Thursday, September 29, 2016

Your first published novel is rarely your first WRITTEN novel.

One of the things I most hated hearing when I was younger was how most authors never publish their first finished novel. "That won't be me!" I declared. "I've written tons of stuff. Fan Fiction, novellas... my first novel will be publishable!" 

This is a screenshot from a Facebook status regarding my first novel. It was a time travel story that I wrote two different ways, with the second way going through alpha readers, many drafts, and a search for an agent. But it never found a home and ultimately, this a good thing. While the first book held together okay, it rested on a premise that I had a lot of trouble resolving as I attempted to continue the series.

Now the characters from this book still resonate with me today, and some of my alpha readers will tell me even now that they loved those people. So I hope to find the right story to utilize them in eventually. But I have no idea if it will be time travel or something else.

The point is, I essentially wrote two complete novels (not to mention half of several others) before I got to "The Mermaid and the Unicorn." At times it got really hard, especially when I passed my 25th birthday (my original goal was to have my first book published by then).

But timing is everything. I am tremendously proud of "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" and so grateful that I had the chance to write it. It is a first novel I can share with joy, and know that I am truly putting my best work out there. Will I grow as an author and publish even better books eventually? I hope so! Is "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" a perfect book that I will never want to change? Heck no! But it is a better book than I could have really expected my first published novel to be. Honestly, if for some reason I never wrote another book, I would be able to be happy with "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" being my sole contribution to the world of literature.

And that was worth the wait.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Visualizing your Characters - A Writer's Resource

There are a lot of ways to keep track of what your characters look like. You can write very detailed physical descriptions, you can 'cast' actors in the roles, you can draw them yourself, and so on. However sometimes you don't have the skills necessary, you can't find the right actor, or you just want the ability to try a bunch of different looks.

Here's where the dollmakers come in.

Dollmakers are popular online games wherein you design your character from scratch. You choose everything about them, from nose and eyebrow type, to the exact clothing and accessories they wear. There are dollmakers for almost every fandom you can imagine, and a bunch of generic ones too. Doll Divine has an excellent selection to pick from. However, if you don't want to spend a lot of time searching for the right dollmaker, I would like to recommend these TudorLOTR and Game of Thrones dollmakers as being realistic looking, flexible, and diverse. They are from the same creator, but have slightly different options, so if you can't get the right hairstyle on one, you may wish to try one of the others.

To demonstrate, I've made up several characters from "The Mermaid and the Unicorn." No spoilers until the page break, so even if you haven't read the book, you can look at some of the first examples and see how the dollmaker worked for me.

Daphne Woodhouse, my heroine. The dollmaker worked quite well to get the look I envisioned.

Amelia Fontaine, a mysterious nightclub owner. The historical theme of these particular dollmakers makes short hairstyles more difficult. Thankfully there is a 'drag and drop' option for some hairpieces, so I was able to stimulate the shorter hairstyle I envision Amelia having.

Derek's hairstyle was also a bit difficult to achieve, as I envision him as having a rather "modern trendy" look to his hair, but this is close enough.

I was able to recreate my spunky southern gal, Maddie, to a t! This hairstyle was PERFECT for her!

Luc, the flirtatious museum curator, was a bit more difficult to capture. This isn't exactly a perfect hairstyle for him, but it captures the feel.

I was able to get Kate fairly accurate - only you can't really tell that her eyes are green here. But they are!

Again the hairstyle limitations - Abby has short hair, so she doesn't have those long tendrils of hair, but otherwise it captures her look well.

(Spoilers - if you haven't read "The Mermaid and the Unicorn" do not progress past here)


Friday, September 9, 2016

I Join the Bullet Journal Craze

You've heard of it - maybe. Bullet Journaling is the hot new thing, and for good reason! It combines journaling, list making, and your daily planner in a notebook of your choice. It can be started at any time and customized to suit you exactly. It can be plain, it can be fancy. You can use one pen, or many. You can keep it plain, or decorate with stickers, doodles and washi tape. 

And it is ADDICTING.

First off, the system sounds complicated when you first read it. I advise you to pick up your notebook and then follow the basic system as outlined here. It'll walk you through step by step and by the end of setting up your journal you'll have the concept solidified in your brain. 

You don't have to wait for the New Year, or even the beginning of the week to start one! I started mine on a Friday in AUGUST. 

I do recommend going and getting a good notebook. I went to Half Price Books and got a lovely Piccadilly for $6 (you can get it on Amazon for $7-$12, still cheaper than the popular Moleskine). I highly recommend getting a college-ruled one if you like lines, although they also come in graph and plain.  

There are a TON of blog posts out there illustrating how different people use their bullet journals. Browsing through them is fun to get ideas, but don't get overwhelmed (or intimidated by artists!). 

The foundation of your bullet journal is the index. I left four pages blank to fill in index entries!

Then you have your monthly calendar and task list. I am so glad I got college ruled, because there are 32 lines - just enough to get the whole month in there! (You don't do all of these at once, just whichever one is coming up next)

You also have your future log, which is a spread at the beginning of the journal to keep track of your whole year. Then, as you add each new month page, you will refer back to this to add in important dates and tasks. 

Then you have your daily log! Each day you write down tasks and events, using different signifiers as desired. Uncompleted tasks migrate. I've made up some unique modifiers for myself, to use to easily go back and spot Mateo milestones, health issues, special events (like friends getting married), or Star Wars RPG night mini-synopsises. 

The ribbon date banners are kind of popular. I chose to pick a different color for each month. August was orange/red, September is blue. I think October will be purple, but not sure...

The idea is to jot each entry as it happens, except for when making out the daily task list. You are supposed to only write out one day at a time, as it happens. No plotting tomorrow until you reach it! I appreciate this, as I can refer back to my monthly task list for reminders, but I don't need to feel pressured if I wake up feeling sick. I only make the task list after I've gauged my available spoons for a day.

(Speaking of health, another reason I love bullet journaling is that the amount you write each day is very small - very important for my fibro limitations! I use Staedtler microliner pens, which are the best I've found for my hands to use). 

Then there are the lists! Each journaler has their own priorities. The awesome thing is that because of the index, you can insert a list any time. You can either refer back to the index to find it, OR make mini-tabs, like the one shown here. (I used paper and tape,but some people like to use washi-tape or metal page markers).

I finally have a place to note all of my upcoming blog post ideas!

This is my messiest list. I needed to keep track of when to plant seeds so I don't miss any next year. I'll transfer it over to my monthly logs once I get to next March.

And my book log. I stink at keeping accurate book records, so we'll see if this one actually lasts. My problem is that I read so quickly, and I forget the author name, etc. I'm hoping that since I'm already logging every day, I'll keep up this time. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Real Nerd Life: Encouraging Personal Growth through Role-Playing Games

The traditional stereotype of a nerd is a socially awkward man who lives in his mom's basement. Recent years have proved that love of all things geeky is far more culturally acceptable now, and geeks are as diverse as any other group of people. Still, role-playing-games (RPG's for short) remain fringe.

I'm writing this post to share why I don't think this should be the case, and why you (or your teen) should give role-playing a try. Especially if they have social awkwardness or anxiety.

There have already been some great articles written on this subject (Google "Benefits of playing RPGS"), but I am speaking from the unique perspective of a Christian, homeschool-grad with Aspergers.  I think that RPG's are a great resource, and one which I wish I'd discovered far earlier in life.

"Table-top roleplaying, theater, and improv taught and refined my social skills. I learned to adapt to my situations, to be willing to trust others and say "yes", to flex my brain and without knowing it exercise concepts like game-theory and expand my own creativity." - Jason

RPGs are all about collaboration. My friend
Alicia did the line-art for this sketch, and I colored
it. This was just the beginning of my artistic
journey, which continues to be largely inspired
by my RPG adventures.

What is an RPG?
Role-playing is of course where people take on characters in imaginary scenarios. Although it has a variety of cultural connotations, it also is a respectable therapy tool - Psychologists often use it for helping people with a variety of disorders build awareness of themselves, others, and create a mental toolbox for social situations.

 A role-playing game, however, is built around a specific set of rules. Indeed, some systems have huge libraries of reference books for every detail (although they are not necessary). In addition, although the story is flexible and characters make their own dialogue, the result of their actions is govern by the roll of a dice.

A Safe Place to Build Understanding
This structure means that although players can say something like "I want to scale that big wall!" they don't have automatic success. A system of numbers and dice, modified by the stats given each type of character (a thief has different abilities than a bard, just like in real life), determines the outcome, just like factors of gravity and strength rule real world wall-climbing attempts.

D20, D4 and D8 - some of the core dice used in RPGs.
We gave them away as our wedding favors!

 This makes it a comfortable framework for people who feel uncertain of the unwritten/unspoken rules of social interaction. An RPG game gives them a situation for adventures that has concrete rules to follow. And if debate arises, there is one person (the game master, or GM, who sets, runs and narrates the scenario) to act as arbitrator and judge.

Now all of this is not very different from a typical board game like Risk or Settlers of Catan. That's where the roleplaying comes in. Roleplaying in this setting is very much like improv acting, but with a small audience of trusted friends to support and encourage. Just as acting often gives young people confidence in themselves, so can roleplaying, if conducted in a well-constructed group (more on that later).

"One thing that tabletop RPGs provide that other boardgames can't is a sort of freedom to explore. It's like playing a regular game, but you can say "Can I go over there? Can I poke the thing? Can I eat that?" You get to interact with the environment in a way that other games don't allow you to do. And, because it's a fictional world, it's again very safe. If bad things happen, the consequences are limited, and there's usually a way out." - Andy

My Story
I've always lived a highly imaginative life. Any time I could create a story, whether on paper or in person, I did! Stories, skits, movies, acting games . . . these are the threads of my life. Before I even knew what RPGs were, my friends and I were effectively doing our own freeform RPGS, in the form of collaborative fanfiction.

Like many Christians, my first understanding of RPGs came from negative discussion of Dungeons and Dragons. (More on that specifically later on). Imagine my surprise when I started hanging out with a group of Christians that played this! And from what they discussed, it sounded super fun! Basically a combination of RISK and improv acting, both of which I loved and couldn't get enough of! When I moved out to Virginia for three months, I was invited to join a local game. Although I was just turning 21, My parents were apprehensive (understandably), but the Game Master was a Christian and he passed on some good info. Although (as I state below) I think DandD can become problematic for some Christians, in this setting it was a good fit for me, and the weekly interaction with a group of people of diverse faiths actually helped solidify and grow my own Christian faith.

When I moved back to MN, it became a personal quest to start a new RPG group. Many of my MN friends thought it was 'too geeky' or couldn't make the time commitment. I got really sick at one point, and could only communicate via the internet. Through an in-person friend I got connected with a group of Marvel Comic freeform RP-ers and my three months playing with them pretty much saved me emotionally during the hardest period of my life. But when I got better, I didn't want to be on the computer all the time. I started despairing of finding a weekly RPG group. But then, one fateful December, I joined ChristianMingle where I met a young many who also loved Jesus and nerdiness...

My husband and I met through our faith, and
bonded over our mutual geekiness.
Nathan is talkative around me, but quiet in public. When we first met, I knew he played RPGs, but never dreamed that he was actually a fantastic GameMaster. When we played our first session for his birthday party, I was stunned . . . and knew I really had met my dream man.

Over the next three years, the group from that first birthday party expanded and solidified, so that now we meet regularly for our outer-space adventures. This past winter has been excruciatingly difficult from a health standpoint for me, but my RPG group has been amazing. We have a no-pressure rule, so that any week I am feeling ill, I can cancel group for that week, at any time, with no guilt. They never make me feel bad, but just reaffirm their understanding and prayers, and state that they are just excited whenever it can happen. Some months we went three weeks at a time without playing, but they remained patient and their support has been huge in helping me and my husband get through this enormously tough year. We are so grateful to now have a home where we can host this group comfortably, and that Nathan has a job at a game company that includes game resources as a job perk.

When I look back on my RPG story, my only regret is that I didn't get into playing it sooner! Nathan and I cannot wait to use our RPG understanding with our kids, and since we hope to homeschool, you can bet that we have all sorts of creative uses in mind! We're thinking of ways to incorporate Math into the game play mechanics, and of course it's easy to think of how to use an RPG to make history and science immersive experiences (I played a doctor in our last Star Wars campaign, and I loved figuring out how to use real world science to achieve things in game)! Not to mention the natural applications for writing, art and public speaking that come almost built into the mechanics, and the strategy, creative thinking, and acting skills that are required or strongly encouraged in gameplay.

The Special Benefits of RPG's
In addition to being a beneficial activity overall, RPG's have some specific strengths that can be of great help to some unique types of people.

For those with Aspergers and social unawareness, it is a good way to play different characters and build understanding of how different people work and empathy for how they feel. Since the game structure revolves around social interaction with other people in a cooporative game setting, it also encourages Aspies to be aware of the needs of others in the group. A good GM can support the Aspie in thinking through how their decisions affect others, and facilitating dialogue between the Aspie and the other members of the group.

"Something I enjoy incredibly about standard tabletop RPGs is the way that mechanics mesh with narrative and drive it. They wind up giving me an insight into the logic of the story. While normally you have to pick up on cues in a story to discern what's driving a character, or what a scene means, a good RPG will use mechanics to convey the same ideas [ . . . ] this is actually very relevant for individuals who normally have a hard time reading social cues and understanding implicit characterization. RPG mechanics can "spell it out" very handily and make it clear what's going on inside of a character's head. 
 "There's also a certain loss of control that you get in tabletop RPGs that I find to be wonderfully challenging. The dice don't always fall your way, and you have to improvise and learn how to deal with the fallout. I think that's also a very strong benefit: they can provide a safe place for people to practice dealing with the unexpected." - Andy (con't)

For the person with social anxiety, a good group provides a safe setting of familiar people, where the socially anxious can choose how much interaction they want to have on a given game night. Since most RPG's meet regularly, it provides a familiar, reliable structure, with flexibility on how active they want to be on a given night. It is also a good way to stimulate grand adventures when the socially anxious doesn't feel up to actually venturing into big crowds.

"RPing has really helped me with my social anxiety. It's allowed me ways to better express myself and to be able to speak to people better. It also helps encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills and team building which has honestly helped me in a working environment." - Alicia

Miniatures track player locations on a map. With my character mini,
 I am ready for adventure in my own living room!
For those coping with ADHD, it provides excitement and fun with a structure that requires focus on detail with the safety net of friends (and a sheet of handy stats to refer back to!) Because it is cooperative, everyone is working together, unlike a competitive game where ADHD could isolate and hinder a player if they are getting too distracted to focus on their own mission.

"I believe RPG/RPing is a good thing [ . . . ]When you're feeling sad, write it out. When you're angry, write it out. Having a day where it's an overload on your senses? Write it out. It's also helped with my ADHD and my anxiety a lot. Like... super well. It also helps the imagination and improves writing skills, etc." - Amber

For the extrovert who suffers from over stimulation, it provides a chance for socialization and adventure that never leaves the living room.

And for those housebound from illness, it provides a consistent fun activity with an ongoing story to join in every week, either at their own home, or online (RPGs can easily be run via group video chats, or a sick player can skype in to the session, or more free-form RP's provide a social writing experience for the players).

Skyping when multiple sick members = video chat rather than live session

"RPG's have taught me a lot of teamwork skills as well as creative problem solving and as a writer, it's given me a real helpful boost at developing characters and their stories. And of course, it's ridiculously good fun and a chance to brush up on my acting skills." - Meg 

*But is it obsessive?*
One frightening meme that made it rounds of conservative Christian circles involves a teen becoming so obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons that they commit suicide. While I will talk specifically about DandD in a moment, I want to address the obsession concern separately.

First, lets recognize that anything in life can be obsessive--even normally good things, like playing sports, being health conscious, and reading classic literature. Some mental situations, like Aspergers, can predisposition a person to be unusually obsessive about their area of interest, whether it is horses, computers, or their RPG. Because RPGs are fictional universes involving fictional characters, an obsession with it can appear to be more unhealthy than other obsessions. Whether it actually is, I think depends on how the game is being played, and on the specific person. However, I think as far as obsessions go, one that encourages face-to-face social interaction, creative thinking, and cooperative game play is a pretty good one.

My recommendation is to use RPGs as an opportunity to develop balance in life. Shorter campaigns can help with this, as creating new characters periodically can keep one from getting too fixated on one character and situation. As I have grown, so has my ability to balance my interests. RPGs are a lot of fun and it is easy to become very excited about the fun and adventure, but balance should be encouraged. At our weekly RPG sessions, I make an effort to catch up with each member of the group and discuss our personal lives both before and after the game session. Connecting with my friends is the real highlight of our weekly session.

(Real life application - One of our RPG group members is getting married next June, and most of us have been asked to participate in the ceremony in some way. This level of involvement would never have happened without the bonds we've formed meeting weekly.)

Friends for life.

Building a Group
The best RPG experience hinges on having a solid group of kind, supportive people. It helps if a player can be open about their particular struggles, and a good GM will work to support this. My husband, Nathan, serves as GM for our ongoing Star Wars RPG and his natural strength of helping others proves a real asset when it comes to balancing everyone's participation, and encouraging the quieter, less confident players to really engage with the setting. And of course, actually being the GM can also be a great learning experience for guiding and balancing the needs of both the players and the story.

"As a GM, I have to play a lot of people, keep them all straight, and weave a coherent plot that shifts according to the decisions of my players. To do so, I have to multitask and pay attention to minute details. The smallest element can make a scene succeed or fall flat. I have to be ready with not one plot, but several, in a cloudy image in my head of a myriad of possibilities based on what NPCs do in response to the players. [ . . . ]  This helps in real life because I have to learn to think fast. What makes sense here? Can I stall? Do I have to give up my plot? Do I have a new plot at hand? Should I veto this, or run with it as far as I can? Real life depends on quick thinking like this. It's excellent practice.

"Another factor is that GMing teaches you about people. Both fictional characters and the players who created them tend to behave in a consistent manner. Understanding both is key. That means getting a read on the human being in front of you: what he or she wants, what he's willing to do, what she's afraid of paying. Players don't always play what they thought they would, or what they actually are in real life. Helping a player understand his or her character is vital. Understanding what makes the *player* tick, even more so.

"This, too, is important in real life. You have stressful situations, sudden confrontations, and confusing friends and colleagues. Knowing how to approach them means better results for you. GMing is excellent practice for this, precisely because you can do so in an environment that carries low risk if you get it wrong." - Matthew

Diverse personalities make for great adventures!

Starting small may be the most comfortable for many people, with perhaps three players. The average game size is 4-5 players in addition to the GM. Because of the game mechanics, more than six or seven players can make gameplay difficult, so groups rarely grow larger than this (unless other commitments mean at least one player is usually absent).

Picking a System
Whether you are starting a group or joining one (or finding one for your offspring to join), it is good to be aware of the many options in systems. Some are simpler than others, and each offer their own setting. Some are free and some are decidedly not! Below are a few of the systems I am familiar with, but be aware that there are a TON more, covering everything from Doctor Who to Marvel Superheros!

Dungeons and Dragons - If you're anything like most conservative Christians, this name is going to set off warning bells. And that's okay! You can skip this system altogether. However it is the most popular of RPGs for a reason - it is very good, and it is very complete. Are there magical elements that may concern some Christians? Yes. I believe that every Christian has their own level of what they can safely interact with, and for some people, DandD will surpass that level. However a good GM can use the excellent mechanics of the system for a great playing experience that bypasses the questionable content. I have played DandD with a Christian GM and it was a great experience for me (and actually led to the only time in my life I have ever 'shared the gospel' in the traditional sense).  If in doubt, talk to the GM about his methodology. Or, if you want a fantasy system that you can use with your own settings and creatures...

Dungeon World - DW is similar to DandD in that it uses some similar mechanics in a Fantasy setting - however it is a cheap system that you can download online, and is easily customized to your personal fantasy world. It is based around story, rather than heavy number mechanics, which make it a really excellent beginner game.

Star Wars - Prefer space to magic? My favorite system is the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG. It features its own dice, which take a bit of getting used to, but works very well to capture the 'feel' of Star Wars. There are starter sets and manuals for three different settings: Edge of the Empire (think Han Solo), Age of Rebellion (fighters and such working for the rebels), or Force and Destiny (Jedi). The starter sets come with a pre-written scenario and ready-made characters so that you can just pick up and play. If you like the system, you can then invest in the full manual and supplementary source books as desired.

Each system has its own quirks. FFG's Star Wars uses unique dice with
Star Wars specific symbols.

...and so many more! My friends vouch for the Fate system (with Accelerated being a good starter game), FFG also has an End of the World RPG where you actually play yourself in a fantastical world-ending scenario, InSpectres is a supernatural crime fighting RPG, and there are plenty of choices for those who prefer to be superheros, space pirates, or TARDIS Companions. (There is not, alas, a good Jane Austen RPG. However, I am bouncing around ideas for creating my own...)

While I cannot consider myself an expert on all of the systems out there, I am happy to do my best to answer any questions that you may have if you are hoping to start (or encourage your student to start) playing RPGs. Feel free to leave a comment below, on Facebook, or send me an e-mail at ElizabethAHajek(at)gmail(dot)com. Please know that my health is unpredictable and sometimes it may take me a little while to answer.

A big thanks to everyone who answered my request for quotes and feedback on Facebook!