No Word for the Future

steampunk typewriter
Photo by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash
When I started college in 1985 (at 29 years old), we still used typewriters. It having started as a teaching school, we got a computer writing lab early on, in 1986, and I used the machines pretty much like a typewriter, drafting first by hand, until a pressing deadline forced me to discover the liberation of composing onscreen. So long typewriter!

We used WordPerfect on PCs.

Later that year, when I landed a job at GDW, we used MS Word on Macs. At home I had a PC, also using Word. I just found it more satisfying than WordPerfect.

When I moved to TSR, they gave me a choice: DOS PC with WordPerfect, or Mac with MS Word. I lied and said I didn’t know DOS (despite digging into PC innards at home). Just so I could keep using Word.

For the past 20 plus years I’ve continued using Word daily, absorbing its shortcuts, doing obscure search-and-replace functions, manipulating its layout options, and publishing to PDF for both etext and print.

Lately, though, I’ve become unfaithful to this long relationship. Drafting in Google Docs is sooo much more convenient. (Not tied to any one machine or OS, I can even access drafts by phone!) Scribus (open source) does a better job of layout, and can export to PDF/X1-a (a necessity for DriveThru/Lightning Source). And though a Microsoft 365 subscription isn’t terribly expensive, I could buy a big-ticket boardgame with that money instead.

Admittedly, it’s a bittersweet parting. So many memories wrapped up in those three and a half decades of MS Word. It’s time to go our separate ways. But we’ll always have Paris.

Work for Hire: A Confession and Re-Examination

Some work-for-hire contribution examples

Many of you have heard me say that, upon retirement, I promised myself to never again write work for hire. That I was done selling all rights to my creative labor. Consequently, for the past few years, as tempting as some offers have been, I’ve turned them all down.

TLDR: I’ve changed my mind somewhat. Although I currently have zero time free from existing bucket-list commitments, I’ve accepted some future work-for-hire again for sheer love of the properties. And truth be told, to stay relevant.

Now for the longer confession.

Several of you have heard me kvetch in private of a painful feeling of having sold my children. That every fiber of my being went into Dark Conspiracy, Minion Hunter, Bughunters, Dragon Dice, and Zero, and it hurt to have no further connection with them. Later, in educational publishing, much the same often happened, with an artificial division between “authors” and “writers,” and my love poured into work that someone else now owned, including an item with “author” credit to someone who wrote not a single word.

Part of the problem is that, though ideas are not copyrightable, only words, I’m uncomfortable reusing terms and concepts from those projects–things like “protodimension” or “synner.”

Another part of the problem is that, frankly, tabletop game design has historically paid poorly for most work-for-hire. And publishers have often treated staffers as disposable commodities.

A final part of the problem is that in general, fans follow properties more than they do designers or even publishers. Case in point: D&D/AD&D’s journey from TSR’s Gygax/Arneson (e1) to Cook (e2), to WotC’s Cook/Tweet/Williams (e3 & 3.5) to “Team” (e4 & e5).

A caveat: Some high-profile designers do develop a following. (I’m grateful that, though middling-profile myself, I have some wonderfully supportive backers. And I hope it’s always evident just how honored by and appreciative of you I am.)

An aside: Ghostwriting is a different kettle of fish, one that pays so extravagently, and that builds such an industry reputation, the money alone is worth it. Except I’ve never been much motivated by money beyond my family’s needs. Sorry family. 🙂

A second aside: I mean no offense to the amazing talents of those who have made a career of work-for-hire, to the love they have poured into that work, and the path of success so many have followed to ever more high-profile projects. I often envy you the well-deserved esteem.

A second caveat: I’m not casting shade on work-for-hire itself. It’s how I got involved in publishing in the first place. And I realize that I did much pleasurable work-for-hire over the years for properties other people created.

Which brings me to my original TLDR. My pain at “giving up my babies” blinded me for awhile to the joy of having contributed to other properties—often having courted those opportunities intentionally just to feel the connection with things like Star Wars, Serenity, D&D, TFT, MechWarrior, City Books, Aquelarre, and others, or to be in the company of other creatives I admire. I hope to do so again in the future, as breaks between items in my own bucket list. Assuming this little essay hasn’t stepped on toes or painted me as a prima donna.

This is just part of my opening up as I age, hopefully like a wine allowed to breathe, and not having turned to vinegar. 🙂

Love,

Les

A Tale of Chromebook Disassembly

Defective battery, too
I’ve reached a point in life where I prefer to spend my hours writing, publishing, or even doing home repair, rather than learning yet another software program or fixing laptops.

That wasn’t always the case. In 1997, I was desperate for a job of any sort in publishing. My kids couldn’t handle a move to Seattle, where TSR staff had gone, leaving no steady work for a game designer.

A friend who was leaving a tech writing job in Chicago (to accompany his significant other, a TSR staffer going to WotC) recommended I apply for his position, saying I’d be a shoe in, and that he thought I could ask for a $20k salary. So I sent my resume and scheduled an interview.

The day of the interview was a series of disasters. Though I left home with a half hour to spare, my car broke down on the highway about 10 miles short of Chicago, I had to walk to a payphone, called just about the time the interview would start, to tell them I was waiting for a tow truck. My friend left work to come get me.

So I arrived hot, sweaty, and definitely short on confidence. The job was as a technical writer for a half-dozen programmers, to turn their documentation into readable instruction manuals. I had the tech writing training, and I had some personal experience dealing with the innards of personal computers, so I knew I could handle the work.

“Do you know any coding? HTML? Javascript?” No. Neither did the guy I was replacing. But the interviewer looked disappointed.

“What salary are you looking for?” I answered what my friend had said, $20k, and the interviewer looked stunned at the audacity, though he covered it pretty well. The interview was over. Needless to say, they never called me back. I vowed I’d never go to another interview without some Web coding knowledge.

To pay for milk and bread, I took a minimum wage job soldering horn parts, while still applying to publishers. One Saturday, two days before my health insurance kicked in, I agreed to some overtime at the horn factory, slipped on ice walking to work, and broke my ankle. Yet more depressing medical debt.

Still, I had scheduled an interview for later that week, with a small, family-owned educational publishing house. I showed up in sweat pants to accommodate my cast, expecting another disastrous experience. But they hired me then and there on a provisional status, I suspect out of pity. It was a six-week gig for a project that kept getting delayed another week, so they kept giving me other work to fill in, until I finally just quit asking each Friday whether to show up on Monday. The salary was $25k. A good six years went by on that six-week project before they finally remembered to have me sign an official full-time contract.

But I digress. One of the duties they asked me to take on, about six months in, was to handle the company’s presence on the new-fangled World Wide Web. “I don’t know coding,” I said. “You’re the most tech savvy guy on staff, we know you can handle it, and we’ll pay for whatever classes you need. We’ll even pay for half your homework hours.”

So I dug in. HTML. CSS. Javascript. SQL. ColdFusion. PHP. Linux and Microsoft servers. A bit of PERL just to shut up guys online who sneered at those things as “not real programming.”

At the time, outputting HTML to PDF was virtually unheard of, but I’d learned a trick from contacts at a startup in LA. So my employer put me in charge of beginning an epublishing department before epublishing was a thing. On a trip to the Houghton-Mifflin branch that published our books, I accidentally saved them from a $6 million investment in what they had thought was proprietary software for that HTML to PDF trick. (Didn’t think to ask for a cut.)

Part of my enthusiasm with the tech was the knowledge itself; part was that vow to never again apply to a job without it.

Now I’m retired. My interviewing days are over. The Web is no longer the Wild West of code. I’m not getting paid to learn more. And I’m pretty sick of disassembling and repairing or upgrading laptops. Which explains why I’ve been self-publishing with Word as a layout program since 1999. I’ve been dragging my feet about getting an actual layout program, despite having some experience with InDesign from that old job. But to print through Lightning Source now requires PDF/X-1a, which Word can’t manage.

Sitting here, leg propped up post surgery, I can’t work at my desk. I’ve been using a Chromebook in my lap to mirror the PC, to do Scribus and LibreOffice tutorials, so as to dump MS Office altogether. But to do even that, I first had to fix the Chromebook’s malfunctioning touchpad. So here I am, feeling a shadow of that old tech fun, from opening up a machine today to mess with ribbon cables and hardware, and mastering some new software.

Learn or die.

Mainly though, now I can get back to work on the good half-dozen writing projects waiting in the queue.

Publish or perish.

An Oppressive White Fog

Image by Epic Images from Pixabay

I’m convinced it’s impossible for any white person, especially older white people, and most especially old white males like myself, to grasp the impact of racism on its targets. Some things have to be experienced to be understood.

Part of the larger problem is our knee-jerk thought, “But I’m not racist,” however true it may seem. Feeling victimized by the accusation brings our own discomfort to the fore, ahead of actual suffering by others. That instinct is in itself passively racist. We may feel like kind people, but our ignorance and inaction keep the machine running, to our benefit.

Fair warning, fellow whites, acknowledging this opens the door to much more discomfort. No matter what action we may take, our motives are suspect. As Jeremiah 17:9 puts it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” How much are we motivated by guilt? Salving that guilt is selfishness. What solutions to the problem can we devise? Again a self-centered viewpoint.

So if whites can’t actually grasp the suffering, and we can’t come up with solutions, what can we do?

Shut up. Accept the blame. Accept the anger and frustration caused by our years of ignorance and inaction. Take our wounded pride out of the equation. Listen. Be vulnerable and accepting. Ask only “How can I help?” And then do it.

Don’t expect credit for it. Don’t accept praise for being a decent human being. Don’t get irritated if we’re still criticized about even our best efforts. It isn’t about our feelings. It’s life and death for others.

That’s all I know so far. I’m still learning. But I do have a hope: Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement may break the logjam of not just racism but of every sort of bigotry. Opening our eyes to one sort of oppression brings others into view.