Tuesday, March 5, 2013

First, Catch Your Rabbit

Supposedly there's an old cookbook somewhere that starts the recipe for rabbit stew with the instruction: "First, catch a rabbit." I'm pretty sure it's not true, but I'm a big fan of it as creative advice, particularly for people who intend to publish. You can't publish what you don't have, though it's astonishing how many people try. It's arguable that the serial format enables people to succeed, too, but that's a whole post on its own.

I have recently exhorted people to stop putting off what they want to do until they get the tools they want and just go do it. I have also recently said that if you need a necessary tool you will find a way to get it. This probably sounds contradictory to some of you out there who feel toolless, but it's not. That some tools are harder to get than others doesn't make them any less necessary to achieving the goal, and a tool that is necessary to finish a job is probably not necessary to begin it. The only tools you absolutely, positively cannot start without are the ones you own yourself. Brains. Will. Skill and the capacity to acquire skill.

The skilled, professional workman has a wide assortment of tools, well-maintained and suited to the work he does, always at hand; but it's a rare workman indeed who always has all of them. I know my medium - the English language - well enough that I seldom have to use the tools I have handy to fine-tune it, but when I need them I have multiple dictionaries, a thesaurus, The Elements of Style (I thought I had the Chicago Manual of Style, too, but it looks like I don't and I haven't needed it since college anyway), and so on, along with baby name books, guides to formats, atlases, books of quotations, references on dialect, etc., right on the desk. Plus the internet, but the books (like my brain) keep right on working during power outages and equipment failures, and their formats never become obsolete and unsupported, so I like them.

The Forteana and folklore shelves are also adjacent to the desk, as is a Peterson field guide since I'm more likely to need to refer to and describe a bird than any other non-pet animal. Resources specific to a project also cluster around the desk during active work on the project. Work on Len involved a binder full of photocopied material, including the 1866 Texas Almanac; timelines; reference books about the Civil War, Texas, horses, guns, clothing, slavery, folk remedies, the chemical qualities of plants, and a dozen other things, and that wasn't half as reference-intensive as 11,000 Years Lost.

A change in medium requires adding to the toolkit. This can be a shock to someone who's used to being skilled, which is why my grades in German, French, and Spanish were always lower for written than for spoken work, back in the day. Conversation in one language is much like conversation in another - full of hesitations, gestures, and plunging ahead to make oneself understood in defiance of logic and grammar. When I wrote, however, I couldn't wrap my head around the necessity to dial back on what I tried to communicate and consistently tried to write in an unfamiliar language as complexly and fluidly as I wrote in English, when my grasp of grammar and syntax in the new language were not up to the task.

There is no shame in having to dial back like this. It can even be exciting to realize how much you have to learn. E.B. Lewis, whose keynote at the recent Austin SCBWI conference I quoted recently, talked at some length about how, when he started looking at picture books after establishing himself in the fine arts, he realized he had to learn a whole new visual language, and it was clear to me that the thrill of mastering this language was part of his motivation for expanding into illustration. His fine arts education background gave him a leg up on articulating and regulating what he needed to do; but it was no substitute for learning that language.

Whether learning a brand new skill or expanding into a new medium, it's a good idea to lay out your toolkit and identify the tools that are missing; but you can start work with what you've got. My normal practice when I know I need a lot of research to tell a story is to read everything I can lay hands on related to the topic, knowing that the plot will emerge naturally if I feed my backbrain and give it time to work.

When I started work on Widespot, though, the research I had to do was not related to the story at all. I needed mechanical game knowledge, cheat codes, and mods - hacks, really, but the term "hack" has a whiff of the illegitimate, and what I needed was not a way to avoid mastering the game but a way to manipulate it in order to set up the storylines I wanted to place before my audience without making neighborhood-corrupting mistakes. This required a certain amount of research, experimentation, and downloading, then learning to use what I downloaded, before I could even open the game with Widespot in mind. This took time, and did not feel like creating at all.

So creation of Widespot began where story creation always begins - between my ears, and in the current notebook. A lot of people use computer journaling or their phone these days, but I'm a big fan of hard copy, as I said above. The first notes for Widespot don't look very different from my first notes for a novel, either. A lot of lists, for character roles and story elements. Lots of question marks. A mapping of the boundaries.

Being wiser than I was when taking German, French, and Spanish, I confronted my limitations early on. Although I'd been playing the game for over a year, and felt I'd done pretty well blundering along like a bull in a china shop learning as I went, the necessity to please an audience rather than just myself required that I dial back on what I wanted to do. I needed to keep it simple. To make an engaging, drama-rich neighborhood with the minimum number of characters, buildings, cheats, and modifications I could manage. The simpler I made the job, the more likely I was to do it right.

Considering an audience beyond oneself changes the whole ballgame. In this case, to maximize the audience, I wanted to make a Base Game only neighborhood,as the expansion packs are not backward compatible. A neighborhood built with the Apartment Life engine would not work for a user whose game installation included only the base game and University expansions, whether I put apartments into the neighborhood or not. Similarly, if I dressed my characters in clothing created by a fan, it would be replaced with a random outfit for a player who did not have that piece of clothing in her own Downloads folder; moreover, I would be morally and legally obliged to ask that creator's permission to use that item, just as I am if quoting someone else's poem in a story. (It is a common misconception that it's okay to use other people's stuff without credit in a public context if there's no money involved. Intellectual property rights among the fan base is another topic too big to digress onto right now, so just trust me on this for now.)

This meant that I not only had to get technical help to take my full installation and keep it from creating an all EP neighborhood, but that I wouldn't have all the story elements I was accustomed to dealing with when playing the game. Base game characters had all the personality statistics and skills I was used to, but the choice of Aspirations (the trait determining what the sim wants out of life) was more limited, as one was added in the third expansion. Base game sims have memories and interests, but no hobbies or inventory of items they can carry around; they have relationship scores but no mechanic for determining romantic attraction; they can visit community lots and invite people over but they cannot go on dates; they can get a limited number of careers, paint pictures to sell, and play the piano for tips, but they cannot work in retail stores, open their own businesses, throw pots, or play any instrument except the piano. Base Game neighborhoods have no weather and their plants don't grow. You can design individual sims with varied faces and dress them in different clothes, but the number of hairstyles, base facial templates, and outfits available is (as I quickly found) stultifyingly narrow, especially since hairstyle and clothing choices are important parts of characterization in a visual medium.

So, like a painter accustomed to working in oils and mixing his own paints suddenly being restricted to a four-color palette controlled by hex code, I had to retrench and scale back my expectations, at least to start. But the thing about limitations is, that they're a challenge. And challenges are fun to overcome.

All right, so I only had five aspirations instead of the usual six. What could I do with those five? What if I make five households, each dominated by the values of one aspiration (though I needn't make every member conform)? The Family household would have lots of kids, of course; the Popularity household should be well-connected; the Fortune household should be filthy rich and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife and I don't have all the romantic mechanics that were added in the Nightlife expansion but base game jealousy works just like it does in the full game, with sims being jealous on behalf of their relatives - what if every household in the neighborhood has a member looking to marry into the Fortune household?

And off I go. If you've read any of the Garage Sales, you know how it works from there - for me. I always, always, start with text on a page, analysis and organization segueing into inspiration and some finished work or other - game, blog post, novel, vocal presentation, doesn't matter. My rabbit can only be caught this way.

But what about your rabbit? How do you make the transition from that bright shining idea in your head to a work existing in the objective, material universe where the audience can get at it? Do you need to sketch? To walk through the action? To set up 3-D models? To pick out a few notes on an instrument?

Once you know how to open that connection between the interior of your brain to the exterior world, you will find you always have the tools on hand. I can write notes on the backs of receipts in blunt pencil, if I have to. You may prefer a piano but if nothing else you can hum; you may prefer to model shapes out of clay, but in a pinch bubblegum and duct tape will do you to start. The nature of that starting point is such that the only way for you to lose it is to lose control of the body part through which it manifests, which is in the category of pathology and beyond my current scope.

Get yourself through that starting point, and you'll find that the internal pressure to get the other tools you need to accomplish the purpose drives you right along.


  1. Hi Peni, I enjoyed your blog and the mention you made of the Texas Almanac. We now have nearly all editions of the Texas Almanac online. They are easy to search, browse, and enlarge to read (very useful since many used very small type). Wanted to pass this along, one writer to another: http://www.texasalmanac.com/archive
    --Elizabeth Alvarez, Texas Almanac editor

  2. Ooh, shiny! There really isn't anything like an Almanac for a historical writer - you can even get the local weather, roughly. Thank you!