Maybe I’m not an artist, after all

There’s a bit of a lead-in, here. A longish story. Stay with me.

So, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a new game. A deck-building game. This isn’t the first one I’ve tried to create, but all the thinking I’ve been doing on the subject over the last year or so got me to the point where, combined with the new freedom of being on hiatus from working on new books, I was able to create a brand new, playable, engaging, and fun deck-building game in under two weeks. The mechanics are pretty solid. It has a fair amount of complexity, but is easy to pick up and play (especially if you’re already familiar with deck-building games). It also does a whole lot of other, layered things, which I won’t get into here; suffice it to say that it tackles narrative, theme, and teaches players subtle moral lessons, all through the gameplay mechanics. For the play-testing decks I’ve been printing (and cutting, and sleeving, myself), I did a relatively quick (but professional-looking; I’ve been doing graphic design for almost 15 years, now) layout and dropped in stock photos I stole from the Internet as the art for about a third of the cards. (The rest are blank; I wanted to get to playing, rather than spend hours and hours putting together art I knew I’d have to replace later.)

This brings us to the problem at hand. I’ve been polishing the text on the cards and the mechanics of the gameplay based on how it plays and how people have reacted to the game/cards; no problem. But now, if I want to move forward with this, even just to have a nice version printed up for my own use (to say nothing of the ridiculous challenges inherent in attempting to turn it into a commercial product), I need art for all the cards. Realistically (and, according to the law) I can’t use stolen images, even just for a single set of cards for my own personal use; no printer would (knowingly) print it, and technically what I’ve already done is a couple million dollars’ worth of copyright violation. So I need new art for all the cards.

On one hand, the use of stock photography works reasonably well with the game, as it exists now. In fact, I feel it adds a bit of light-heartedness the game certainly needs, considering its themes. The careful selection of stock photos could make this into a complete and very enjoyable game, and if the game is strictly for my personal use, I can legally license a set of images for under $100. Possibly for under $50, depending where I get them. For any sort of commercial use, the licenses for the stock photos would cost something upwards of $4k-$6k. (Interestingly, hiring another artist or artists to create illustrations for all the cards would also cost me at least that much, and possibly over $10k-$20k for high-quality/highly-detailed work.)

On the other hand, I could illustrate all the cards myself. Theoretically I’m an artist (though I’m definitely not an illustrator; I have almost no experience doing illustrations/drawings of any kind) and I could maybe just whip up five dozen images. It’s my game, right? Why not just do everything, like I’ve done with all my books? My biggest concern with this approach is that I haven’t spent the last ten to fifteen years practicing drawing and illustration, or even much of that time looking at drawn and illustrated works (no, I don’t read comics, generally). I’ve been painting mostly-abstract and generally-non-figurative works, and focusing on portraying emotional content, rather than literal content. So drawing, say, a person, or a building, or a room full of people, is not something I have any practice with.

And, sure, I could use this as an opportunity to begin working on my illustration skills. I’ve been putting off starting from scratch and teaching myself illustration for over three years, now. This is, actually, something I frequently think I want to do. That I don’t do. So a couple of days ago I decided, “Yeah, let’s try it! I’m going to try to illustrate my own cards.”

Except then I ran into the problem of the theme: The game basically describes everyday life. There are cards for going to work. There are cards for sleeping. Cards for going to school. (Online Classes. Night Classes. Summer School. MBA Program, et cetera. What do you draw for each one of those to differentiate them from one another at a glance?) There are cards for different sorts of work you might do, from fast-food all the way up to Manager/CEO, but again, how do you show, at a glance, the differences between these jobs? Heck, how do you illustrate someone working at any job less

specific than fast-food? Most of the cards are these sorts of everyday things, everyday activities. A few are specific locations or obvious activities (a church, a police station, a library, a karate tournament, et cetera) which would be relatively easy, at least to know whether the image was of the thing described, but most are really referring to abstractions. What does a promotion look like, when I also have to have a card for the job you’ve been promoted into, which you can easily differentiate? Or working overtime? Or all the things we do on computers? How does ‘Online Classes’ look different from ‘Database Hacking’, ‘Craigslisting Old Stuff’, or working on a ‘Personal Project’ (this last one also needing to look different from all those other ‘working’ cards)?

And on, and on, and on, and this, this, is what’s making me think maybe I’m not really an artist, after all. If I can’t come up with a few dozen ideas for images to illustrate the ideas of all these different cards, what sort of an artist am I? Heck, why do I think I could find enough different stock photographs for these ideas? If I don’t know how to illustrate everyday life … *sigh*

So then I go back and forth, and even further than before. Not just back to photography, which I do think I could find enough images from, but all the way back to whether I ought to spend any more time/effort on this project, at all. I created it, it was playable and fun, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe I don’t need to take it all the way through to a theoretically-finished ‘product’, professionally printed and all that. And then further forth, to the idea that I’ve been wanting to try to develop games of this sort, and games for sale/distribution, for about a year, already; that going through this process, even if I don’t ever intend to make this game commercially available, would be a good learning experience for me. To give me a first pass at trying to illustrate an entire deck-building game, and at working with a professional game printer & distributor, and at what it takes to bring a project of this scope not just to a playable Alpha version, but to a beautiful First Edition. And it’s a struggle.

Plus, my mind has already been dreaming up expansions for it. Ways to create a small set of cards (say, 70 to the existing game’s 250+) which by addition or substitution to the set I have now, significantly alter the nature of the game. Such as a ‘Supers’ expansion, which adds super powers and super villains to your attempts to navigate everyday life. Or a horror expansion. Or whatever, but generally of the sort where it would be difficult to continue to use stock photography to depict the new card ideas. Which is actually the sort of thoughts which led me to the above “let’s try it” exclamation; clearly, for the game and its expansions, some sort of illustration, and possibly some sort of cartoony, simplified illustration, to keep a certain level of lightness-of-tone, would be required.

So, this is my current struggle. Except for the hours of frustration spent staring at blank pages and/or terrible illustrations I’m trying to create on them, the last few weeks have been really nice. The simple act of following my muse, creating freely and without real concern for commercial possibilities, but just because it was what I felt like creating, had made me really happy. I’ve especially appreciated the idea that in order to successfully ‘Kickstart’ a proper commercial run of a game like this, I’d have to hit at least a $10k goal (easily $30k, if working with other artists), and that my fundraisers tend to raise $300 or $500, total, so in there being no hope of success, there has been no pressure to even try; I know I’m only making this for me and my friends, right now.

Maybe, maybe, if/when I finish all the art, I’ll also make it available as an expensive POD game from someplace like, or just put a print-and-play version up for free at But from what I know, my attempting to actually do anything commercially meaningful with this (or anything like it) would just be a stressful waste of everyone’s time and energy. (And I kinda like it that way.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep trying to work on the art for awhile, and either find success or give up on it and move on, and I think either one of those will be okay. If you know me personally, and are local, and you want to play, email/message me and I’ll invite you to one of our game nights. Your feedback on it would be welcomed, as well as your company.

(Late) Debt Pay-down update

Okay, so … the last few months have been quite busy, and I didn’t rebuild all my spreadsheets until today (though, of course, I haven’t missed any payments (and actually, I had rebuilt the one which tracks our monthly budgets and savings balances, just not the big one which projects and tracks our debt pay-down)), so this post is coming a bit later than I initially projected. To recap (with actual numbers):

From 1/30/2012 to 1/30/2013, we paid off two credit cards and reduced our overall debt from $60,652.03 (2012) to $46,987.17 (2013), a debt reduction of $13,664.86, partially enabled by decimating our savings and liquidating a few thousand dollars from an old retirement account neither of us had known existed prior to 2011. As of the end of January, we were down to two debt accounts with balances: One credit card and one (consolidated) student loan account.

On 3/15/2013 we closed on a house. (Yay! New house!) Liquidating our savings and that retirement account to improve our debt situation & free up a chunk of cash was, in a large way, motivated by a sudden and unexpected need to buy a house and move out of the place we’d been staying. I moved very quickly (too quickly for the banks and credit reporting agencies, in some ways), going from ‘believing we could stay at the other house until at least our credit cards were paid off’ to ‘owning our own home’ in under 75 days. (I give all thanks for this, and I place the success of this, squarely on God. We couldn’t have done it without Him, and I’m pretty confident it wouldn’t have gone even a little as smoothly or quickly without His help. Throughout the process, rather than being cripplingly overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, I genuinely experienced a peace which transcends understanding, finding my footing always on the solid rock of faith.)

Our projected debt pay-off dates have been significantly altered by this change. Prior to being told we needed to move, we were projecting having our last credit card paid off in the Fall of 2014, and if the same living arrangements were maintained beyond that point, to have the student loans paid off (that is, we would be debt free) by the Fall of 2017 (4  years from 1/2013). (Assuming no significant changes in income or expenses, no bonuses, no overtime, et cetera.) According to the spreadsheets I’ve just put together based on our new financial situation (which still has some significant estimates, since we don’t have a year’s worth of utility bills yet, et cetera), we are now looking more info

at having our last credit card paid off in the Summer of 2016, the student loan paid off around the Summer of 2022 (after 9 years, instead of 4), and the (ostensibly 30-year) mortgage paid off by Spring of 2030 (after 17 years). On just the credit card and student loans, this extension will cost us an estimated $3,500 in additional interest versus our previous projections.

Still, it’s a good situation. We own our own home, and we can afford it, while still paying down our other debts. The move into, and the furnishing and upgrades/repairs to, this home cost quite a bit of money and basically liquidated all the funds we’d squirreled away to pay for expected recurring costs (new tires every few years, oil changes & other auto maintenance, vehicle license taxes every two years, prescription drugs and doctor copays, NaNoWriMo/coffee/writing costs, computer upgrade/replacements, et cetera), and until we’ve built all those funds back up we’re only making the minimum/scheduled payments on our debts, rather than any overpayments. We’ve actually made significant headway on that front, having built up enough to cover everything but the ‘computer replacement’ component of the old savings, and expect to reach that point by October.

Oh, and the new date to go by, for looking at our annual debt pay-down in the future, will be 3/15. As of 3/15/2013, our total outstanding debt was $142,723.88. In the five years from 3/2008 to 3/14/2013, Mandy and I reduced our debts by a total of $45,108.35.

((March 2008, by the way, was when I stopped working a day job and, effectively, stopped contributing financially to the household, except as its financial manager. (Over the same period I’ve put $6k-$7k more into my business than it’s earned, though most of the not-yet-earned-back monies were invested in the first year and a half after I started to do this full time. I suppose I can’t really quit, since I still owe me thousands of dollars…) I guess I’m a better househusband than I am an entrepreneur.))

Show of hands: Who thinks our car will actually last another 17 years, to keep from significantly altering the above projections? Hah! I suppose I’ll probably add a “saving for car replacement” line to our budget … probably either starting the next time Mandy gets a raise, or in 2016 when the credit card is paid off. Yech. Technically, since I already have several savings lines attributed to the car, depending on how maintenance costs go, we might end up with a reasonably good start on that budget, if the car needs to be replaced suddenly. …I’ll be thinking about this…

Recipe test

A friend asked me for my Banana Bread recipe recently, so I’ve spent the intervening time thinking about the details for how I want to display my baking recipes. I’ve been adjusting and adapting my style on paper for several years, so my recipes are a mess of sloppily hand-written notes in a variety of formats. Even with the last couple of weeks to think about it, I’m still not set on a final design, but I wanted to try out one style I’d thought of, which could be relatively-easily implemented in HTML, so here’s my Banana Bread recipe (adapted from Alton Brown’s old recipe), in a hopefully-comprehensible display format:

Banana Bread

PREHEAT oven to 350°
Line loaf pan with parchment paper, using a bit of cooking spray to hold it in place


    • MIX:

      • MIX:

      • 3-4 soft, ripe bananas
      • 1 cup sugar
      • until smooth
      • MIX:

      • 8 tbsp butter (melted & cooled)
      • 2 large eggs
      • 1 tsp almond extract
      • MIX:

      • 1 3/4 cups flour
      • 1/4 cup milled flax
      • 1 tsp baking soda
      • 1 tsp salt

POUR into prepared loaf pan
BAKE at 350° for 55-75 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean
REMOVE from pan using parchment paper
DISCARD parchment paper
COOL completely on wire rack before slicing

The basic philosophy of my attempts to better-design the recipe format is built around the fact that I don’t like having a separate ingredients list; it feels like a waste of space, but also makes cooking like trying to look things up in a glossary every few words. The instructions say “combine flour, baking soda, and salt,” and I have to access the reference table (the ingredients list) to know how much of each thing. Instead, I’m trying to make the ingredients required obvious (so you can gather them before beginning) but also built in to the instructions wherever possible. Baking recipes make this the easiest, I’ve found, though I’ve adapted similar designs to cooking recipes with complicated instructions, as well.

Additionally, I like having time & space color-coded and/or clearly delineated. So in this example, all three sets of ingredients should be mixed at the same time, in three different bowls (the blue steps), then the two sets of wet ingredients should be mixed (the green step), and then the wet and dry ingredients should be mixed (the yellow step). On paper, I usually put the ingredients along the left, and the “MIX” on the right with an arc (a bowl shape) curving around the ones which go together (and then larger and larger arcs as various ingredient sets are combined), but doing it this way seemed like a clear enough compromise for HTML and unordered lists, without doing a lot of custom/difficult web design.

My preference would be to have an iPad app where one could easily switch from a “gather these ingredients” form of the list (like a traditional ingredients list) to one where the ingredients (complete with their measurements) flowed/slipped down into the appropriate places in the instructions, and where individual instructions could be expanded (for further explanation, and/or illustrations, photos, and even videos) when clarification was needed. And when there’s a basic recipe with various alternate versions (something like “for a cranberry almond bread, leave out the bananas, then gently fold in 2 cups fresh cranberries and 1/4 cup sliced almonds at step n and sprinkle an additional 1/4 cup sliced almonds on top after pouring into the loaf pan”), a tap or two should simply switch the recipe entirely to the alternate version, rather than creating a secondary lookup table to refer to. Being able to switch to an alternate timeline/timing view would also be a boon, especially when planning a complex meal; imagine your recipe app was able to coordinate all the steps for a multi-course meal into a single comprehensible set of instructions.

(Unfortunately, there’s a lot of metadata missing from most recipes to make such a system easily adaptable to having the end-user’s recipes added. How long does this step take, and how far in advance can I do that step before moving on to the next, and what do you call this bowl of half-mixed things to differentiate it from that one, et cetera? Most recipe books I’ve seen barely have enough information to produce the food, let alone meaningful metadata; plenty don’t bother with overall prep/cooking time estimates, or even number of servings, let alone time-per-step, nutrition data, or easy substitutions for unusual ingredients.)

Anyway, I’m still working on it. No recipe book/app coming from me, any time soon. But putting things on this blog is part of how I think things through. Plus, that banana bread recipe is pretty-much foolproof, and delicious.

Seeing Sausage Made

I may have broken myself, over the last couple of years, in my misguided attempts to write commercially-acceptable, popular fiction. To wit:

I read Neil Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I didn’t like it. (Update: To clarify, the problem is not specifically with Gaimain’s book; this is a straw/camel’s-back situation, and the final straw is not actually to blame.) The first forty or forty-five pages were pretty good, and then…

Well, then the antagonist was introduced. The plot. All that dumb, formulaic, repetitive conflict. A third or more of Gaiman’s stories share this same plot, and more share the same character arcs. Worse, they aren’t unique to Gaiman, they’re the same ones which are so common they’ve been extremely well documented over the decades. There was quite a bit of good writing; well-constructed sentences, engaging imagery, and poignant (if both obvious & contrived) metaphorical meaning in the author’s personal context.

I really wanted to like it. Even as I was frustrated & disappointed by it, I knew I ought to be enjoying it—instead, I was dragging myself through it, slogging through it, counting the pages until the heavily-telegraphed resolution.

In discussing it with my wife (who had loved the book), I described what I’d realized as I’d been reading it:

You know how some people become vegetarians because, after witnessing the process which takes an animal and turns it into food, they can’t stand to eat meat anymore? The idea that most people are better off not knowing how sausage is made. Well, I spent most of the last few years painfully (as I’ve thoroughly documented here, in the past) forcing myself to learn all the gory details of how popular and commercial fiction is created. The hero’s journey, the linear progression of conflict within and between books, the “right” way to construct a scene, point by point to manipulate the reader without them noticing, to generate and endlessly ramp up the tension and the stakes even from scenes and situations where it doesn’t make sense. I filled my head with it, against my instincts and with a great deal of struggle and pain, and now I seem to have put myself off reading. I can’t stomach it, any more.

Worse was that reading this book, by an author I respect and used to enjoy the work of… Reading it sickened me because I realized that this book was the result of an extremely talented and creative and inspiring author putting so much of himself down on every page, and it was improved by dozens of first readers and beta readers (far more than I can ever get to actually read my work & give me feedback), and it was clarified and polished in interface with his wife (another talented & inspiring creator I respect and admire), and it was further improved by not one but three professional editors of some great repute (any one of which, or any one colleague of which, stands well beyond my financial or reputational reach to work with on my own works) (not to mention, of course, the dozens of other highly-paid and talented professionals who further polished and packaged the story), and yet was still frustratingly formulaic tripe I could hardly stand to read … then what of my own work? I am no Neil Gaiman. I have no staff of professionals. I have no editors. I think I managed to get feedback from 3 readers on my last book, and one of them was my wife. If this tripe is the best an army of talented professionals can put together, how much lower is my work? What depravations am I thrusting upon my innocent readers, what absolute shit?

. . .

So, I quit.

At least until I an’t stand it any more, if not forever. This morning I updated to say submissions are closed, and I updated my Facebook page to say I’m on indefinite hiatus re: writing/publishing. (I’m considering going around the web and replacing the word “author” with “asshole” in every little bio about me.)

I’ve reached a point where I’ve put myself off reading, and I can’t trust my own writing, and there comes a point where you just have to give up, and I’m giving up.

This world doesn’t need any more of my shit.

To anyone who knew me 15-20 years ago:

If you have known me for at least fifteen years, and preferably up to twenty years, it may please you to learn that almost all the strange stories I used to tell about myself have survived, not as the oral storytelling they once were, but as a series of novels. If you didn’t know me back then, or if you have not read the Untrue Tales From Beyond Fiction – Recollections of an Alternate Past, the following may qualify as spoilers for both/either:

Do you remember the stories I used to tell about myself? Perhaps you knew me as immortal, unable to die, tortured by the passing of the unlimitedness of time and the dull repetition of everyday life over the centuries. Perhaps you heard the story of how I came to rule Hell and the underworld, by losing a bet with the Devil himself, and what a unique burden the management of that realm turned out to be. Many of you heard the stories about my exile to Earth, sent here by the governing body of the rest of the universe for a crime so horrible they wanted to sentence me to the worst known punishment; that since I already suffered immortality they’d been forced to hand down the second-worst punishment, Earth. A few of you even dug deep enough to know my so-called crime: Love. (Even fewer heard about the woman I loved; Toni was heard of by a tiny handful.) Then there were the occasional “speculations” about how what we thought of as reality was actually a computer simulation, and how our being trapped in the simulation was related directly to an alien invasion in our true reality (though the details of these stories were, necessarily, a bit sketchy); and all this years before films like 13th Floor, Dark City, or The Matrix ever ran. There were also a lot of smaller stories, details really, about little things like mind reading, magical pockets or bags, supernatural creatures, or a few decades of my exile spent with Peter Pan in Neverland.

In 2004, after having written two other books, I set myself to trying to reintegrate all the stories I used to tell as though they were about myself and expanding them into a series of novels. The series was, as I implied above, the Untrue Tales From Beyond Fiction – Recollections of an Alternate Past, so named because these were the lies (the untrue tales) I told about myself, as though I were merely recalling them as my own history (my own alternate past, shared originally as oral stories for my friends (stories thus one step removed from the traditional form of modern, published fiction—stories from beyond fiction) and now re-collected as novels). I wrote the first book in the Fall of 2004, the next in the Spring of 2005, and 97% of the third in the Fall of 2005 (though it was not finished until a year, a month, a day, and an hour more had passed), and I had grand plans at the time for a 9-book (or longer) series, expanding significantly on the old stories according to their novelized design.

Then I hit a rough patch, in my life and in my writing, and when I came out of it I wanted to work on different stories; to put the old lies stories behind me and create new worlds. Eventually my readers called out loudly enough for a resolution to the incomplete series, and in the Summer of 2010 I began work on wrapping up the Untrue Tales. I truncated what I had formerly intended to expand, I boiled down the story to its essential elements, and by late Spring 2011 I had written three more books and brought the series to a close. Writing these books had always come quickly to me, as I knew so much of the stories by heart; it was the same stories I had been telling, again and again, throughout my youth, as though it were the truth about me and my life and my history. Details had to be changed, here and there, but almost everything remained intact. Every story alluded to two paragraphs above was certainly included. All the main story lines I’d told about myself, and most of the little details and side stories, too.

If you knew me then, if you heard my stories, I encourage you to check out the Untrue Tales… series. You can get the eBooks or podcast audiobooks for free, or you can buy the eBooks, complete audiobooks, or paperback versions if you have the money. You already know the stories; reading them in this format should feel like settling into a familiar locale, surrounded by people you know. There are certainly a few rough patches in The First Untrue Trilogy, as it was some of my earliest published writing, but by the time you’re closing in on the end of The Second Untrue Trilogy you’ll be finding a few “patches” of the best writing of my life.

If you didn’t know me back then (perhaps don’t know me even now), you may want to try them anyway; the Untrue Tales… series remains among my most popular works, despite (or perhaps because of) its unconventional (insane?) story, ideas, characters, and narrative structure.