work with people all over.” This surprise came from from a man who spends all of his work hours interviewing business owners about their employees and contractors.

I was standing in a copy shop waiting for color prints of the latest Schlock book when another woman came to stand in line next to me. The first pages were delivered and I began to turn them over and look for errors.
“That’s really cool looking.” The woman said “What is it?”
I’m always a little stumped to answer this question, because I don’t know where to start or how to summarize. I can talk for hours about what I do and what Howard does, but casual conversation isn’t supposed to turn into a lecture. Yet any answer I give that is short of a lecture tends to provoke more questions, not fewer.
“It is a comic that I edit and publish. My husband is the artist and author.”
“That’s really cool. He drew all these pictures?”
“Yes.”
“But he must draw on a computer. people don’t draw on paper anymore, do they?”
At this point I recognized I was talking to a person for whom a creative career is so far outside her worldview that she literally did not have the necessary knowledge to comprehend the work we do. She asked three times, in three different ways, what our real jobs were, what did we do for money when we weren’t working on the comic. The idea that a comic book was our full time job simply did not compute.

I so often forget what a strange thing it is that Howard and I do. We live in this strange little niche that only exists because of the internet. Sometimes we’re not sure ourselves how all the things combine to bring enough income to pay all our bills. I try to forget about that, because when I contemplate it, anxiety rises up to remind me that it could all go away. I forget that most people don’t have plot conversations over breakfast, and copy-edits over lunch. For us it is routine to answer fan mail and to sign a contract to print 5000 books. It is routine to communicate with people on far flung portions of the planet about things that we are creating together. Then there are these moments where someone reacts to our job description and I remember. What we do is weird and we’re really lucky that we get to do it.

Saying No

It is time for me to start saying no a lot. My calendar for the next few weeks has large blocks of daytime work hours. There are no morning or mid-day appointments to disrupt the flow of my work. Afternoons are littered with many places to be, but they’re all regular events: lessons, tutoring, therapy. My only responsibility is to deliver children to their thing and then bring them home again. While I wait, I can be working on anything that I brought with me. I’m going to need every minute of those work hours. Deadlines have begun to loom close instead of distant.

I hit despair last Friday. The projects I have in front of me —work, household, parenting— all seemed like tangled and impossible messes. The only thing I could clearly see was that my available hours were insufficient for the amount of work I had assigned myself. “How can I help?” a friend asked me. He saw the front edge of my despair and wanted to take some of the business load. I couldn’t answer him, not in that moment. One of my weaknesses is that when I am under stress I hold tighter to all my tasks, expecting myself to just work harder. The more stressed I am, the less I can see what I should delegate and who I should give it to. Fortunately I have friends and Howard who have a better perspective. They pointed out a few things to me. It started my mind thinking about how to spread out the work more evenly and which things I can let lie fallow while I concentrate on other things.

I still spent Friday evening very sad. I didn’t like being that sad, but the sadness functioned as a shield which held off the blinding terror which howled around the edges of my mind. If I was grieving everything as a failure, then I didn’t have to be panicked about how doomed all my efforts were. I spent the evening hiding from sad thoughts. Around 1am I got out of bed and began to do the dishes. I hadn’t been sleeping anyway, and dishes were a simple thing that I could see how to do. I was inevitably doomed to failure, but at least I wouldn’t fail in the midst of dirty dishes. Then I began to fold laundry. By 4am I’d put enough things in order that my mind would let me sleep. Fortunately it was Saturday so I slept late. Then I put in eight hours on work projects, one small task at a time. Panic showed up periodically, usually when I was contemplating the project as a whole. Any time anxiety threatened to overwhelm me, I just reminded myself that it was obvious that I would miss my deadline, so there was no point in panicking about it. Instead I would just keep doing tasks one after the other. Then when failure inevitably arrived, at least I would know that I had done everything I could.

On one level, I’m aware that I’ve performed some weird hack on my brain. Doing one task after another is how deadlines get met. There is a part of my brain that has done the math and thinks that piles of hard work might still allow us to meet our deadlines. I’m trying not to think about that too much, because believing success is possible means I have to panic, stress, and push to get things done. The anxiety of pushing will cause me to freeze up and avoid the work. This has been an (unfortunately) frequent pattern in the past few months. But if I think I’m doomed to miss the deadline, I can work steadily and calmly. Shh, don’t tell my anxiety that I’m tricking it.

I made some lists today. One is the list of regrets I have for time wasted in the past few months. Pinning those regrets to the page pulled them out of my head where they were spilling sadness on everything. Another is the list of things that I should hand off to other people. The third list is discrete tasks that I can be doing next. I will follow my lists bit by bit, day by day. In order to do that, I have to vigorously defend the spaces in my days. I have to not let other people put things on my lists. I have to say no to opportunities. I have to say no to social appointments. I have to say no to teachers who want slices of my time in service of my children’s education. All these things can have my attention again once the deadline has been met or been passed. Right now I have to dive deep, ignore the internet, let calls go to voicemail, and work on the task in front of me.

My GenCon Schedule

I didn’t think that I’d have any scheduled events for GenCon, but then suddenly I did. If you’re at GenCon, you can come find me. Most of the time I’ll either be at booth 1935 or floating around at the Writer’s Symposium. But these are my fixed schedule points.

Planet Mercenary Field Marshall game
Friday 6:30pm
location TBD

Panel: Writing Serialized Stories in Comics
Saturday 1pm, Writer’s Symposium Room 242

Writing Excuses recording
Saturday 6pm, Writer’s Symposium Room 242
Not sure yet if I’ll be participating as a guest. Howard is still arranging for guests and planning topics.

Projects in Process

It appears that more than a week has passed since I last posted. I was wondering how that could happen, then I made the following list of my projects in process:

Pioneer Trek
Preparing for this has been an endeavor which has required multiple shopping trips and lots of thinking. We aren’t a camping family, so there was quite a lot of gear that we didn’t already have. Or at least we didn’t have enough of. On top of that, Howard has been working hard to make sure that his work is far enough ahead that he can go internet silent for four days. So have I. This will be our longest trip away from the internet since we started running an internet based business. Also this will be the first trip since we got our cat where both us and our backyard neighbors are absent at the same time. They usually take care of her while we’re gone. So I’ve had to do quite a bit of thinking about who would care for her and what instructions I should give for the care of a cat who is accustomed to going in and out of the house as often as she can convince a human to open the door.

And then there has been a full load of anxiety attached to all of the above. I’ve spent quite a lot of energy telling myself that everything will be fine. The truth is that trek may very well be an entirely miserable experience. Or it could be a fantastic one. I don’t know how this will turn out, I just know that it is an important experience for our family to have. We felt that strongly when we agreed to go. I’ll admit that I’d like to come home and help my kids process and learn from amazing experiences instead of helping them process miserable ones. I have to remind myself that my job isn’t to make sure that my kids only have good experiences. My job is to help them learn and grow from whatever experiences they have. It is really stressful spending so much time and energy preparing for a thing without knowing how much emotional clean up we’ll have to do afterward. We leave at o’dark thirty on Tuesday.

Planet Mercenary
Howard and I have been figuring out how the workflow needs to go. He’s been doing art direction. I’ve been handling contracts. We started the process for manufacturing cards and dice. Alan continues to run playtests and tweak the rule set. I’m putting together the structural skeleton for the book, deciding how many pages will be devoted to each section.

Mental Health Management
I’ve been driving at least three and a half hours each week taking my kids to various appointments, therapy sessions, and classes. This does not include the time that I sit and wait for them while they are in these things. Though I don’t do as much sitting around as I’d expect because I tend to drop one off, drive another one, then pick one up, then pick up the other one. It is hard for me to tell if any of it is producing increased emotional stability and coping skills. I think I won’t know the results of this summer until school starts. I do know that we just revised our plan for Link. His therapist (the second one we’ve tried, and the one I thought might be able to help) is leaving. Instead of handing Link off to a new therapist, we’ve decided to take a break for a bit. We’ll let him process the classes he’s taking. And let him process the experiences he has during Trek. And let him process going to visit his grandparents without his parents also there. In addition to all of that, we’ve been doing some medicine switches. Changing mental health medicine is a slow process which requires observation. I think that things are improving. The kids are negotiating their frustrations in ways that are more productive. And that is not for lack of conflict over video games, food, space, etc. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m not providing more summer outings, but the kids are bonding over shared games, and I have to remember that is worthwhile.

GenCon

Out past the trek, Howard and I will both be going to GenCon. I’m very excited about this. I’ll get to go and be with other writers. I’ll get to dwell in a professional space and put down much of the parenting things. We run a booth at GenCon, so there are lots of preparatory things we need to do. I did the big shipment of merchandise to our crew there. This past week Howard and I ordered new pins, bags, and badge holders which will be at the show. That required decisions and design time. We’re actually a bit later on ordering those than we wanted to be. Some of them will be shipped direct to us and we’ll haul them to the show in suitcases. Also in my GenCon planning was figuring out child care while we were gone. I finally decided to send the kids to stay with their grandparents. This will mean they get to fly as unaccompanied minors (direct flight, only one hour long). The boys get their trip while I’m at GenCon. The girls get their trip a week earlier. Thus I’ve arranged for the house and cat to be tended at all times. There will be more GenCon scrambling after I get back from trek, I’m sure.

Schlock Mercenary / Regular business
The usual operation of things does not stop. There are orders to fill, email to answer, and accounting to do. We’ve also got the next Schlock book in process. There are more design decisions to make with this book because it is the first of the next set.

Household
Just like regular business does not stop, neither to regular household tasks. People need food, which requires shopping. We have defaulted into eating quite a lot of frozen food or eating out. This is hard on the budget, but does solve the problem of hunger. Though the kids are starting to talk wistfully of foods that are not microwaved. I’m hopeful that post-trek we’ll get back to meal planning and cooking more often. The other house project that is in process is preparing to paint Gleek’s room. She’s the only kid who didn’t shift rooms earlier this year, so she’s the only one who still has dingy white walls. This week Kiki and I have been helping her organize and sort her things. Gleek is old enough now that she’s ready to give away things she’s outgrown or at least store them instead of having them out. After trek we’ll pull things down from the walls, wash walls, and prepare to paint.

Writing
Blogging has been sporadic, obviously. Yet I’ve gotten started working on the revision of House in the Hollow. My goal is to have it submittable this fall. Writing is beginning to come back, which is always nice.

So that’s what I’ve been up to and what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks. I’m sure I’ll return from trek with stories to tell. Though if the stories are hard, telling them may wait a while.

Planet Mercenary Funded

The Kickstarter closed at noon today. I was watching when it happened. How could I not watch those final seconds count down? It tipped over into Funded and there was this pause in my head. For a long few seconds I looked at the number of backers and the number of dollars. Well now I know. It was the first clear thought in the pause. I know what the budget is for all the things we must do. I know how many people to whom I am responsible for spending that money wisely. Hitting funded is a solemn and awestruck moment as much as it is a happy one.

I have so many fears going forward. I know some of the stressful things that are ahead. I know that there will be other stresses that I do not expect. It seems that every project we do has some huge and potentially disastrous problem hidden in it. Thus far we’ve always avoided the disasters, but it felt really close many times. (Some day I really should give a full account of how the Massively Parallel bonus story was rescued from a major misprint at the very last minute.) I’m also very excited for what we get to make.

So this first few days after hitting funded is a time for Howard, Alan (our partner and game designer), and I to breathe. We need to pause and reset our minds for the new tasks ahead. We need to pick up some of the tasks we let drop. I need to give my youngest child some attention as he nears the end of his last year in elementary school.

But while I’m pausing to breathe, I should use some of that breath to say thank you to all the people who backed our project. Thank you to the people who spread the word. Thank you to the people who wished us well. Because of all of you, we get to make Planet Mercenary, and it is going to be amazing.