Techno-fail

You know what’s worse than moving overseas?

Moving overseas at the end of the year.

It took my stuff two and a half weeks to reach the US via container ship from Iceland; it’s now been a week and a half in Customs, and I only got the release confirmation on Thursday. They still haven’t called to arrange a delivery, so I’m guessing that if I’m lucky I’ll get my stuff before the new year. But it might be later than that.

This is distressing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that my PC case, PSU and processor are among the items that were shipped. I’ve been without a gaming PC since the middle of October at this point, and while I can borrow my brother’s computer whilst he’s out at work or class, it’s not my own machine with my own settings and hardware.

I’ve been using a MacBook I purchased in 2009 (long story short: I utterly despise this infernal aluminium doorstop, and the money would have been better spent on an Alienware laptop, but what’s done is done). It runs EVE Online enough for me to use the game as a very expensive chat program, falls over if I attempt to run Steam, doesn’t understand what it’s meant to do with Lord of the Rings Online, and generally fails at being a computer.

It’s very good at being a sort of oversized iPad; unfortunately that isn’t what I need it for, and even my actual iPad doesn’t understand the MacBook well enough to transfer files over bluetooth. My previous MacBook was excellent, but this one has killed what was left of my affection for Mac products.

I’ve been building my own PCs since the mid-’00s. Initially I needed assistance to assemble them; these days all I require is space to work in with no cats in the way (easier said than done, but I can put up with a crying cat outside the door for a few hours). I used the same transport method I’ve used since I had to move back to the US from Scotland in 2009: wrapping all the working parts on the PC in static-proof bags and tucking them among my clothes in my suitcase. Unfortunately, the local Best Buy no longer stocks cases, processors, or PSUs in-store, or I’d have had the whole thing back together already. I was tempted to order new parts, but since I had no idea how long it would take to get them versus how long it would take to get my shipment from Iceland, and it would essentially be a waste of money anyway, I’ve just been waiting patiently. Blargh.

The only reason the processor is in the case is because it’s seated in a burnt-out motherboard, and the new motherboard is still safely wrapped in its original packaging, unopened. I burnt (a different) one out when I moved from Scotland four years ago, so it really wasn’t worth risking this new one, as well.

But I’ll tell you, it’s been frustrating to not have a gaming machine. Usually, if I run out of mental energy for various projects, I’ll pick up from a save point and finish a quest line, clear a dungeon, or hunt down some other players and make pretty explosions. I’ve been exploring mobile gaming options through my ironyPad instead, but it’s not the same.

On the up-side, I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, mostly new to me (Dune was the most recent re-read), and quite enjoying them. (I’m always happy to recommend novels, by the way; feel free to poke me on Twitter about it.)

But I do miss my PC.

The Writers’ Think Tank

I’ve been writing stories since I was able to pick up a pencil and form letters on paper correctly, a skill I acquired at the age of three. Spelling came later, but I was already reading on my own, and I distinctly remember when I was five folding and stapling together several pieces of paper and writing a story. It was ridiculously cartoonish, violent in the manner of 1980s Saturday morning serials, with a hefty dose of Mr. Rogers’ optimism, fully illustrated with stick figures, and took me two weeks to fill all sixteen pages.

It was terrible, of course, but everyone starts somewhere. It’s been a hard slog through the intervening 26 years, with high points including a heavily clichéd attempt at a sci-fi novel in 8th grade, equally clichéd attempt at a fantasy novel in 10th grade Creative Writing, an inspired further adventure of Beowulf fighting a demonic goat for a 12th grade English course on anti-heroes, aborted attempts at urban fantasy and eventually a couple pieces of EVE Online fanfic which got published in the EVE-related magazine E-ON (they’re reprinted in the Fiction section here).

Those early starts and stops are embarrassing to look back on, but they were formative. I know this because my memory hasn’t lost them (my memory is tenacious about holding onto personally relevant information but only releasing trivia when it’s time to sit exams). That clichéd urban fantasy novel has been fixed, is no longer clichéd, and is waiting patiently in outline form to be written. Bits of the old urban fantasy build and parts of that crappy high fantasy attempt have been reincarnated in my current project. My work is a patchwork of personal history and absorbed lessons. As one of my incredibly enlightened teachers said, you have to learn what NOT to do first before you can break the rules and expect to get away with it.

I had starry-eyed optimism about my work when I was a teenager; there was never a hope for the utter dreck I wrote back then — I’m not being negative, it really was that bad, and I had no discipline towards writing. It’s the discipline that’s changed things for me: on the one hand, I’m impatient and want to get my ideas on paper NOW, but I’ve learnt that if I just start writing, the pacing will stagger, the plot will suffer, the characters will be two-dimensional, and you could probably attribute something on every single line to a page on TV Tropes (click at your own risk — that site is worse than Wikipedia for keeping people up til 4am).

So I challenge myself continuously while I’m writing. The first challenge, obviously, is to have the bloody outline. It’s dangerous to go wandering into the woods without a map and compass, after all, and every unwritten novel is entirely uncharted territory. I also have a few exercises that I do in relation to writing fiction; they’re intended to help me be a better writer, or at least a more conscious one.

The first exercise occurs frequently during the writing process: read it like it was written by someone else. It’s not easy to spot holes and inconsistencies when you’re looking through a microscope: you don’t see the surface in its entirety, so taking a step back and forcing myself to temporarily forget something was made by myself is a useful tactic. Editing usually happens as a result, sometimes involving reshuffling of events or the inclusion or removal of characters. In my opinion, this is an exercise every writer should be doing.

The second exercise is less vital, but one of personal importance. As a feminist, I like to keep characters balanced, and I abhore the “strong female character” (Sophia McDougall expresses the sentiment well here). I stumbled across this TED Talk video a bit ago, and it made me seriously re-think my approach when it came to character treatment. So now I will on occasion meditate on the story and swap the characters’ genders. All of them. The way I see it, if a character absolutely HAS to be male or female, there’s something wrong with the story. This has actually led me to some enlightening moments regarding societal double-standards for behaviour (I’ll save that for another time when I feel like prodding the hornet’s nest). It’s also caused dramatic changes in some characters’ personalities, and caused me to drop several plot devices entirely.

I read a writer’s blog post recently — I really wish I could remember whose it was, it was quite good — which expressed the importance of perspective. In a story which gets into only one character’s head, this option may not be available. But if you’re building an omni perspective, where any character’s thoughts and feelings are focused on at any time, perspective is something which can make or break an important event. The blog I read suggested that the best perspective was that of the character most affected by the event. Emotional involvement is much more immersive than an eyewitness point of view, and I will often consider which other characters could be used in the same scene. I have one event in particular which has changed perspectives three times; it may change again in the future.

Which leads me to a big one: abandoning precepts.

Every writer has a set of rules they follow, whether consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes it’s an actual style list that’s decided upon at the time the outline is made. Things like whether to use first-person or third (or even second, if you’re utterly mad), whether the story will be told in a linear fashion or if flashback scenes will be used. I cannot stress this enough: if a personal style rule is interfering with the story, the rule needs to be dropped. Rules, as they say, were made to be broken if they are no longer applicable or relevant. It may be an easy change; it might be painful and as world-shattering as a change in religious beliefs. I recently had to suck it up and adapt my aversion to dream sequences — I passionately despise dream sequences, but it was necessary to set that aside for the good of the story.

For the good of the story, every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Books are not action flicks — flashy combat and explosions are to be used only as necessary, since the job of filling seats was over and done with when the book was brought home. Logic is what keeps a setting and characters grounded in their reality. Every fictional setting has a set of rules for physics, biology, society and technology. If the world is metal-poor, the entire army will not be kitted out in plate-steel. If your wizard is casting a fireball in space, there needs to be something keeping the fire burning which is explained by more than “because magic”. Logic makes the world and characters three-dimensional; even the most nameless of background characters needs to have a reason for being there and a reason for their reaction. A friend recommended this book to me a while ago, and it is packed with tips for developing characters and situations (and where to limit things). Whilst the book is specifically geared towards game characters and development, the advice is applicable to any creative writing.

So my final exercise is to apply logic. Meditating on a given situation and thinking of different ways it could be resolved often leads to surprising — and far more satisfying — results. I wrote a story ages ago which was splashy and had a high body count. People liked the concept, but said the story was uninteresting. Well, that’s no good! I re-considered the entire thing; the final result had a very low body count and a more sympathetic main character, and was much better received by the people who read it.

Hmm, I’ve gone on a bit longer than I’d intended to. The process of writing is a massive learning experience for me. I’ve reached the stage where I feel I’m a strong enough writer to be competitive (not “good enough”. There’s never any such thing as “good enough”, only “almost, but“). That doesn’t mean that I won’t keep challenging myself; if anything, it means I’ll likely create more exercises for myself, to make sure I don’t slack off.

Hobby

I was going to make a blog post about roleplaying (not THAT kind of roleplaying, shush!) in games, but I got sidetracked making jewellery for people for Christmas gifts.

Jewellery-making is a minor hobby, and one which I suppose I could market somewhere if I had more stuff to show off and sell. But I usually only make things when inspiration hits, or I find a particularly unique piece in a craft-store bargain bin (bargain bins are underrated, you find the best stuff there).

I feel a bit badly that the materials I have available are on the cheap side — cheaply made, that is; the metals are plated alloys, the stones are mostly glass, and they’re not of the finer quality that I’d prefer to be working with, but those kinds of resources simply are not available for a hobbyist — and it’s the sort of activity I only engage in when I have space, good lighting, and don’t feel like logging into any games.

But the results are random, and fun (pardon for old pics):

crystal-teardrop wide collar multichains asymmetrical2

This one is one of the commissioned gifts I was working on today; silver-plated wire and blue glass beads:

silver knotwork

This one’s a particularly Cthulhian-themed steampunk style for myself. The interior of the locket case was empty; the artwork I used is NOT my own but acquired (hence why the necklace is not for sale ever), and sadly the original piece and the page it was on have since been removed from the internet.

sinister-locket-2 sinister locket

Transience

So I’m back in the US, again, and staying with my parents for the second (technically third) time since I first left home at 21. I’m not sure where I’m going with this one, but let’s take a little stream of consciousness trip and see where we end up.

It really does suck to have to move back in with your parents after spending several years living on your own. You’re accustomed to eating what you want, when you want, being able to come and go without having to explain yourself or worry about waking people up or about someone else needing the car by a certain time. Suddenly you’re getting into arguments because you don’t feel like waiting for everyone to get home to have dinner together, being grilled mercilessly about what you bought at the bookstore, and being told to be home by 11pm when leaving for a nightclub that opens at 10, and all you can do is think, “It’s like being back in high school!”

Except when I was in high school, I stayed home reading Star Wars comics and drawing dragons because there was nowhere to go and very few people my own age with whom I had anything in common. Sometimes it feels like my dad’s playing catch-up 15 years after the fact.

The best part is when I’m in the middle of working on something and get interrupted by others with conversation which could wait until I’m not an hour into a highly-focused session and have just hit that sweet spot of concentration where everything just gets done… until someone breaks it by nagging for attention. At the office, most people understand that headphones on means “busy”, but it’s a different story when sharing space with your parents.

What complicates matters is religion. I’m not religious in the slightest, despite having been raised in a (very liberal) ABC church. I blame Sunday morning bible study for ruining religion for me. A lot of what we were told in those Sunday morning classes made me feel that religion was actually incredibly unfair and that maybe it was just a load of exclusionist bunk designed to maintain power over a society.

So I feel more than a little awkward when asked to attend church again. It’s not my belief, and at this time of the year — for someone who’s actually studied social history and early human civilisations the way I did in university — it’s actually distinctly uncomfortable. There’s a lot which gets said by very well-meaning and earnest people which betrays a notable lack of actual comprehension of history. As a historian and a feminist, I bite my tongue, go through the motions with little enthusiasm, and bide until the service ends and I can catch up with people who were already old when I was a child over coffee. Fortunately, it’s a very progressive church, but it’s still awkward.

Most of what I own and actively use is in a pile of boxes shrink-wrapped onto a wooden pallet on a container ship crossing the Atlantic. This is all that was left over when I sold off the unnecessaries when I moved from Atlanta to Iceland in February early this year; it’s mostly books, clothes, and Lego sets, along with my hand-sewn fancy Viking dress for reenactment. Dead tree, by the way, weighs a LOT. As soon as I got a tablet, I started buying eBooks, because it reduces the load so much. I do miss browsing bookstores, though, and you can’t display eBooks on a shelf the way you can physical books.

My reenactment swords I had to leave with my parents in February, due to restrictions on their ownership in Iceland. I asked the Icelandic police if I could apply for a license to import my swords, and after a number of questions about their quality, manufacture and use, I was told in not so many words, “No, because they’re not purely decorative.” Obviously. I wouldn’t be importing blunted reenactment swords if all I was going to do was hang them on the wall. So I’ve at least been reunited with my beloved hand-and-a-half (she needs such a cleaning; I’m going to sit down next week with a bottle of oil and some brass polish and give both her and my Viking single-hander some long-needed attention).

Moving, by the way, is insanely expensive. This is the fourth time in my life that I’ve shunted myself and my possessions across the Atlantic, and even when I was driving only what would fit in my ’97 Nissan Altima from Connecticut to Georgia to start working for CCP in 2011, it wasn’t cheap. (Also, driving long-distance with a cat: Don’t. Just don’t.)

Actually, mum was upset on my behalf. In the past ten years, I’ve moved residences fifteen times. Seven of those were in the six years I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland. Then back here, with a few months in Providence, Rhode Island for pickup classes at RISD, two different places in Georgia, two different places in Reykjavik, and back yet again. Although I have a roof over my head, I still feel homeless, and it’s been this way my entire adult life. It’d be nice to actually be able to stay in one location for more than two years, but I’m now at the point where sleeping on air mattresses and owning folding furniture sounds a better idea than shelling out on something I know I’ll have to sell in a few months’ time.

I totally don’t mean to sound maudlin. It is a bit depressing, but it’s also liberating, in a way. I have the unique capability of simply picking up and moving to wherever I have to go with a minimum of advance notice. I can pack and arrange flights and shipping within the space of a fortnight; how many people can really say they can do that?

It’s been a reasonable first week back, anyway. I’ve done a lot of writing, the cat’s happy to see me, I finished re-reading Dune, Thanksgiving wasn’t the chore I’d dreaded it would be, and by Monday afternoon I should have a new mobile number (there’s something to be said for purchasing an unlocked handset and living on top-up SIMs). There’s even been a few positive developments on the job front, which is a big plus; I was thinking I would have to wait til after Christmas for that.

 

Costume concept: Khanid (Eve Online)

As a roleplayer, I was rather disappointed in the new clothing options that were provided in EVE Online’s new character creation system; we had expected something like this or this with the end result looking like this, and instead got this, which my fellow roleplayers began referring to as “SpaceGAP” due to its disappointingly generic and contemporary appearance. While the new engine looks a far sight less cartoonish and caricaturised, the clothing options in the old engine reflected the alien cultures better, despite the old characters being only head-and-shoulders models. I took the old partial costumes for Vherokior characters and developed them into clothes that would better reflect the race’s desert nomad background than the current jeans and t-shirts options.

EveOnline design concept