​Brian Gefrich is a writer and game designer. In​ his spare time during the day, people pay him to fix SharePoint.


The Narrative Imperative

May 24
D-Arrrrrrrr-M

Chuck Wendig has a weekly Flash Fiction Challenge over at TerribleMinds.com​. He provides a prompt and his readers create short works of fiction (usually <1,000 words) based on the prompt.

​This week, the challenge was to use a character created by a fantasty character generator, and write a story about them. 

The one I chose was "A(n) irresponsible pirate is trying to find a cure before it is too late.​"

I think my take on it was pretty interesting, and here it is, about 36 minutes late and 83 words above the limit.

​​

In all fairness to me, I’m a taxpayer, so at least some part of my salary ends up going to public television. I’ve even donated to one of those fundraisers. I have the tote bag and everything. I’m a supporter. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong.

If anything, my true crime is loving Downton Abbey too much.

Sure, I haven’t seen it yet, but I am pretty sure it’s my favorite show. I found out about it from a friend who just absolutely had to keep posting screencaps of gorgeous bellhops or whatever they are called in tight tuxedos. I imagined what their accents must be like as they whisper to each other in narrow corridors. I could feel my heart pounding just thinking about it. On top of that, Downton Abbey has Maggie Smith in it. In case you’ve been living in a cave all your life, she got really big because of the Harry Potter movies. How could I not watch this show?

But there was a problem: only the latest season is streaming on the official website. You can’t just jump into a show right in the middle! If you don’t start from the beginning, how can you decide which of the butlers should have a tumultuous affair with Mary?

(She’s the scandalous one, according to what I read on Twitter.)

I did what any red-blooded American would do in this situation. I went online and downloaded the first season. Everyone does it, it’s just the way these things work. I already knew about torrents and how they let people share just about anything; TV shows, movies, and music all ends up getting passed around. All I needed was to download a torrenting program and I’d be set. I did a quick Google search and found a brand-new program called Samsa Genie. The website said it was so easy. Just type in what you want and the program grants your wish. I clicked “Install” and got one of those ridiculously long Terms and Conditions. This one even had a massive flashing warning that said “YOU MUST READ THIS AND ACCEPT ALL OF THE TERMS BEFORE YOUR WISH CAN BE GRANTED”. I mashed my cursor on the “Accept” button without hesitating. Less than ten minutes later, I was downloading episodes to my hard drive, and I went to bed dreaming about the magic British world I would be transported to in the morning.

So you can imagine my surprise when I woke up with a pegleg.

I don’t always go to bed at a reasonable hour, so finding myself in bed wearing something weird like a bandanna isn’t that unusual. Even if it’s a big red silk one that I don’t remember ever buying.

But a pegleg sort of stands out. Especially when you try to roll out of your bed and end up on your floor. I’m not even kidding, half of my leg was just gone and in its place was a piece of wood. I reached out to touch it and then proceeded to completely lose my shit.

I had to be dreaming. This was just like that time when I was sure that my brother had turned into that guy from Blues Clues. Not the second guy, the original one. This was a dream, just like that, and I would wake up soon with all of my limbs intact.

There had to be a way to snap out of this, I thought. I was getting ready to pinch myself when my beard starting itching. In case it wasn’t clear, as a 19-year-old girl, I don’t have a freakin’ beard.

Somehow I managed to get on my feet. Or foot, I guess. Using the bed to steady myself, I hobbled to the bathroom and stared at the mirror, reaching out to touch my reflection.

It was real. I was turning into a pirate.

All of it fit. The pegleg, the bandanna, the odd smell of saltwater that drenched the whole room. I didn’t know why, but I was transforming, and it was seriously making me flip out. What could have caused this? I had to get help. I needed answers.

I only fell three times on the way to my desk, and by the time I sat down, I was dragging a string of bras and t-shirts along with my new prosthetic. My laptop was still on, and when the monitor came to life, I saw the notification from Samsa Genie on the middle of the screen.

“DOWNLOAD COMPLETE”, it read.

Obviously, I didn’t have time for that, so I minimized it and pulled up a browser. My first stop was at Yahoo! Answers. That would take too long and they would probably just think I’m trolling. I tried WebMD, but “Sudden and Unexplainable Beard” was not on their symptom list. The Internet might not be able to help me.

Then it struck me. This was some kind of magic. I needed an expert, and that girl from my art class last semester was perfect. She always had tarot cards or weird books with her, and even told me once that she was a Wiccan. If anyone could reverse this, it was her.

I had to squint to read the instant message. My right eye was slowly growing a black leather patch over it. Eventually, I got through all of her instructions for creating what she called “a Ring of Warding”. Luckily, I had some scented candles so I didn’t have to leave my room.

I built the ring on my floor and sat in the middle with my laptop.

“BTW,” her next message said. “I have all the Downton Abbey DVDs. You can borrow them if you want.”

It was the best news I had all morning. Without thinking twice, I uninstalled the torrent program, taking the downloaded episodes with it. Within seconds, the room started getting brighter as my vision returned to full strength. I touched my face and found it beardless.

And my leg was back to normal.

It was amazing. The Ring of Warding had worked. The spell was broken.

I never did find out what caused my bizarre transformation. But I now know that magic is real and Downton Abbey is as great as I thought it would be. My new best Wiccan friend and I marathoned the first season that very day.

Now my life would be perfect if I could only get this parrot to stop following me.


May 22
Roll 3D6 to Determine Your Creativity Score

​Ah, the old "Talent vs Work" debate. How I have missed your sweet caress.​ You are like a glass of sweet tea on a humid Summer afternoon. Except the tea is made of 5W-40 motor oil and you are vacationing on the planet Mercury.

I got into this a bit on Twitter, the worst possible medium for discussing anything complicated. Author Myke Cole took the first shot with this tweet, a reply to a doozy of a post which tried to separate "good writing" and "talented writing". ​Peter Brett jumped in and requested proof that talent even exists.

There is a school of thought based on the notion of Capital-T ​Talent, the mystical and God-given energy that surges through all humans. Well, surges when the person is considered "good" at something. In others, mostly those who would like to succeed in a field, it's usually described as a slow trickle. Talent, in this frame of mind, is an intangible concept like consciousness, an abstract modifier that boosts a person's ability to perform a specific task.

While Talent is ambiguously defined here, it's important to draw some border lines and delineate the different ways people use T/talent when talking about endeavors. 

For example, consider the following statement:

"She is a very talented artist."

What does this actually mean? Most of the time, I read it as a shorthand way of saying "Her skill and hard work is well-reflected in the high-quality output she creates". But I know that sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the intent is more like "She has a magical power that makes this sort of work possible. She is very lucky to have drawn this lot." 

This is unquestionably ridiculous. 

Stephen King does not have Writachlorians surging through his veins and Lebron James does not Wingardium Leviosa his way to the hoop. There is an infinitely complex set of factors, a mountain of hard work, and a sprinkling of coincidence that has brought success to these people. Not being able to form all the variables into an easily comprehendable chunk of Play-Doh in our heads does not make it magic. 

Cole translates it as "I admire your results and don't understand how you achieved them." ​

Is there a more useful purpose for the term? I argued that talent can be applied in a way that ​is not insulting and doesn't summon any dragons. Maybe it could be useful to summarize the vast array of variables, genetic traits, and past experiences that drive our actions. I think that may be too broad, and still ignores the time and effort put into developing those traits into quality output. 

So perhaps we can just try to not marginalize people by suggesting that their natural affinity for something, physical makeup, privilege or experiences are an effortless one-way bullet train to Successville. If you like their work, compliment the work. If you want to praise the person who did the work, focus on the things they were responsible for​: their hard work, dedication, and tenacity.

If nothing else, you can actually prove that those things exist.​

May 16
Good Deed of the Week - APlus Rewards Cards

​​Sunoco* has a loyalty program for their gas stations, called APlus Rewards. It's pretty simple, you swipe your card when you buy something, and if you purchase a participating item, you get a few cents taken off each gallon of gas on your next fill-up.

The Good Deed plan is as follows:

  1. ​Locate your closest Sunoco station.
  2. Get a new APlus Reward card.​
  3. Buy a cup of coffee or a Snapple or something that gives you a fuel discount. They are labeled on the shelf in front of each object, or you can look at their flyer online. The normal reward value is $0.05.
  4. Go back and get something else every day. It helps if it's something you would get anyways. Repeat for 20 days.
  5. The card should now have a $1.00 discount per gallon on it.
  6. Give the card to someone at the station about to fill up their car. If they ask, tell them you don't need it because you drive an electric car.
  7. Go back to step 2 and repeat.

Important notes: The discount only affects up to 20 gallons of gas at a time, and goes away after it is used. But my car usually takes about 17 gallons per fill-up, and I would be very thankful for a $17 discount.

The points must be used by the last calendar day of the month after they were collected. For example, discounts gathered this month (May), must be used by June 30th.

​Whoever uses the card usually has to insert it before putting in their payment card and ​selecting the grade of fuel they want.

I'm still looking into whether or not these cards are recycleable, but if not, they might be useful as guitar picks​ ​or other projects.

DO NOT APPROACH RANDOM PEOPLE AT A GAS STATION IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. This should be considered a daytime activity only.

Enjoy!

* Sunoco is a US company and has the best environmental policies of any major oil company, according to Greenopia and The Sierra Club​.
May 16
The Clark Gregg Theory

clarkgregg.jpgClark Gregg portrays Agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and will be reprising the role in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. coming this September to ​ABC. 

Coulson is something of an obsessive Captain America fanboy, collecting near-mint condition Cappy trading cards from WWII. 

Does the fanaticism towards the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan extend to the actor as well? Perhaps, and shocking new evidence may support this theory.

Gregg is married to Jennifer Grey, an actress best known for ​her roles in Dirty Dancing and the immaculate Ferris Bueller's Day Off​. Grey is the daughter of Academy Award-winning actor Joel Grey. His Oscar is for his performance in the screen adaptation of Cabaret, which starred Liza Minnelli, who happens to be the daughter of Judy Garland.

Judy Garland was born in 1922, the same year as Captain America's alter-ego, Steve Rogers. In fact, their births were less than a month apart.

Coincidence?


Of course it is. 


Don't go in for silly theories like this, people. ​It's a really complex world and you can find connections between just about anything. ​Gregg has been a part of large ensemble casts and has worked with many actors. You can make those connections point to whatever you want. Perhaps Gregg had a childhood desire to be friends with Patrick Swayze. After all, Swayze was Jennifer Grey's co-star in Dirty Dancing and ​Red DawnGregg's recurring role on The West Wing​ began with a scene opposite Rob Lowe, who happened to play the brother of Swayze's character in The Outsiders.*


​The point is, you always have to be careful when you come across seemingly unrelated facts provided to support a hypothesis. Most often, these cases are examples of "Confirmation Bias", which is when a person starts with a result they want to see, and then presents only the evidence that supports their conclusion, ignoring anything that might question or contradict it.​

Have you ever wondered why you notice a greater number of weird things on Friday the 13th or during a full moon? Sure, it's possible that some people play into the spirit of those days and purposely behave bizarrely, but ​​more often than not you are just more receptive to noticing the off-beat because culture tells us that those are the times that we're more likely to witness strange things.

​This is most important when being confronted with a conspiracy theory. People who come up with these elaborate plots are cherry-picking masters, and can weave complex narratives from scattered bits of data that in all actuality have no connection whatsoever.

​It's most likely that both Clark Gregg's marriage and his choice of acting jobs are unrelated to each other and most certainly not related to an aspect of a character he didn't even create.


* If you wanted to take it even further, C. Thomas Howell was the other part of that family unit in The Outsiders, and was also in Red Dawn​. Howell was in 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man, and Gregg voiced Coulson in the Ultimate Spider-Man animated TV show. The West Wing star Martin Sheen was in Gettysburg ​with Howell. ​Francis Ford Coppola has directed both Sheen and Howell. Coppola's daughter Sofia wrote and directed both The Virgin Suicides (Starring Spider-Man alum Kirsten Dunst) and Lost in Translation, featuring - wait for it - Avengers co-star Scarlett Johansson. THE CIRCLE NEVER ENDS. 

May 07
Helping the Habit

Habits have never been my strong suit. 

In case this isn't abundantly clear, just look at the date on the post before this one, and see how well I have been habitual about my "Post Every Day" blog.

In my defense, I'm really good at bad habits.

​My upbringing sort of existed in a foggy zone where ADHD was known and treated to some extent, but the lessons on how to ​teach people with the ​​​disorder weren't where they are now. Through no fault of anyone, my work ethic never developed how it should have. Dice up some yummy bits of memory problems and drizzle liberally with an attention span double-whammy (both wandering attention and hyperfocus or perseveration or whatever you want to call it). In the end, you have a guy who just really has a tough time remembering what he was supposed to do, and then sitting down and doing it.

I've been referred to as "chronically irresponsible" by a friend, and while I want to qualify that or defend against it, it's more or less the best way to describe it. ​

There's been plenty of attempts to regulate this behavior in the past, but it doesn't take a genius to figure why habit management that requires you to learn new habits hasn't worked out so well for me.

Recently, I've been trying some new things, and finally really using technology to my advantage. On my tombstone, it will read "Why didn't he just go to the Internet sooner?" One of the tools I just discovered the other day is HabitRPG​, an alpha version of a web-based roleplaying game that uses your good and bad habits as the "encounters" your hero will face. ​There is a Google Chrome plugin that tracks the sites I go on (something I am normally very much against), and will reward or punish me based on how productive I am or how much time I waste on Twitter.

I'll ​warn you here: if you go hard into this, especially with the daily tasks, and you fall short, the game will beat the shit out of you.

This is all a good start for me, but I needed a bit more - something to really focus that time management. I can ​​sit down, weld my butt to the chair and hammer out some writing if I really enjoy what I'm doing, but then I spend too much time doing it, and neglect other things. Sometimes it's just the need to have something to drag me back from wherever I've wandered off to. I've tried alarm clocks, which aren't really regulated enough and require me to remember to use them. ​Enter the Pomodoro ​Technique. I found out about this thanks to the integration of the Chrome app with a site called Tomato.es​, a ​pretty slick timer app. Pomodoro has been around for a few decades, and is pretty popular as a time management tool.

Why is it good for me? The base idea is that you work straight for a 25 minute chunk. That's one "Pomodoro". I keep the timer on a tab where I can see it, giving me a clear view of how much more I have in my current run. If I only have a few minutes left, I'm much more likely to stick it out and finish, and that constant reminder that I'm on a work period keeps me going. But it also helps on the other side of things. After each Pomodoro, you take a five minute break. After you've done four 25 minute work blocks, you get a 20 minute break. The alarm and the forced breaks keeps me from getting tunnel vision on a single item. I can refill my coffee, check my email, get my brain away from whatever I was plugging away on, and then return fresh.

And best of all, the Tomato.es site is tracked by HabitRPG through the Chrome app, so I get XP for successfully sticking to it and completing the Pomodoros. 

In a way, especially when I'm writing, it's like a tool to manage my wandering attention in a controlled way. I'm scheduling in time for my brain to shoot off the tracks, and then setting off an alarm to drag me back. So far, it's done well. I feel motivated to finish each run, to reach every small success. For someone who often has to struggle to complete tasks, my recent days have been filled with tiny victories. That makes me want to do more.

And that's the most important part - many of us grew up under the stigma that there was something wrong with us. We were disruptive, frustrating, and more often than not, frustrated. I've spent a lot of manhours trying to lock down a way to get past that, and I've been feeling really good about what I've been doing lately.

HabitRPG, Tomato.es, and other tools like Asana and StayFocused have really helped.

I've done my research too, and I continue to read up on new ideas as I come across them. When looking up the Pomodoro Technique, I found an interview with Mario Fusco, a Java developer and creator of the Lambdaj ​Project. He went after Pomodoro as not only useless, but potentially harmful, and went on to attack the people who need it:

"Do we really need it? Aren't we really able to keep ourselves concentrated without a timer ticketing on our desk? Actually this is a critique not only to the pomodoro technique, but mostly on the way we are used to work and to think about it..

...

Are we professionals or unexperienced kids playing with something bigger then them? I think that, like any other serious professional, I can stay concentrated on what I am doing for hours. I honestly don't need a pomodoro to keep myself focused for just 25 minutes. And if somebody can stay focused for no more than 25 minutes I am afraid that he should really rethink the way he works.

...

So please, bring back your timer to your kitchen and start working in a more professional and effective way."

​In that short span, a well-respected programmer takes all that I'm working for and calls me unprofessional, ineffective, a child, and says I need to rethink the way I work.

I'll let you in on a secret: it's basically been like that since grade school. I'm only now reaching the point where instead of trying to force myself into becoming somebody else, I'm finding the way to make what I have work for me. 

And I'm pretty damn brilliant in short bursts.

I've got a timer about go off, so I'm going to publish this, finish off a Pomodoro and knock something off my to-do list.

It feels pretty good.


Apr 24
Who Cares What I Think? I Do!

​​burger.jpgI'm in the middle of reading a novel. Big shock, I know. This particular book, an author's first published work, has a number of issues with the writing; small errors that I immediately want to label as "rookie mistakes". As soon as I first thought this, I started to shame myself. "Who are you," I asked myself, "Mr. Never-Been-Published, to throw out a critique like that?"

​Who cares what I think? ​​I'm just an unpublished wannabe. What makes my opinion so important?

Quite simply, it's the fact that I had the opinion in the first place.

It's easy to discount our critical thoughts when reading the work of other authors, especially when they have achieved what we are working towards. However, it is the very act of approaching fiction critically that makes us better writers. When good writers read, which they hopefully do often, thinking about what works and what flops is essential to improving your own writing "toolkit". 

In this case, one of the aspects that stood out to me is that the author has a particular issue with word repetition, mostly with  uncommon words. It seems that from time to time they found a term that they liked, say for example an offbeat verb, and then would repeat it (or a slight variation) in the next sentence or paragraph. It looked sloppy and made an interesting word choice lose its appeal. 

The worst thing I could do here is open up my email or Twitter and shoot off a message to the author about how they made a novice error, and that's where the doubt comes from. I'm not a professional critic and I don't have the weight of a successful writing career behind me. The author doesn't need my input and the publisher clearly thought the book was good enough to sell it as-is.* 

But just because they don't particularly care for my unsolicited advice (about something they can't change now anyways), doesn't mean that it can't be valuable to me as a writer. I can make note of it and use it (and hell, feel a little snooty as if I would never create imperfect prose) and I can do all of this without sounding like a douche and trumpeting my opinion to people who didn't ask for it and don't really need it.


The point is - don't devalue your critical reading skills, but keep in mind where their value lies.


*Note: It is. The things that stood out were minor issues or pet peeves and did not ruin the overall excitement of the novel.

​(Image sourced from, sadly, FailBlog​)

Apr 23
"Hybrid Authors" and the dangers of limiting yourself

hybrid.jpgThe always on-point Chuck Wendig​ wrote a piece about "hybrid authors" - that is, authors who take multiple paths towards getting their work published. He makes it easy for those of us frightened by large paragraphs by breaking the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing models down into simple lists. Some of the points are more nebulous in terms of risks and rewards, like the potential for loss if another book store chain tanks it, but others are very clear. The idea of money up front versus money down the road is a real consideration for authors trying to get established.

In the end, the thing to take away is that it is dangerous to hitch your wagon to a ​single method without allowing for some flexiblilty. Things change, paradigms get shifted or shafted or whatever the hell paradigms do, and a lot of people get left out in the cold when the team they backed goes south. 

​This is not to say that focusing on one or the other is bad. You might only want to see your book ​​on a shelf. Maybe the Kindle is the way of the future for you. That's fine. But there's a caveat. Wendig describes the self-publishing community as being "a little cultish sometimes", and traditional publishing proponents can get just as fanatical. They have created reasons why their path is The One True Way. Maybe it's the sting of rejection from many publishers, or a view that the Amazon store is just not how a respectable author would go about his or her business. However they got there, they are so locked into this notion of how things should be that they start believing that everybody else in the world has to do it exactly the same way.

And that's just silly, kids.

The real danger of not being a hybrid author, or at the very least being open to the idea of it, is that you stand the chance of missing out on an opportunity. An author might publish a successful series of urban fantasy novels about a marauding ArchAngel who gets turned human and falls in love with his adopted sister, but that doesn't mean that the publisher is going to be interested in their poetry collection. 

​Here's the good news - someone out there probably wants to read your verse, and self-publishing gives you the control to get it out there. 

It's a win-win. You don't lose anything by leaving your options open. And you stand to lose a lot when you chain yourself to an idea that probably won't be around forever.