Free Book Weekend

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post for a blatant, unabashed, self-promotional advertisement that has no purpose other than to shower me with cold, hard cash that I will not share with you.*

I have had a book on Amazon called Lute of the Sparrow under my writing name Everett Renshaw for about seven years now. This weekend (starting January 13), I am making it available for free. Please go forth, download it, read it, and post a review. Preferably a good review.

Actually I just learned, somewhat to my surprise, that you can also get it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

Thank you!

* Actually the purpose is to get some damn reviews, which is far more valuable than money. :)

NaNoWriMo Prep

This is a post about my NaNoWriMo process, so feel free to skip it. I’m writing it mostly for myself to remind me what it is, so that I’ll be ready for November 1.

Typically I prepare a Scrivener project with 30 documents named “11-01” through “11-30,” each with a 1,667 word target goal. Each day, I open up the document with the appropriate date and start writing. I try not to read much of what I’ve written the previous days, other than maybe the last paragraph if I need to continue with a scene I didn’t finish.

That, in my opinion, is the most important thing to know about finishing large writing projects: Decoupling the writing process from the editing process.

To accomplish that, I make the text very large for two main reasons. For one, I’m getting old and have a harder time reading these tiny computer screens. I actually got some 1.25x reading glasses recently and it has improved my ability to read text on a computer screen and mobile phone by about 1000%.

Secondly, I make the text big because I don’t want to see very far back in my own writing. A very important thing that keeps me moving forward is not being able to see more than a couple paragraphs back at any given time. I highly recommend it if you find yourself slowed down by constant re-editing (something I am very susceptible to).

With this method, it’s true I often repeat myself in the writing, but that’s what the revision process is for.

This year I’ll be writing mainly on my MacBook Air, because I had to reformat my PC and don’t have Scrivener installed on it yet. I suppose it wouldn’t take very long to re-install it, so that might change over the course of the month. I store the document files on DropBox so, in the past, I could use the Air or PC interchangeably. (You can work on the same project from both Mac and PC.)

I try not to write all 1,667 words at once per day. I have a hard time staying focused on writing for long periods of time, and unless I’m on fire, it typically takes me a good two hours to write 1,667 words of fiction.

Instead I try to write in bursts of around twenty minutes or a half hour. Maybe longer if I feel particularly inspired, or less if I don’t.

Once I complete my writing time, be it ten minutes or a half hour, I do something else until the top of the next hour. (This assumes I have a lot of time to write, mind you. If I only have a half hour to write for the whole day, obviously the process changes to a more frantic word sprint.) Then I start another short session. I repeat this for as many hours as I have available.

This is the best method I have worked out for myself over the last eight years.

Your mileage may vary. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that every writer works differently.

I write best in silence or with familiar instrumental music playing. Listening to anything “new” is likely to distract me. Classical music is best. I cannot write when I hear singing or talking. I don’t know if anyone else is like that, but if my ears hear words in a language I understand, I have a hard time concentrating on anything else. My brain goes into an odd emergency identification mode when I hear unfamiliar sounds, to the exclusion of anything else. (You can hear it a lot in my videos. I’ll just stop talking and get immediately derailed most likely because I heard something in the game, or even worse, in my house.)

I like to have nothing on my screen but the words of the current document and a second window showing a list of names I’ve used previously in the text. I never remember names so I have to keep them handy. (I read somewhere that’s how Stephen King writes.)

I typically don’t plot out my story in advance. I like to see where a story takes me, and how the characters develop over time. To me, it’s very boring to write a story when I know how it’s going to turn out.

This year, for example, I have a setting and a genre (“space opera”—never written before), and an opening scene which should propel a handful of unnamed characters into an exciting adventure. I hope. Otherwise I’ll be scrambling on day three or four to figure out what to do for the rest of the month.

This particular setting came about from some brainstorming I did back in May. I keep most of my “story ideas” in Evernote, and when NaNoWriMo rolls around I open up those notes and peruse them to find something that looks interesting.

If I get stuck in the writing, and I don’t know what to write next, very often I will start breaking the fourth wall and get the characters talk to each other about the story and what to do next. Sometimes it results in useful dialog that is appropriate to that particular place in the story, but most of the time it’s going to get cut out later. The point of it is to get me to continue writing something which invariably gets me back on track.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Happy NaNoWriMo’ing!

P. S. And in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I’m not even going to edit this text!

P. P. S. I should have said I haven’t written “space opera” since I was a kid, when that was pretty much all I wrote.

P. P. P. S. Okay I edited it a little bit.


Grimdark TMNT from 1d4chan. Artist unknown.

A tweet caught my attention Friday and I thought about responding, but it was a topic that would fill a lot more than a couple tweets and I was looking for something to write about anyway.

The gist: Why do people keep making that icky grimdark stuff? Nobody likes that crap!

My first thought was a somewhat defensive, “Well, I like it.”

Then my followup thought was a more pragmatic, capitalistic, “People probably keep making grimdark because other people keep buying it.”

Then my third thought was, “I’m not sure I could describe exactly what grimdark even is.”

When prompted to describe grimdark, @Runesael suggested shows like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I wouldn’t have described any of those shows as “grimdark.” Amercian Horror Story is, well, horror. True Detective is a police procedural drama, and Breaking Bad is … I don’t know … drama I guess? If I had to lump those three shows together I would just call them serious dramas. (Although personally, I thought Breaking Bad had a ton of laugh-out-loud funny moments mixed in with the seriousness. I mean, the very premise of the show is absurd.)

When I think of grimdark I think of settings like the one in Dark Souls. A place where death is fairly common, and maybe even UN-death is common. Places of dark magic and ritualistic sacrifice, where people struggle to survive. Places where the society and culture and civilization that we know has broken down or never got started.

Now let me look up how Wikipedia describes grimdark:

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.

How delightfully vague and unhelpful. I guess I was close. Upon further reflection, my definition above is probably more in the area of “dark fantasy” and/or “sword and sorcery” than “grimdark.” Among the many different competing definitions of grimdark, one common thread seems to be realism, which sort of precludes dark magic and the undead. And yet magic and undead are obviously allowed in grimdark because George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is often held up as the progenitor of the grimdark movement (or at least, the first commercial success).

Anyway, for myself, I never felt ASOIAF or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series were abnormally dark or excessively violent. They are unremittingly realistic though, at least in terms of portraying a medieval society and how real, flawed people might behave in stressful medieval-like situations. I suppose they also share common traits of eschewing the idealism of high fantasy (and, I guess, old westerns), where the heroes wear white and the villains wear black and good triumphs over evil.

Now I want to see if I can answer the question, “Real life is already so grim, why add to it?”

First and most amusingly, that sounds disturbingly similar to a comment my mom made about one of my earliest short stories, way back in high school.

Secondly, everyone has a different view of life. All of us live in a world where I daresay most other people are not like us. (This is something I wish more people could wrap their heads around, particularly since the 2016 elections.) Your world might be grim and horrible, and if it is I’m truly sorry, and I completely understand wanting to avoid grim stories.

But my world right now is fairly banal and uneventful. During the course of my average day, there’s very little drama; I don’t have to make any life or death decisions, there is no difficulty finding food and water, there are no monsters trying to drink my blood (except ticks). I get up, go to work, sit in a cubicle all day, come home, and repeat the next day. The most exciting part of my day is turning left onto a busy highway each morning (I suppose you might call that a life or death decision). By the standards of most of history and the world, I live in a Utopian paradise like a king. (Lately it has become a bit grim, though, to be honest, but it’s mostly my own perception.) The point is, from my perspective, a grimdark story is just as much of an escapist fantasy as a fairy tale about frolicking pixies and prancing unicorns banishing evil with chocolate milk and love. (That was the most anti-grimdark thing I could think of.)

I don’t like grimdark stuff all the time, and I don’t like all grimdark. Grimdark just for grimdark’s sake is not enough to capture my imagination. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is a good example of how not to do grimdark–I don’t particularly like it because I can’t care about the main character’s vengeance unless I care about the character first. I don’t like ASOIAF because it’s grimdark, I like it because it’s a compelling story about compelling characters, written well.

Here’s a thought I just had: I wonder if “regular” fantasy consumers have an aversion to grimdark because of a lack of exposure to the horror genre. I started with science fiction and fantasy books, then sort of went exclusively into horror books for a long time, and then opened up to a broader range after that. Reading one of these so-called “grimdark” books is not too different from reading a horror book for me. They share some traits, like flawed characters and a grounding in reality.

Well, I’ve lost my train of thought now and don’t know where else to go. Let’s just pretend that I’ve made a great point and eloquently summed it up here.

Xarth and The Post-NaNo Blues

Last night I welcomed on old friend back into my life: The post-NaNoWriMo blues. I’ve written about this before. Here’s me from December 2011:

“The act of creation is so thrilling and stimulating and awesome that when it’s over, there’s nothing left inside but a black empty void of nothingness. For me, it generally manifests as a fervent desire to stare at the walls and feel useless all day.”

I remember writing much more colorful language about it, though. Ah, here it is, from 2012:

“That’s pretty much what writing a novel is like. You never “finish” per se, because there is always an infinite number of things you can do to improve it. In order to move on, you have to make a conscious decision to abandon it. I imagine it’s something like having a baby, except that instead of nature performing the normal birthing process, you have to do it yourself by tearing the child from your flesh, leaving behind a massive, bloody cavity of organs, meat, and bone fragments. Hrm. Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Anyway. This time the blues isn’t so much because I’m “finished” as much as from knowing that I’m not finished, and it’ll probably never be finished, and even if I do finish it, it’ll never be edited, and it’ll never be sold, and it’ll never be published, and I’ll never make any money from it, and I’ll never be able to quit my day job, and I’ll probably die before I get to retire just like my father did. You know, the usual.

So I watched a bunch of YouTube videos. Then I played some Rift. I had this one quest where I had to escort dragon whelplings across practically the entire Xarth Mire zone and it felt like it took about ten years to get through that. But in the end I got some new shoulder pads so I guess it was worth it?


By the way I’m firmly into level 68 mob territory now, and I’m still level 67, even with Patron status. My Harbinger/Chloro build is holding up, though. Hotfix #4 even buffed the Harbinger a little bit, so I’m doing about 5k more dps. I also remembered to enable that one ability that uses charge to increase your damage, you know, that ability that looks like a blue electrified sword, which I’ve bound to Shift-Y. Right? It makes that sizzling sound when you activate it? I’m sure everyone knows the one I’m talking about.

To end on sort of a high note, I wrote another 1000 words on my novel before bed, and completely out of the blue, I figured out what the story arc for the novel should be. So the day after NaNoWriMo ended, I figured out what to write for my NaNoWriMo novel! But on the negative side, it means scrapping a lot of what I wrote last month. Oh well. They say you have to write a million words before you can be good at writing, so I’ll tack another 50,000 words onto my total.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Post-Mortem


I like to write up a post-mortem about my writing projects after I’m done with them, so here are my thoughts on my NaNoWriMo 2016 draft. For reference, it’s an untitled historical fiction set in Belgium at the beginning of World War I. It’s about, you know, people, who like, do stuff.

The hook might still need some work.

I validated my (exactly, as it turned out) 50,000 words about 8 PM on November 30th.


This was definitely my greatest come-from-behind win. The previous record was 2013’s train wreck, which now looks like it was a walk in the park:


And here’s 2014’s picture-perfect graph in case you think I’m always a slacker:


And no, I haven’t finished editing any of these manuscripts. Some of them I haven’t even started editing.

So about the story. First of all, it’s not technically “finished” yet. I feel like I’ve only completed part one of three for this particular story, so I could easily see it growing to a total of 100k or more words before a complete first draft is done. There is no resolution of the story yet, and frankly I don’t know where or how it will end. (All I know is that it has to end before the end of the war, otherwise it’s about fifty books away from being done at the current pacing.) I just have an idea that there are three distinct “phases” of the overall story, which I think of as “Before Antwerp,” “During Antwerp,” and “After Antwerp.” Most of what I wrote is in the “Before Antwerp” section.

I suppose I could end it “During Antwerp” but it would probably be a bummer of an ending there. Sort of an Empire Strikes Back kind of ending, rather than a Star Wars kind of ending, if you know what I mean.

Early on I experimented with streaming my writing sessions on Twitch. I think it had some benefit, but overall I don’t think it helped enough to warrant continuing. (I think I gained a couple of followers though.) The main thing it did was force me to sit in one spot and think about the writing uninterrupted. That was probably a good thing for this particular project. If I hadn’t been streaming, I might have wandered off and gotten distracted with something else and never gotten anywhere.

I say that because this novel was really, really hard to start. I think it probably had something to do with the fact that I didn’t have any kind of plot or characters prepared ahead of time. (Duh!) But besides that I had a really hard time putting myself into the world of 1914 Belgium.

This was the first time I’d ever attempted to write a historical fiction. It’s really scary to write something when you know for sure everyone will be pouring over every word to verify the historical authenticity of it. I wrote out a timeline of historic events beforehand and I tried to follow the basics of things as I know them, but I’m sure there are tons of details that I got wrong. (Like maybe those tentacle monsters.)

In this first draft, I knew I would have to ignore things like language and culture and, you know, silly little things like facts, and that was hard. It grated on my nerves to not be sure whether people should be speaking French or German or Flemish or whatever other languages they had back in 1914.

I wasn’t quite sure if the average peasant walked into a room and turned on the lights, or lit an oil lamp, or both, or neither. I know there was electricity in the cities but what about way out in the country?

I spent a relatively large amount of time one day trying to figure out if flashlights had a) been invented in 1914 and b) were common in 1914. (Turns out yes they had been invented and soldiers carried them, but I’m still not sure if every Belgian village household had one.)

That kind of stuff bugs me when I’m writing and can really throw me off. The entire nature of a scene can change based on whether a person can shine a flashlight into a dark room or not, you know? In this case I tried to circumvent all issues entirely by avoiding too many descriptions.

And then there was the U.S. election, which was like a nuclear bomb going off in Washington, DC on November 8th. I’m fairly dispassionate about politics myself, but most of the Internet went into a deep depression, and that rubbed off on me too. The point is that I stopped writing for about a week.

But I’m rather proud of myself for picking it back up and clawing my way back into it. Amazingly enough, the writing actually got easier in the final two weeks. I think when I started my comeback, the page said I had to write 2500 words a day to finish on time, but at first I was content just to get to 1667. Then I slowly worked my way higher and toward the end I found it wasn’t that difficult to write 2500 or 3000 words in a day. (There was a fortuitously-timed holiday weekend in there too.) I think I got to 4000 on that last Saturday.

Here I should apologize to anyone who didn’t make their goal. I’ve been there too, and I know it’s annoying to hear people talk about how well they did in NaNoWriMo. I’ve had plenty of those days where you struggle to write 200 words and then you see somebody tweet out “I did 7000 words today!” and you just want to punch them right in their smug face. My only advice is keep trying.

The other thing I’m proud of is that I stuck, mostly, to the story. In my 2013 train-wreck, I wrote a lot of “filler” words, basically rambling about nothing related to anything. I had characters talking to each other about the story they were in, new characters popping in from totally different genres, stuff like that. It was mostly a waste of writing effort. This time I tried to stay in the right setting with the right characters. (Okay, except for that tentacle monster. And maybe a couple other off-topic sections. Let’s say I stayed on topic for 95% of it.)

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing a lot of words quickly: It’s very difficult for me to sit down and write, say, 4000 words in one sitting. I work much better when I sit down and write 500 words, then do something else for a while, then come back and write another 500 words, then do something else for a while, come back and write another 500, and so on. If I keep doing that throughout the day, I end up with a bunch of words and it doesn’t feel like an exhausting slog the way it would have if I’d written them all at once.

I discovered that a few years ago, but I mention it again in case it helps anyone else, and also to reinforce it in my own mind because sometimes I forget how I work best. (It’s kind of dumb but every time I start a large writing project like this it feels like I’m always starting from scratch.)

Speaking of which, I’ve grown to like my document structure for writing a first draft. I use Scrivener and make one blank document for each day. So every day I’m looking at a blank page, and most of the time I don’t even look back at what I’ve written before. That structure gently forces me to keep going forward instead of looking back. (The down side is that I probably repeat myself a fair amount.) (And it’s harder to edit later.)


I wrote this draft entirely in Markdown format. One blank line between every paragraph, _underscores for italics_. I actually didn’t do much italics, now that I think about it. The quotes are sometimes smart and sometimes not, depending on where I pasted in some text I’d written at work.

I had a much easier time typing on my MacBook Air than I did on my PC keyboard. I don’t have to move my fingers as much. Toward the beginning of the month I wrote on my PC but toward the end of the month I did all my writing on the MacBook Air. (One of the great things about Scrivener is that you can work on your project from a Mac or a PC interchangeably.)

On weekends, I found it very difficult to make myself write early in the day. It doesn’t feel very natural to write when the sun is out. Presumably this is a side-effect of having to write when I get home from work.

It was always hardest to write the first words of the day. After I’d written something, it was much easier to continue from where I’d started.

As for whether I would write more historical fiction, I could see myself doing that. There’s a certain freedom in not having to worry about “world-building.” I wrote a thriller once and had the same feeling about it.

An Election Day Tale

This is a long tale of my voting experience this morning. I tried to keep it entirely non-partisan and focus on what I saw, heard, and felt, but if you don’t want to risk it, feel free to skip. (But in return, you have to read every other one of my posts for the rest of time! Just kidding.) I wrote this fairly quickly by my standards, and normally I would spend about four years editing something this long, but I wanted to post it before the results started coming in.

Election day, 2016. My alarm goes off at 5:40. The first sounds I hear when I wake up? Police sirens from the nearby highway. Interesting.

The polls open at 6:00. It should take me about 5 minutes to drive to the polling place. The sun’s not up enough at 6:00 for me to be comfortable driving to a place I’ve never been before, so I wait to time my arrival for about 6:30. I figure there will be a group of die-hards there at exactly 6:00 anyway, so it will give them time to clear out.

I get up, put on some clothes, and go. No coffee, no food, no nothing. I’ll be in there and out in no time. I get in my car and discover frost on the windshield. Oops. I turn on the car, turn on the vents, and go back inside for a few minutes to wait. I check to make sure I have all the right paperwork and check Google maps again to make sure I know where I’m going. (Going to new places makes me very nervous even on a good day.)

Back in the car. It’s still pretty dark. I drive past the neighbors from the end of the road, who are walking their dogs, and wave. Internally I curse them because one is one one side of the road, and the other is on the other side, so I have to drive between them and their dogs. Typical pedestrians.

Next I drive past the two houses in my neighborhood with Trump signs in their yards. One of them has two signs, the other has one. They are across the road from each other, so it’s like driving through a Trump checkpoint. It’s been like this for a couple of months. I’ve never met these folks, even though they live two or three houses up the road. (I’m not really a neighbor-meeting kind of person.) I’m sure they are nice folks, but I probably wouldn’t want to talk about politics with them. (Nor would I want to talk about politics with anyone who puts a Clinton sign in their yard, either. People who put political signs in their yards are probably incapable of having a rational discussion about politics.)

It’s entirely possible those Trump-sign folks could have been one of the die-hards waiting in line at the polling place at 6:00. I don’t know one way or another, and probably never will.

I have to cross a divided highway to get to my polling place. On a normal day, I turn left at this point to go to work. This dark, cold morning, I have to drive straight across four lanes of highway and enter the forested depths of the other side, where I’ve never been before. But first I have to wait behind three other cars, which is unusual. All three of them cross the highway to go where I’m going. A few other cars turn off of the highway to follow them into the deep, dark forest. Then it’s my turn.

It doesn’t take long to discover that I’m not going to be in and out of this polling place quickly.

The day before, I spent some time Googling, checking maps and Street Views to make sure I knew where I was going. Double- and triple-checking it actually. Because did I mention it makes me nervous to go to new places? It does. Anyway I noticed on the satellite image that there weren’t that many parking places around this small Baptist church where I will be voting. I counted 28.

That’s fine, I reasoned then. This polling place probably doesn’t serve that many folks. I don’t exactly live in a rural area, but it’s on the rural side of suburbia. The houses in my neighborhood are on at least one acre plots. It’s not like millions of people need to vote at this tiny church with 28 parking spaces. Still, I’m mentally prepared for having a hard time finding a parking spot among those 28 spaces.

I soon discover that I won’t even be making it to that parking lot. Cars are parked along both sides of the road leading to the church. I consider turning around and leaving. I start to do so, rationalizing that I would come back after work, when I see cars parked along a nearby side road. I change my mind and steer for the side road. I enter the subdivision and park in front of someone’s house, behind a long line of other vehicles which did the same.

I get out and start walking. It’s not that far, maybe a quarter of a mile to the church, if that. I’m not happy about this, but it’s better to get it over with in the morning than wait until after work.

I walk past the obligatory signs advertising all the candidates. There are more signs here than I’ve seen anywhere else combined. (The three Trump signs I mentioned above, along with two other Trump signs in other places, are the only yard signs I’ve seen all campaign, and I can only think of a single bumper sticker I’ve noticed.) There are no people accosting me, which is a relief. Too early, I suppose.

There’s a line outside the church on the sidewalk, so I go there. Immediately I hear a man ahead of me talking not-so-quietly about politics with his friend. (More like to his friend.) I’m instantly suspicious and worried. Behind those two is an exasperated-looking middle-aged woman with a shawl on. I saw this woman park somewhere behind me in the subdivision and walk to the church ahead of me. (I waited a bit inside my car to give her time to walk past me.) Behind her in line is a middle-aged black gentleman with earbuds on. Then there’s me. Behind me, another woman I’d guess to be around forty arrives with a child in tow, roughly six or seven. Or maybe three or fourteen. I don’t really know ages that well. He’s old enough to walk and talk and has some kind of gaming device in his hand and he’s coughing a lot.

This group of people is my life for the next hour and a half.

The loud political man talking to his friend isn’t overtly saying who to vote for, because that would be illegal. But he’s talking a lot about the general circumstances of the election and conspiracies and bringing up every fact and figure that he can think of and I get the impression he’s one of those people who tries to subtly plant seeds in voters’ minds while they wait in line. I’m pretty sure dozens of people could hear him talking. I think there’s a name for this kind “soft” influence but I can’t remember what it is. [Passive electioneering, I think.] It’s pretty common. It’s not illegal, but it’s in a gray area that’s basically impossible to enforce. If anyone presses this person, all he has to do is say, “I’m just talking to my friend.” As we get closer to the front of the line, I notice he gets quieter. I imagine it’s because he doesn’t want the poll workers to hear him.

It’s also possible he’s just one of those people who is incapable of having a thought without saying it out loud.

I find this person fascinating in a weird way. The more I observe, the more he becomes the absolute stereotypical picture of a mad conspiracy theorist. He’s dressed in a way that makes me think he repairs heat pumps for a living. He talks as if he’s not even aware that other people can hear him. He doesn’t wait for anyone to acknowledge what he says, he just keeps talking, almost non-stop. He talks about what he’s heard on television and radio, what he thinks of what he’s heard, historical figures and facts, and pretty much any subject you can imagine that might come from a conspiracy blog. But he’s not offensive about it. (To me, at least.) He’s just … verbose. He mentions Trump a few times (in particular his views on women), but not Clinton. Admittedly I’m trying to tune him out so I don’t hear every single word. I wonder if he has a mental illness. I wonder if he has some level of autism. At first I thought he was going to vote Trump but as time went on I changed my mind and pegged him as a Libertarian.

Later as I was leaving, I discovered that the conspiracy theory man was parked right in front of me in a white van. He did in fact work for some kind of repair service. He did not leave with his friend, so now I wonder if that poor guy just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thankfully, the conspiracy theory man doesn’t turn around much to try to engage those of us stuck behind him. He mainly talks to his friend. Occasionally he interjects a comment into other conversations that happen around him (this happens later, when we’re inside). I don’t see him as a trouble-maker, just a bit off-kilter. The only thing about him that bothers me is the terrifying prospect that I might have to respond to him, which is a social anxiety thing.

While outside, a conversation sparks up between the woman in front of me and the woman behind me. I think they are bonding over having to listen to the conspiracy theory man at the crack of dawn when it’s cold. Since I’m directly between these two, I get roped into this conversation a little bit. I’m envious of the black man who wore ear buds, who is able to stay out of it. I try to smile and nod and be sympathetic to these women’s plight (I’m in it too, after all) while still sending signals that I really do not want to talk to strangers here. (I’m told I send these signals pretty much all the time in any situation.) The conspiracy theory man turns around occasionally to see what they’re talking about. I worry a lot that the conspiracy theory man will join the conversation and have totally opposing views, but that doesn’t happen.

During this brief conversational hell, I learn that both women are trying to vote before getting to work. (As am I.) They are both surprised at how long the line is, and wondering what the holdup is. (Me too.) That might have been the end of it, except the woman behind me decides to explain that she brings her kids to every election because it’s really important that they learn how to vote. Because “you have to do it.” I think to myself that’s not actually true, but I’m not going to say it out loud. She laments that she cannot bring her 16-year-old this year because you have to be 15 or less to accompany parents. Said 16-year-old apparently felt left out. But he’ll be voting next time. Yay for him.

At this point I have listened to this woman with her child for only a few minutes. I’ve already painted her with a broad brush and stereotyped her as one of those moms who talks to everyone, adults in election lines included, as if they are her children. Explaining things, teaching things, etc. The woman in front of me seems to abandon the conversation, possibly drawing the same conclusion. I was only in the conversation by the tiniest of threads to begin with, so I feel it’s okay to turn back to examining the color of paint on the side of the church, the large amount of mold growing in some areas of the walls and roof of the church, the gutter spout end that’s not quite aligned with the drain pipe below it, etc. Henceforth the only words I hear from the mother with child are said to her son, or into a cell phone, explaining to whoever was on the other end that no, she won’t be there in five minutes because she’s still going to be in line in five minutes. I heard a lot of cell phone conversations like that, actually.

Standing outside in the cold, we can see through the windows into the church narthex. (They are plain windows, not stained-glass or anything. This appears to be a recently-built church.) There’s a lot of people in there. Many of the outsiders comment on this, and collectively, our hopes of getting to vote once we reach the front door are dashed.

Time seems to lose all meaning. That kid is coughing a lot. Conspiracy man is talking a lot. My legs and hips and back remind me that I spend a lot of my time sitting–standing up is not my optimal position anymore. Finally we make it inside the doors. We go from near-freezing temperature to hot as hell in the span of a few steps.

At this point we see how far we have left to go. The line turns left immediately inside the door, snakes toward the left wall, then turns around, snakes back through the middle of the room all the way over to the right wall, then turns around again and snakes back to the left wall, where there is a door to the inner voting sanctum. It’s hard not to feel disappointment, because there’s a lot of people in here and this line is not moving very fast.


Near the front door there’s a table with the usual assortment of items you’d expect to see near a church’s front door: Bulletins, pamphlets, bible study meeting flyers, etc. There’s one sample ballot sitting on top of everything, too. Above this table on the wall there’s a very Baptist-looking picture of pious Jesus, the kind that creeps you out the way he stares at you. (I apologize to any Baptists reading this, but I was brought up Episcopalian and we didn’t have creepy Jesus pictures watching us.) Nearby is a memorial plaque with the names of the church members who donated to pay for the pews, along with the names being memorialized. From my own experience with small churches, I suspect these are the names of the wealthiest and most influential members of this congregation.

There’s also a bottle of hand sanitizer on this front table. The conspiracy theory man uses it. Nobody else in my part of the line touches it.

It’s a nice church, I suppose. The narthex is pretty small and mundane, though. As I said I was raised Episcopalian and our churches tend to be as big and fancy as we can afford, with lots of stained glass and shiny gold plates and candlesticks and ornamentation. None of that exists here. It could be a government building.

At the point where the line curves the first time, there is a couch with a stack of yellow sample ballots on it. There are also a few other voting-related pamphlets. I take one of the sample ballots even though I’ve read up on the issues already. I’m still undecided on the county funding issues though. It’s what will affect me the most on this ballot, yet it’s also the most boring, dry reading imaginable. I read over the entire sample ballot, front and back, relieved to have an excuse to avoid looking anywhere else. I have a very detailed mental conversation with myself about the pros and cons of spending county money on various services. (I’ve seen no “simplified” explanations of these issues, though I think one of the pamphlets back on the couch may have explained it, but it’s behind me now.)

Some time later, we hear from a poll worker that one of the three computers is not working. This is the explanation for the “slight” delay.

Since the line snakes back and turns on itself twice, once I’m inside I get the opportunity to hear more conversations from other people in the line as we shuffle past each other. Most are innocuous, centering on the delay. (By this time the conspiracy theory man has quieted down.) Some neighbors recognize each other and say hello. (I’m not sure I would even recognize my neighbors if I saw them in this context, and I sure hope that anxiety-provoking issue doesn’t come up.) Some people are still trying to figure out how they should vote on the downballot issues. There are two state constitution amendments and five different county spending issues on this ballot.

I can hear the poll worker at the inner sanctum door reminding everyone periodically to have their photo identification ready. Poll workers occasionally make their way through the crowded room, asking if anyone needs curbside voting. I think to myself, it’s a bit late for that. I’m apparently not the only one to think that. There’s some murmuring about how the poll workers should be outside asking that.

A woman decides to use the restroom, the door of which I happened to be standing right next to at the time. When she comes out, I’ve moved about five feet forward. She comments a bit too loudly that it was a very large, luxurious restroom. There is some nervous laughter about that.

Two different elderly women at different times make their way through the crowd on walkers from the front door of the church to the door of the inner voting sanctum while I’m there. Everyone stands aside and helps them on their way. Both of them go inside the inner sanctum, vote, and leave while we’re standing in line.

At one point, I start hearing a man’s voice on my left talking somewhat passionately (but not loudly) in a political vein. I think he might be another conspiracy theory man, but he’s talking about Jesus and looking into hearts. Again, not telling anyone what to do, just sort of musing out loud. He sounds very much like a Baptist minister, in fact. He’s got the trademark compelling speaking style and sing-songy tone. I wonder if he’s the minister of this very church. He’s not wearing a suit, though, and I think all Baptist ministers are supposed to wear suits.

At another point I’m very surprised to hear an older gentleman who has a very obvious Russian (or I guess I should say Eastern European because I have no idea what actual country) accent. His voice is deep and resonant, and he’d be great at voiceover work. He seems understandably shy, but he’s answering questions from the women in front of him about his yard. I imagine the women are trying to determine if he’s a spy for Putin. Or maybe they just like his accent.

I’m struck by how many different cultural groups are in this room at the same time. There are blacks and whites, young and old, rural people and city people, men and women, religious people and conspiracy nuts, people who look wealthy and people who look poor, retired people, people hurrying to jobs, and people (presumably) in school. I saw one young woman who might have been Muslim. I don’t see any obvious Hispanics but I’m sure there are some around somewhere. (I am aware that I’m doing all of this racial profiling entirely based on looks and probably shouldn’t.) It’s kind of amazing to see, when you think about it. These are demographics that rarely intersect in the normal course of life. I’ve heard people express this sentiment about election lines before but it’s never really hit home with me until now.

Naturally I try to imagine how all of these people are voting. It’s hard to tell. According to Nate Silver, the men are voting for Trump, the women are voting for Clinton, but it’s never that simple. I’m sure the mother and child behind me are voting for Clinton, even though she hasn’t said. She just sounds like the kind of person who would not by shy about jumping in on Facebook to repudiate something Trump said. The shawl woman in front of me is a toss-up, giving away nothing. She’s old enough to have built up a long-standing hatred of the Clintons, so I wouldn’t bet on her either way. By this point I’ve concluded, based solely on the volume of odd political trivia that he knows, that the conspiracy theory man is voting for Johnson. (I guess it’s equally odd that I knew a lot of that trivia, too.) The black man with ear buds is giving no hints either, but statistically is probably voting for Clinton.

For myself, I’m trying not make eye contact with anyone and I remain completely blank-faced. Once or twice I accidentally meet somebody’s eyes and look away as if I’ve been shocked. I’m looking at the texture of the walls, I’m looking at the wood grain on the doors, I’m looking at people’s shoes. I’m also trying not to jump a mile in the air whenever the woman’s kid behind me accidentally touches me. I’m trying very hard not to think about all the people coughing and sneezing in this room.

In the final stretch of the line, I get to look inside the church itself, which is empty. The pews are made of light-colored wood, which I find strange because I’m used to dark-colored pews. It’s a very modern-looking, carpeted worship area. I don’t see anything like an organ, but it might be hidden somewhere. There’s band equipment up on the “stage,” where the altar would be in an Episcopal church. We don’t have bands in the front of Episcopal churches, but I’m pretty what I’m seeing here is normal for a Baptist church. I don’t catch too many details because I think the strain of remaining calm is starting to wear me out. I really want this to be over.

There’s a small sofa near the end of the line. This one’s not covered with papers, so some people sit down for a brief rest, but I stay standing. I know it’s probably going to hurt to sit down and get back up by this point.

Finally I get to the front of the line. The line to reach the inner sanctum, that is. There are more lines ahead, albeit much shorter ones. We are only allowed to enter the inner sanctum one at a time. There is a sign by the door that says no electronic devices are allowed inside, even though I’m pretty sure I read it was legal to take a selfie at the voting booth in Virginia. I don’t particularly care. I’ve already turned my phone off and left it in my pocket. I haven’t used it at any point. I thought about taking a picture of the mass of cars outside, but decided not to. I’m sure there will be plenty of footage of long-lines-at-polling-places on the local news. History will not forget this day because I didn’t take a picture. (Besides, I’m a little worried somebody will say something to me about it.)

The process of voting at this polling place is a little different than I’ve experienced before. I’ve used the little punch-out ballots where you use a little metal pen that looks like a circuit tester to punch holes in your choices, and I’ve used electronic voting machines where you tap the screen and get a mass of germs on your finger. This is the first time I’ve used a scanned ballot.

When a spot opens up, I’m directed to a table where I hand over my photo ID to a nice old lady. (The voter ID requirement in Virginia was added in 2012, I believe.) The nice old lady can’t pronounce my name, so I have to demonstrate it for her, which is the same routine I go through every single time I ever meet another human being. She doesn’t need to know anyway, as she types my name into a computer, and this is when I realize that this must be one of the infamous computers that isn’t working. Indeed, there are three computer stations at the table, and only two are occupied.

I wait anxiously for the nice old lady to read her computer screen, because this is the point in 2012 when I learned that the address on the driver’s license has to match the voting address records, and back then, I forgot to do that. (I am extremely bad at keeping records and licenses up-to-date.) This year, I am 159.8% sure that everything is correct, but I’m still very nervous about it, because I vividly remember leaving the polling place in 2012 feeling like the tiniest human being on earth, feeling like everyone was staring at me, feeling like I wished I could crawl into a hole and die. I was supposed to go back and get some additional paperwork or something, but I never did, because the thought of returning to that place on that day was just too mortifying. Such is life with social anxiety. (I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about that, now that I think about it.) (Yes, I know I could have done this or that or the other thing and still voted. Go away.)

The nice old lady prints out a receipt from a little printer, hands it to me, along with my driver’s license, and now I can go get the actual ballot. I never actually read what was on that piece of paper, because I handed it to another woman roughly 10 seconds later. That receipt must have been in order because she gave me a white paper ballot with questions on both sides, roughly the size and weight of a piece of heavy A4-sized paper.

An usher directs me to a voting booth. It is not so much a booth as it is a tiny table that resembles the inside of a cube with two sides removed. There’s a writing surface there and a ball-point pen on a chain. There’s another booth on my left, and the black man with earbuds is voting there. It feels uncomfortably public for me despite being a private voting booth. Still, unless someone is standing right next to me they shouldn’t be able to see what I put on the ballot. For now, at least.

I use the pen to mark my selections. It’s like a Scan-Tron test from back in my school days. Fill in the circle next to your selection, staying inside the lines. I’ve never had to do this before when voting. I try to be careful so there’s no question about how I’m voting. It occurs to me that this is just about the most archaic possible way to vote in 2016, because I’m imagining that someone is going to pick this up at some point and look at it to count my votes.

Little did I know the high-tech machine that awaited me. After marking my ballot I move to another line with about five or six people in it. The conspiracy theory man is just ahead of me in this line, but he’s silent now. I realize I’m just standing right out there in the open where God and everyone could read my ballot if they really wanted to. I have never experienced this before. I try to hold my ballot against my leg so nobody could see it, but it’s two-sided, so that was basically impossible. I could not read anyone else’s ballot, so I consoled myself that nobody else could read mine. (Then again, I was deliberately trying to avoid doing that, and my eyes are horrible these days anyway.)

At the front of this line I have the honor of feeding my ballot into a machine of the modern age: A flatbed scanner. I watch my ballot slide inside the gullet of this machine and a verification message appears on the screen connected to it. I don’t see exactly what it said, but the poll worker thanks me for my vote, not-so-subtly indicating that I should get the hell out of the way for the next person.

As an IT worker in daily life, I naturally find myself deconstructing all of the infrastructure of this voting system. The entire process feels incredibly prone to errors. It occurs to me, though, that scanning a paper ballot has a built-in data backup of my vote selection. If the scanner doesn’t work for whatever reason, or its hard drive crashes, or whatever, they can always visually inspect my ballot later. They could also accidentally scan it four or four thousand times. One wonders if there is any software mechanism in place to prevent duplicate scanning of the same ballot. Do the ballots have serial numbers printed on them? That’s what I’d use if I were writing that software.

Anyway, at this point I’m done with this nightmare. I see that the conspiracy theory man is just leaving through a nearby exit door. Before I can leave, however, I must partake in the time-honored tradition of getting an “I voted” sticker from the oldest living woman in the precinct. I don’t know how they always get the exact same woman to give out these stickers in every single election I’ve ever participated in, but there she is, and I get a sticker. It’s fancier than the last one I got.

I walk slowly to the exit now, giving the conspiracy theory man plenty of time to get ahead of me, because I do not want to talk to him now. I want to flee this social hellscape. I also can’t help but notice that every one of the coughing, sneezing people back in that room has touched this door knob I’m using. When I get outside, I’m relieved to see the conspiracy theory man is well ahead of me. The sun is shining brightly, but it’s still pretty cold.

I walk back to my car, keeping a very safe distance behind the conspiracy theory man who is walking in the same direction, apparently in a great mood. I’m generally pleased with myself for sticking this out, but I feel like I’ve been punched repeatedly and then run over by a large truck. I navigate around cars and trucks trying to drive on the road packed with parked cars.

It turns out the conspiracy theory man leaves in a white van that was parked right in front of me. The woman with the shawl, who was parked behind me somewhere, appears to be gone, but it’s hard to tell because more cars have appeared in this area of the subdivision. I would hate to live there on a day like this. I collapse in my car, groaning from the pain in my lower back. I’m really out of shape. Weirdly, it hasn’t improved after aging and doing no exercise.

I arrived about 6:30, and I’m leaving about 8:00. I was standing up for an hour and half! On my feet! At least I wore my tennis shoes. When I get home I feel shell-shocked, but I’m very proud of myself for not freaking out and running for my life.

It takes me some time to regroup. I stare at Twitter for a while. I write some dumb tweets. I make a dumb picture showing the exact way that my voting line curved around in that room. Doing those things is soothing. Eventually I put on work clothes without taking a shower or even washing my face and go to work. I spend a lot of time there writing. :)

Starting Ashes of Ariandel DLC

Over the weekend I tapered off of Civ 6 to push through to the end of my umpteenth Dark Souls 3 playthrough so I would finally have a character ready for the Ashes of Ariandel DLC. It took a total of about 18 hours to go through all the bosses and all the areas (over the course of a couple weeks, not two days :).

I had to make a new character because, if you didn’t know, you can’t transfer DS2 or DS3 characters from one PC to another. That’s really annoying, From Software. All those high-level characters I have on my old PC are now worthless unless I want to play the DLC on that old PC, which I don’t, because old PC is old.

The aptly-named Snowfield
The aptly-named Snowfield

The point is that I finally got into the Ashes DLC for the first time Sunday night, and soon I will be uploading a blind playthrough to YouTube. I’ll probably hold off on uploading for a few days so I don’t get influenced by any comments telling me I’m doing everything wrong. (Not that anybody ever watches my videos anyway heh.)

It’ll be interesting because starting tomorrow, I’ll have to juggle playing the DLC and writing for NaNoWriMo.

A Writing Stream?

Speaking of writing, many weeks ago, I saw on Twitch that there were “creative” channels dedicated to writing. At first I thought the idea was laughable, because how is a slowly expanding text document fun to watch? In fact, the only two people streaming were basically just sitting around with an open document staring at the Twitch chat and not writing.

Anyway, for weeks now, I’ve been thinking about what a “good” writing stream would look like, and how it might actually be more useful to me as the writer than to the viewer. So I might do a writing stream in November, say from 7-9 on weeknights. The only thing stopping me is that I don’t want to monitor a chat channel, because that would be incredibly distracting and defeat the whole purpose of it for me.

P. S. Eventually I’m going to finish a post about Battlefield 1’s historical accuracy. TL;DR – It’s not very accurate.

NBI 2016 – Thoughts On Blogging


The first rule of blogging is not to blog about blogging. However, June is the Newbie Blogger Initiative here in the game blogging community, so this is the month where we throw out all the rules, talk about the craft of blogging, and try to recruit and encourage new bloggers.

I technically started blogging in 1998, when I put some random notes up on my first ever web site, unless you count some Quake match updates I posted on the clan’s page in 1997. I didn’t really start blogging with any regularity though until about 2002 or 2003. The point is that I’ve been at this hobby for a while now, so I have at least a little sense of the landscape.

For the most part, starting a blog is fairly easy. Grab a free account on WordPress or Blogger or whatever and just start posting. The hard part is getting anyone to read your blog–a topic I clearly haven’t yet mastered–but generally speaking you do this by posting comments on other peoples’ blogs, posting on forums, posting on social media, sending out blog links to an aggregator like @mmoblogosphere, or participating in community events like the NBI.

Do you have what it takes to be a blogger? Almost definitely. All you need is a little bit of time to write, and the courage to post what you write. If you’ve ever posted comments on someone else’s blog or written forum posts, then you are already 90% of the way there. Even if all you’ve ever done is read blogs, you’re probably about 50% there. Avid readers tend to excel at writing, too.

Speaking of which, there are many kinds of bloggers, but a lot of them are writers. (I would count myself in that group.) For them, blogging is merely a convenient publishing platform for the writing they might otherwise do in a vacuum. If you have any kind of passion for writing, fiction or non-fiction, you are automatically a perfect candidate to be a blogger. (In fact if you have any past writing experience I wouldn’t even call you a “newbie” blogger.) Blogging is just about the easiest way to practice writing and perhaps even more importantly it’s a great way to practice having people read and react to your writing, which in my experience is the more grueling part of writing.

(That’s not to say you have to be a great writer to blog. Blogging is extremely informal.)

As a blogging newbie, you may find yourself hoping your blog is successful, but I would caution newcomers that the concept of “success” is very ephemeral in the blogging world. You can define success by the number of hits you get, or the number of dollars of ad revenue you make, or by the number of comments you receive, or any combination thereof. But I have observed that most newcomers are pretty disappointed with their blogs when they try to track those things early on. I know I was.

By the way, stop now if your only goal for blogging is to make money. Nobody is making any money by writing a blog. The best you could hope for is that your blog might give you some exposure which might lead to a content writing gig somewhere else, but the chances of that are slim and content writers tend to get paid quite a bit less than a living wage anyway.

One piece of advice that is often given to new bloggers is that whatever else you do, you need to post often to build and keep an audience. There is a certain amount of truth to that, but I’m not sure it applies as much today as it did in the early days of blogging. Back in the dark ages, people had to make a conscious choice to load your blog in their browser to find out if there was any new content there. The “update often” philosophy was borne from the fact that if people went to your site but didn’t find anything new, they would lose interest, forget about you, and go somewhere else.

Today, however, I think a lot of people will just drop a link to your blog into their favorite RSS program, or follow you on Twitter or some other social media. In other words, I don’t think readers spend a lot of time visiting web sites any more to find out if there is new content to see. Readers now get an instant notification whenever new content is available, so even if you only post once a month, people will still see it.

As a side effect, for better or worse, I invest very little time on the look of the web site itself (by which I mean the theme, the widgets on the sides, etc.), and make the assumption that everyone is reading my posts through an RSS feed or some other mechanism like that. It’s just my opinion of course, but a lot of the time spent on the fonts and layout of a blog page is wasted. I tend to go for a minimalist look that is easily readable in case people reach my site through Google searches.

A constant source of consternation for new bloggers is what to write about. (It’s particularly concerning when you’re also told that you have to post a lot.) It’s very common to think that you have nothing to say, but that should never stop anyone from starting a blog. Believe it or not, most bloggers tend to steal topics from other bloggers or news sites. :) By which I mean that we’ll see something interesting on another site and then write our thoughts about it as a blog post. Most bloggers (including me) tend to have a long list of other blogs they read for inspiration.

As far as the more inside-baseball aspects of blogging, there are a lot of mundane details that you’ll probably want to learn eventually, and which I’m sure are abundantly documented elsewhere in the NBI, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much at first. Things like how to optimize your posts and titles for search engines, how to end your posts with a question to encourage readers to comment, and how to make sure your posts have pictures so that they don’t look weird in aggregators. I find those aspects of blogging to be very much a chore and I often ignore or forget them.

So to summarize, blogging is cool! All the cool kids are doing it! You should totally do it too.