Requiem For A Cow

If you’ll recall yesterday, while gaming, a cow saved my life. This brave cow followed me into a bandit camp and kicked the bandit leader to death.

This, thought I, was the kind of cow who sought out adventure.

So I made a vow: I would shepherd this cow along with me through the rest of the game. Me and my cow, in the snowy wastelands, fighting evil robots together. The dream team humanity has strived for since time immemorial, fusing the powers of mankind and a cow.

The cow was, it must be said, tricky to ride. He lurched in every direction, refusing to stop, and lowed sadly at every slope. Rocks I could jump up easily scared the cow, and if I went too fast then he’d gallop eagerly past whatever I was aiming at – so I had to trot everywhere, slowly, across the landscape.

Was this the sacrifice I must make for my mooing friend? So be it.

I named him Snowpoke.

Now, I was worried about protecting poor Snowpoke during battles. The upgraded enemies in the DLC pack were kicking my ass, and I was terrified of my cow becoming steak.

That was, as it turned out, the least of my worries.

Because during the second battle, against two epic fire-breathing monsters I ran into, it turns out that Snowpoke had a short memory. While I was dodging and firing arrows and drinking healing potions, Snowpoke… kinda forgot he was my friend. Apparently his friendship spell wears off if you don’t mount him for long enough, kind of like a bad marriage.

So I was fighting for my life when Snowpoke charged me, joining in the mayhem, with me screaming, “SNOWPOKE! NO! REMEMBER THE GOOD TIMES?!?” And that battle became twice as hard because I had to not only shoot at monsters but make sure not to kill an enraged Snowpoke.

Fortunately, Snowpoke had a mild form of bovine ADD, and while the two fire-monsters were hell-bent on my death, Snowpoke got bored mid-battle and wandered off to a slope to eat grass. So I re-befriended him again, and we rode together happily.

And while repairing another robot, I noticed that Snowpoke had his own character: one of his horns had been knocked off. It was an oddly jaunty look, which I loved, so I took a picture.

That poorly-snapped picture, my friends, turned out to be the only memory of Snowpoke I’ll ever have.

Because I wasn’t thinking. I should have Googled, I know. But it was muscle memory – I’d fast-travelled so many times before, skipping across the tedious landscape to just get to my next quest marker, and the horrid truth became apparent:

Cows don’t fast-travel.

I hunted through the camp, realizing with horror that I had left Snowpoke behind, then reloaded every last save I could find in an attempt to find Snowpoke – but Horizon Zero Dawn, alas, didn’t think Snowpoke was worthy enough to save.

Snowpoke was lost in the icy wildernesses, with one horn hanging off, probably to be murdered by asshole adventurers like me.

But no. Snowpoke was more than just materials to be scavenged. Snowpoke was a pet, with a personality – a fuzzy-memoried, ornery personality, to be sure, but he was my pet and I loved him.

Now he’s gone. And my memories are all I have left.

Oh, I’d like to think that he just wandered off, and found a herd, and settled back into his everyday life. But that’s just not Snowpoke. Snowpoke had kicked a bandit to death, man. Snowpoke was a *warrior*. And I know that Snowpoke is now stalking the mountainsides, sneaking up on bandits, who are all like “All right, we’re gonna ambush these villagers – what was that noise?”

Then an angry, angry “moo.”

Then bloodshed.

Then silence. The silence of a bovine ninja.

Rest in peace, Snowpoke. You earned it.

Rest In Peace, Snowpoke. This was a shitty picture, but... I thought we'd have more time together.

Rest In Peace, Snowpoke. This was a shitty picture, but… I thought we’d have more time together.

Feeling Twitchy About My Twitch-Stream

“I am actively grumpy that I cannot watch you fighting more robot dinosaurs,” said Fox.

This was after a visit where Fox had spent their evenings curled up by my side, watching me play Horizon Zero Dawn – which, to be fair, has a story so good I had to fill them in on what happened in the plot after they left.  And it was nice playing convivially – some of my fondest moments with my daughters have been spent kvetching as one of us plays the game and the other provides sarcastic color commentary.

So I set up a Twitch account and did a stream with Fox last night, which was epic in its own way – I befriended a robot cow just to demonstrate to Fox the newfound skills I’d gained in Fox’s absence, then got into a ridiculous boss battle where I was running through a bandit camp to get away from this mortar-lobbing motherfucker.

I darted through a doorway – and there was the cow.  Standing there idly, but perfectly positioned to block the boss’s entryway long enough for me to swig a few health potions.

“I love you, cow,” I muttered – but then it got better.

The bandit tried to follow me, and the cow kicked him.

I immediately stopped in wonder, watching the bandit try to match firepower with my cow – and Fox was like, “Why aren’t you firing at the bandit? He’s open!” and I was like, “GO, COW!  THIS IS YOUR MOMENT!  MAKE THE MAGIC HAPPEN!”  And I drove back the bandit until the cow kicked him to death.

As I said on Twitter last night, “A cow saved my life tonight in Horizon Zero Dawn. I’m now adopting this cow and riding it everywhere. It’s too noble to roam free and get murdered by assholes like me.”

So that was a moment, and I could see sharing that sort of fun with more people.  I’m mouthy, and animated, and I think I’m funny when I comment on games.

But I think it’d be fun at a small scale.

I’m not necessarily good at small scale.

See, I have two bits of wariness:

First, I know how awful it is for the professional Twitch streamers, the people who start chasing an audience, because by all accounts it becomes a soul-draining process.  “People like long streams,” the guides say.  “Plan to play for at least four hours!  Play the popular games!  Engage with your fans to become a star!”  And I honestly don’t know what sort of expectations people have for Twitch streamers, but it all sounds very gruelling.

Second, I say I’d stream just for my own private amusement, but long years of practice has shown this is something I am utter shit at.

“I’ll just dork around on LiveJournal” – years later, I’m blogging merrily for an audience of thousands.

“I’ll just retreat to FetLife and blog privately about my sex life” – years later, I’m discussing sex to an audience of thousands.

“I’ll just do silly stuff on Twitter” – years later, I’m Tweeting for an audience of thousands.

And in each of those circumstances, I’ve noted my own output becoming more performative as the audience accumulates – not unbearably so, because otherwise I’d quit, but every time I’ve seen that quiet calcification as I start pondering what my audience will think.  I start writing to wall off potential misunderstandings, close off portions of my life that I don’t want strangers dissecting, debate whether I feel like writing something that I know might become controversial. It’s not terrible, but it does change the experience.

I’m used to that with writing.

Gaming has been unalloyed until now.

And I wonder: If I start streaming on a semi-regular basis, will I eventually start to feel weird if I game without streaming?  How will the experience transform if I pick up enough regular watchers that it affects my habits?  Will I start playing during “prime-time” hours, or pick games that are more stream-friendly, or – as is most likely – alter my habits in ways I’ve never even considered before?

Will it make my life better?

Ideally, I’d just do what I see N.K. Jemisin and some other authors doing, which is “Hey, I’ve decided to play tonight, tune in if you want.”  But I’ve always been, perhaps, hypersensitive to the idea of being courteous to an audience, and I know that’s too deeply ingrained for that to change. I know I’d be like, “Well, I played for three hours on my own, they don’t know what’s happened, maybe I should catch them up – or maybe I should just play all the time…”

On the other hand, as mentioned, it was convivial. I like playing games. I like making snarky comments. I like swearing (and holy fuck, do I swear a lot when I’m gaming).  And, to be what’s apparently becoming a plus in the Twitch community, I would never break out the N-word while swearing.

So I guess what I’m debating – as I occasionally mull over in entries like this – is whether it’d be a good thing or a bad thing to start playing for an audience of any size > 1.

Because gaming’s fun.

And I’m not sure whether this would be more fun or less fun.

(You may note that I have not given out my Twitch handle, on account of I’m not sure whether I want to do this.  If you’re good enough friends with me that you know my email address and we’ve held a conversation somewhere, feel free to email me and ask for it.  And yes, whether you feel comfortable enough to email me is part of the equation here.)

So How Do YOU Self-Soothe During A Panic Spiral?

My therapist and I discovered that I have precisely one methodology for fixing my panic spirals: finding a problem and obsessively hammering solution after solution into it until I solve the problem.

I actually owe my career to this.

Because for me, writing has largely been my way of coping with stress. Am I breaking down because I’m breaking up? Well, here’s this story I’ve been thinking about writing, but the worldbuilding doesn’t hold together – so rather than worrying about the argument I’m having, I will instead retreat into engineering better imaginary worlds.

And I *will not stop*. My wife will tell you – if my book has a problem in the third act, I’ll sometimes spend a solid two weeks pacing the basement, unable to focus on anything else until that problem is fixed.

Which is, in its way, a superpower. Is there a bug in my program at work? I’ll sit in the tub, relentlessly going over the code logic, until I figure out what happened. Did we cross wires and get into an argument? I’ll analyze that conversation fifty times until I can figure out precisely where things went off the rails.

The Solution Spiral has become an axiom of my life. And it works. I mean, there are times when those two weeks spent crushing it in the basement have led to my best novel, and a new book contract. (That would be my time-travelling Wes-Anderson-Meets-The-Fifth-Element soup battle novel “The Sol Majestic,” available for preorder this fall, don’t miss it.)

But when a problem is so big that I can’t fix it, I enter into a panic spiral – and this one tool becomes a detriment.

Because often, there *are* no good solutions.

PROBLEM: This person you love dearly isn’t someone it’s healthy for you to date.
SOLUTION: Either break up with her, or break down.

I don’t like either solution, so I’ll enter into the Solution Spiral for days at a time because there must be a third option. (HINT: Sometimes, there is no third option.)

Or, more commonly:

PROBLEM: I said something stupid on the Internet again that I didn’t mean to say.
SOLUTION: Apologize and clarify as best you can, accept that some people you respect deeply will now dislike you.

Man, do I not like either solution, so I’ll enter into a tizzy of “THIS MUST BE FIXABLE” and spend sleepless nights envisioning the perfect essay that will repair my self-damaged reputation. (HINT: When you fuck up, there are often consequences you cannot undo, and sometimes the best way to become a better person is to remember that pain you caused yourself and others, and use that to forge a vow to do better.)

So basically, for small problems, I can retreat into fantasy worlds and use my obsession to plot better stories. (Yes, I know, that’s pretty much the entire concept behind my ‘Mancer series – escapist obsession turned to magic – did you think it wasn’t autobiographical?) And for mid-sized problems, I can actually fix them with obsession, given time.

But my therapist has pointed out that my one-fix tool leads me to break down when I’m facing problems with no easy solution. And she asked, “What other solutions can you devise?”

I’ve been thinking for a week, and got no good solutions. I’ve tried meditation on numerous occasions, but my thoughts are like a whirlwind when I’m in a panic spiral (though there’s the possibility that I haven’t been trained to meditate properly despite going to two Buddhist classes). Videogames help, but I don’t always have a game that I like enough. Cuddling helps a little, but it’s unfair to ask Gini to hold me all night for minimal gain.

Basically, I don’t have the tools necessary to calm a panic spiral. And so I ask: What have you found that worked?

I’ll make one caveat here: if you don’t have panic spirals, please don’t give your solution for a problem you don’t have. I want first-hand workable solutions from people who do experience this, not theories or “I had a friend”s. (But if you’re generous enough to point your friend here at this essay to ask ’em to weigh in, great!)

But yeah. I’m 48 and it’s time to find new solutions.

What helped you?

The Economics Of Fear, Or: They Told Me I Was Smart.

(This is an essay I wrote way back in 2009, back when I’d just started changing my fear distribution. Since then, I’ve published four books and I’m contracted to write two more – and though I’ve not been a bestselling success yet, I’m definitely much further on from where I am when I started back when I was more concerned about being smart.

(I’m reposting this ancient essay because a couple of my friends have stumbled across it and found it useful. I still think it’s one of the more significant essays I’ve ever written… But you can decide that for yourself.)

Scientific studies have shown that you can destroy a child by calling them “smart.” Even when they’re very young, little kids know that being “smart” is what makes them special – and so, the first time they encounter something they don’t understand immediately, it’s a threat. Their specialness is in danger of being stripped away. And if they lose that smartness, then what are they?

Kids who are called smart take fewer chances. Why risk all that glorious social acclaim for a stupid test? And if you don’t really try, then you can still be smart – you may have potential, but even a six-year-old knows that having the potential to be smart gives you more benefits than finding out that no, you’re not really smart at all.

Far better to tell a kid that they’re hard working. Hard work is something you can’t take away. Hard work is something that can always be improved. Smart can just… vanish.

I was told I was very smart.

Like many others who grew up in the Generation Of Unfettered Self-Esteem, I reacted by sandbagging my efforts. I wrote stories, but sporadically. And when I sent them out, it was to friends who’d tell me how great it was. And on the rare occasions I sent them out to actual paying markets, one or two rejections sent them right back into the drawer.

As long as they were in the drawer, they could be good. And I could be a good writer. If I worked at it. Which I wasn’t, but that potential gave me all the glory of feeling like I might be a great writer some day without all of that icky negative feedback. Sure, I had this constant underlying fear that maybe I wasn’t good enough – but I had a moderately popular journal, some folks who liked me, and wasn’t that enough?

Recently, however, I’ve started going for it. I’ve been sending out stories almost constantly, and yet I haven’t had a pro sale in a year. Eighty rejections sit on my desk, each one proof that the stories I’m writing aren’t good enough yet. And I’m writing every day, really stretching myself – and recognizing that in the end, I may write my ass off and still not be good enough. Effort doesn’t always equal success. I may push myself to my limit and discover that limit’s still well underneath where “pro writer” needs to be. Failure, as Adam from Mythbusters is so fond of saying, is always an option.

So why did I change? A friend of mine, who was also crippled by smartness, called me “brave” – but I’m not brave.

It’s just simple economics, is all.

What I realized was that I was living in constant fear. No matter what I did, no matter what success I had, I knew that I was failing. And when I did some calculations, I realized that every day I woke up and felt like I wasn’t doing well enough. And what would happen one day, when I was seventy, it would be too late to actually succeed and I’ve have to realize that I had squandered my life on fear and paralysis.

In that sense, “not really going for it” was like paying the interest on my credit card. It got me by, it was easy, it let me buy other things – but eventually, that bill would still be due and I’d be no further along.

These days, I really am putting myself on the line. And not only do I have the potential payoff that I might achieve what I want, but that underlying fear has transformed. It hasn’t vanished – no, that constant gentle sucking has been replaced by brain-melting spasms of terror. Whenever I get a rejection letter for a story I had hopes for, that panic of OMG WHAT hits me like a freight train, and Gini has to calm me down.

The rest of the time, though, it’s just not there. I’ve exchanged one constant, low-grade fear that never went away for spikes of anguish. The overall fear amount is about the same, but the spikes have one critical difference: I might, actually, turn out to be something.

What it comes down to is economics. I can have a constant, low level of fear with no payoff at the end, or I can have panic attacks and no fear elsewhere, with the additional potential of seeing whether I have the talent I think I might.

You’re going to live in fear, smarty. The question is, which fear?

So I’m going to find out. Either I’ll fail magnificently at fiction, or I’ll get to seventy and fail by default. I’m forty now, which makes my own choice easier; I only have so many years before that clock runs out. Every morning when I wake up, the danger is not that I’ll find out, but that I’ll run out of time to find out. Twenty years have already been devoured by my own insecurities. Do I want the rest of my life to be swallowed up by that?

What I’m doing is, perhaps for the first time in my life, making an informed choice about the matter. I’m still scared shitless every goddamned day. I’m still breaking down whenever I get stonewalled on a story I loved that hits the reject-o-skids.

But I think every writer – hell, every artist – will, eventually, come to a long and dry desert where there is no positive feedback, no hope of success, no way of finding that magic button that turns on the talent within you. It may last for years. And most artists don’t talk about that empty space, because there’s no way of conveying it because all anyone ever sees is the glorious, envious end product. During that time you’re Jesus, wandering in the desert, trying to find yourself and not finding a damn person in the world who’ll tell you you’re good.

You’re not smart. You’re hard working. That’s all you have.

Lessons Learned From Personal Training: The Zangief Principle.

So we were at our personal training session the other day when Zangief walked in.

If you’ve ever played Street Fighter, you know Zangief: he’s the big, burly Russian dude. This local had a bit more of a hipster vibe about him, and was certainly friendlier, but he had that bodybuilder look about him: the arms so filled with steely muscles that his veins bulged out, the shoulders-in hunch of the guy who lifts a lot.

I immediately felt outclassed. We’ve got some beefy guys attending our tiny gym, but they’re mostly ordinary guys who look really good in a T-shirt. It’s like, “Okay, I’d have to go full-time workout to get that physique,” and I worried he’d judge me, the flabby middle-aged dude who’s a lot better but is still not, what you’d say, “in shape.”

(He didn’t judge me, of course. Everyone at our gym is super-nice and considerate, and though I’ve never seen anyone being mean, I think the trainers would yell at ’em if they weren’t. That’s pretty much my own neuroses coming to the fore here.)

Yet all those fears evaporated when my trainer had me lie down on the ground and start doing reaching exercises designed to bulk up the muscles between my shoulderblades. It’s what I call a “dangerous nothing” exercise – she demonstrates it, I go, “That looks like nothing!” and then I do it.

Reader, the nothing exercises are never nothing.

But they don’t look impressive – and in front of this burly weightlifter, I kind of wanted to be yanking heavy iron, not lying down on my belly and stretching in circles.

He chuckled good-naturedly. “God, I hate those,” he said.

I laughed. Told him how I feared Rachel’s three-pound weights more than her fifty-pound dumbbells because she homes in on your weakest muscles.

“Don’t I know it,” he said.

And as I watched, Rachel handed him three-pound dumbbells. She had him do the exercises that she literally gave me on my first week – and he was struggling. Struggling with that immense willpower that every bodybuilder has, but I realized:

The muscles between his shoulderblades, because he hadn’t worked out there, weren’t much better than mine. Which Rachel confirmed later – it was a chronic problem among bodybuilders because their muscles tend to pull their traps out of place, and they’re so strong in other areas that their body compensates and the shoulderblade muscles atrophy.

(Much like my overbearing quads had completely nullified any activity my glutes had to do. I know the names of these muscles now. I did not before Rachel.)

And I realized two things at the gym that day:

1) It’s hard. It’s always hard. Watching this muscled guy grunting as he lifted those small weights was proof that there’s nobody who’s gifted with fitness. Everyone starts from zero. And moving the needle from zero is always hard.

Hell, moving the needle is hard period.

2) We’re all in this together. Maybe that’s not true at other gyms, but it is at ours. They run a good shop, and I feel good about being there.

Zangief and me, man. We’re two points on the same curve. I don’t think I’ll ever get to his physique.

But we both sweat to get where we are, wherever that is. And so we both cheer for each other.

That’s good stuff.

Beta Readers Needed For My Poly Narnia Book!

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that last Tuesday, I finished the first draft of my latest novel: a bisexual, polyamorous portal fantasy that’s basically, Narnia with the serial numbers scuffed up.  (I celebrated by buying Horizon: Zero Dawn, which turns out to be a great reward.)

Now I’m looking for about ten to twelve people to beta-read for me and give me feedback in the next six weeks.

(Why ten to twelve?  Because I’d like about eight people, and generally I find that you hit about 60% on getting beta readers to get back to you in time.  And six weeks is a tight deadline, man.)

I am specifically looking for three types of people to beta read this time around:

  • LGBTQ people, as this story deals heavily with LGBTQ issues and I’m a cis-mostly-straight-white-dude who’s concerned about tone here.
  • Completely vanilla, non-polyamorous readers, because I’m curious to know how someone who’s not polyamorous reacts to three characters who are fully polyamorous but also human with emotions.  (For poly people: trying not to collapse a V relationship into a romantic triangle is hard, yo.)
  • Romance fans, because I’m preeeeeeeetty sure I’ve written a romance here and yet know nothing about the genre, so I’d like to know how this appeals to romance folks.

What am I not looking for?  Well, telling me “I’m really good at proofreading” pretty much excludes you from a lot of writers’ beta circles, including mine.  I’m going to take out 15% of the words and read everything aloud to check the flow of the prose before I’m done – and assuming I sell it to a publisher, we’ll have professional copyeditors and proofreaders sniffing this sucker like a bloodhound.  So I need no copyeditors at this stage.

No, what I want are the sorts of people who can tell me four separate things cogently:

•         The things that confuse you (“Why would $character do that?” or “Why did this magic not work this way?”)
•         The things that throw you out of the story (“$character wouldn’t do THAT!” or “Factually, that’s so wrong!”)
•         The things that give you ass-creep (“I got bored here”)
•         All the things that make you pump the fist (“This moment was truly awesome, and unless I tell you how awesome it is, you might cut this part out in edits”)

So if you think you can do all that in six weeks (or, preferably, way less), do me a favor and email me at theferrett@gmail.com with the header “FERRETT, I WOULD LIKE TO BETA-READ YOUR NARNIA.”  (People who cannot follow these simple instructions will probably not be entrusted with the novel.)

What does beta-reading get you?  Well, it comes with the great reward of being name-checked in the acknowledgements, if this eventually sells, and the arguable reward of knowingly going “Oh, God, I read it, that was crap” if it doesn’t sell.  I will most likely get filled up on people, but if I do, I’ll put you on the list for the next revision, if there is one, which there will probably be.

Buy My Book “The Uploaded” For Two Bucks Today!

If you may recall, my novel The Uploaded is about what happens four hundred years after the singularity, where we perfect brain uploading – and living has become distinctly uncool.  And it’s now on sale for a measly two bucks.

Now, maybe you’re not looking for a book featuring a genetically engineered superpony, or tales of a digital heaven that’s run like the best World of Warcraft game you ever played, or discussions of the philosophy of consciousness, or just wild adventures through a world where living physically has become a drawback, but come on!  It’s two bucks.  Less than the cost of your Starbucks coffee, and it’ll last you longer.  And if you do like cyberpunk action books, well, it’s even a better bargain.

Plus, you get to look at the Uploaded’s awesome cover on your electronic reading device of choice, and ponder how you have chosen a digital item over a physical one, and have you already taken your first step into the world of The Uploaded?

(Hint: You’re reading this online.  Oh yes you have.)

Anyway, The Uploaded is on sale at Bookbub, which has links to all the places it’s on sale – which is currently Amazon, B&N, Apple, Google, and Kobo.

So go get you some!  Or don’t.  But if you don’t, I literally don’t know how long this sale lasts because I am scatterbrained.  So go soon, or live with eternal regret!