Thursday, February 28, 2013

So You Want to Share

We come at the desire to share our creations from one of two directions - the inside, or the outside.

The inside track starts with the creation. You've been working/playing on something you enjoy, and you've gotten good enough at it that you want to share it with other people. Maybe you know you're good; maybe you feel you need to hear what other people say about it; maybe you just feel that whatever you've made is as complete as you can make it, but it will never be finished till it has an audience. Maybe you've realized that more traditional means of making a living don't suit you and you want to get paid for doing what you love.

In capitalist terms, you have what you feel is a marketable skill, and you want to find the market for it.

The outside track starts with the sharing; and we see this a lot on the internet. You've been out there playing on the internet, you love social media, you understand electronic publishing forms, you're excited by the concept of "infinite canvas," maybe you hang out with talented people who share their creations and you want to have something to bring to the table. Maybe you see something that somebody ought to be doing, and decide that you're the one to do it.

Or, you see a market, and you want to provide for it.

Coming from either direction, we're likely to flounder, especially at first. I know my gut feeling is that I should just be able to put a good story out there, and it'll get read, because it's good. The process of submission has always felt onerous to me. I sold my first book by sending a complete manuscript to Margaret K. McElderry, whose name and address was on the dust jackets of many books I loved and considered comparable to my own; but even in those days (the late 80s, which don't seem so far away to me) that sort of thing was rare. Query letters, synopses, writing guidelines, agents - arrgh! If self-publishing had been as easy back then as it is now, I would have been tempted to use it - and I would have languished unseen, because I lack the business savvy necessary to self-publish successfully. The whole process of learning the business end of things, when you come at it from the creative end, seems too complicated. Too hard. We don't want to do it; we have to fight our reluctance to take the time to get it right.

But people who have that business savvy often have nothing to market. They have ideas - bright shiny wonderful ideas! - and they put off learning how to develop those ideas while they set up their platforms, thinking it'll be easy to bring the idea to fruition. And then they find out that it's work, but it's not in fact work the know how to do to a marketable standard. They may or may not know what the marketable standard is, or how to ensure that they reach it. They may think their brilliant salesmanship will cover up the holes. The whole process of learning the craft end of things, when you come at it from the marketing end, seems too complicated. Too hard. We don't want to do it; we have to fight our reluctance to take the time to get it right.

So there we are. What to do?

Well, start with what you know. Because you do know something. But you have to look at what you know differently than you've been accustomed to. Analytically. Odds are good you've been riding a zen wave till now, doing things which are intuitive for you. Thinking analytically may even seem wrong to you, or dangerous - for if you think too hard about it, you can't do it anymore, right?

No, not really. Not if you learn when to shut off the analysis and get zen again, and that's a matter of practice.

I've been writing for publication (as opposed to actively marketing or getting published, which are different matters) since I was fourteen. I don't remember in any detail any more how I went about it, and in any case the details are different now in this wildly different world. But it's only a matter of months since I first started building a Sims2 neighborhood to share, and the process wasn't, in its essence, all that different.

I had been playing the game for over a year, and hanging out on the fringes of the game's subculture for rather less than that, sharing "war stories" and advice and so on like any other player. If you're not familiar with the Sims line of games, they bill themselves as "life simulators," though they could also be called "virtual dollhouses." It is a quintessentially "sandbox" game as, instead of chasing monsters across pre-existing environments and following preset storylines, you create your pixel characters - as many as you like - and their environment - by default a kind of 20.5th century American suburbia - and guide them through school, work, marriage, child-rearing, etc. Your sims can live in hovels or mansions, marry well or badly or not at all, run businesses, support or neglect their families, succeed or fail, and die sad and alone or happy and surrounded by all they love best, just as you direct.

From the beginning, the franchise's fanbase has created all kinds of custom content for it, to make it even more freestyle, so that anybody who wants to play a Victorian or Ancient Egyptian or all-male neighborhood, or have sims with skins all colors of the rainbow, or play out a zombie apocalypse, can do so. That's all beyond me because I have no skills in the visual arts and don't care enough about them to acquire them. We don't even own a copy of Photoshop and have never felt the need for it.

But at some point, I became aware of a demand in the subculture for new occupied neighborhoods with established characters and storylines, like those that come loaded with the game. And there are indeed such neighborhoods out there for upload - just download the folder containing all the information for the neighborhood, drop it into the correct location in your game's files, and off you go. I didn't see the appeal myself but hey, I'm the one constantly generating more new ideas than I could use in a lifetime. Not everyone has a brain stuck in storymaking mode, and many of the same people who make the beautiful custom content I download to use because I can't make it would like someone else's story ideas to get them rolling for actual gameplay.

Once I'd been playing and reading other people's war stories for awhile, also, I began to see the attraction of playing with established characters, and comparing the fates of the Curious Brothers in one's own game to those worked out in others. I even started playing one of the Base Game neighborhoods, Strangetown, occasionally. But I saw nothing particular to interest me in the small number of third-party neighborhoods available for download; especially when I learned that most of them are more or less "corrupt;" i.e., that mistakes were made in creating and making them available which left bad code kicking around the game, which eventually would render the neighborhood unplayable.

And then I followed a link to a thread in which the process of making a shareable neighborhood without corruption was outlined, and I realized that I have a level of competence in the game that would allow me to follow the directions.

And I realized that this was something I could do to contribute to and participate in this subculture at a deeper level. I don't know programming and I can't manipulate images, but by golly, I know how to wrangle stories and characters!

Furthermore, I knew my audience. The newsgroup where I hang out also hosts downloads, thousands of them, in a well-organized way, and has fora dedicated to helping creators work out creative problems. If I could make a clean, shareable, interesting neighborhood, and get it hosted at Mod The Sims, the people who know me there (I'm afraid I talk rather a lot) would be able to find and download it without any problem, if they thought, based on my posts, that they would like a neighborhood I'd made. Every one of my posts would be an ad for my neighborhood, even if I never mentioned it! For once in my life, I had a platform! Once I considered it in that way, of course I had to take a shot.

So I had the basic skill, I had the potential audience, and - most importantly - I knew where to go to get the skills I knew I didn't have in order to carry out the design.

It's the same for someone who wants to write for publication, or illustrate books, or design clothes. Look first at the resources and skills you have; and identify the gaps. You know, because this is not the first time you've learned how do something, that those gaps are closeable. Probably not all at once; but you can pick one to start working on. If you can't do drafting and you need to, where can you go to learn that?

"Oh, but I can't afford to take a drafting course, so I'll never be able to do this." Really? You'll never, ever, under any circumstances be able to afford a drafting course, and nobody can possibly learn drafting except by spending money to learn?

Then I submit that you don't really want to do the thing that requires you to draft, and should stop mooning after it and go do something you do, in fact, want to do. Because if you want it badly enough, you'll find a way!

Maybe you can save up for the drafting course and work on another, more accessible gap in the meantime.

And of course you can start noodling around with the parts of the project that you do, in fact, know how to do. So that's what I'll talk about next time.

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