Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Abandoned: What Lies Inside Schrödinger's Blue Box


Splash screen for the game Abandoned

Every week I told myself: this week is the week I get back to blogging. Every week I stared at the computer and had no idea what to say. I wasn't sure what to do with my corner of the Internet anymore, now that people are actually letting me say what I want to say in a lot more places (fools), but I finally got there. So expect weekly updates once again where I rant about storytelling in the places I'm not paid or qualified to talk about it.

So what got my jimmies rustled enough to break a six-month silence and overcome severe bloggers' block? Only this whole Blue Box Game Studios thing.

There's no time. I'll explain in the car.

A brick wall and trees, from the "Abandoned" trailer

So there's a game coming out in Q4 called Abandoned, from a little company called Blue Box Game Studios. Blue Box has very little to its name, and what it does have is by and large failure. A Kickstarter for a game called Rewind was refunded after raising only $207 of its $12k goal. After saying it would be backed by a private investor, Blue Box instead released The Haunting: Blood Water Curse... a game that was apparently bad, and which was going to get an upgrade this year. And instead, we are getting Abandoned.

Blue Box apparently has many people working there, but only one visible: Hasan Kahraman, whose Internet footprint exists, but is minimal. And yet this indie company with zero wins "caught the eye" of Sony, and big hitters like Nuare Studio and Dekogon Studios are on board for the project. The blog post announcing the game promises lots but reveals little, and the front-facing communication is about how Kahraman just can't tell us things right now.

Also — and most importantly — all their projects look kinda like Silent Hill. And then when games journalist Geoff Keighley announced that he would be part of the Abandoned reveal, it all kicked off.

"Joakim Mogren"

For those who don't recall — and boy, you're in for a fun rabbit hole if this is new to you — a new studio made its appearance at the Spike VGAs in 2012. Led by Joakim Mogren, Moby Dick Studio was set to release a game called The Phantom Pain. Fans picked up that something was odd. The Phantom Pain looked awfully Metal Gear-ish, and the studio had only been founded two weeks prior to their announcement.

Long story short, Moby Dick Studio was an invention of Hideo Kojima to build hype for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Kojima's just a mad lad like that.

So what happens when we have every reason to believe a new Silent Hill game is on the horizon, yet another indie studio from Europe pops up out of nowhere with suspiciously good contacts, and the head of it is a secretive dude with the initials HK, and whose surname translates to "Hideo" in Japanese? Come on, you are way ahead of me already.

Hideo Kojima left, Hasan Kahraman right

The thinking is this: Hasan Kahraman is a character created by Hideo Kojima, and Abandoned is another Phantom Pain scenario. Lots of people believe it. Bloomberg video games reporter Jason Schreier was confident enough about the theory to go full red-string on main. Videos, articles, and entire Reddit communities have popped up to discuss whether this is true, and the evidence is compelling. Hidden messages, numbers hidden in Kahraman's PSN profile, just the fact that the whole thing feels like such a Kojima move.

And yet Kahraman insists he is a real person, and all his coworkers are real people. He just can't tell us who they are, or what's going on. And he's also bumped the gameplay reveal to August (Kojima's birth month!), while posting Twitter vids insisting he and his unnamed coworkers are real. 

So what's going on? I think I may have a theory. A wild one, but a theory.

See, Kojima has pulled this kind of thing before. He's played this literal card. He's set up a fake European studio with a seemingly unskilled programmer, claimed to have nothing to do with them, then sent the exact same video games journalist to do the launch interview. There's no way in hell he could make it fly again as an ARG... unless he had already accounted for us being wise to him.

Think about the clues we get. They're too easy. The initials HK? The names meaning the same thing? A series of Silent Hill-esque games? The letters "P" and "T" being notably blocked out of a certain shot in the announcement trailer? The game moving to August? It's all so easy. It's like we were meant to follow this trail.

And where does the trail lead us? A blue box.

The "Blue Box" from Mulholland Dr.

Kojima has made no secret of his love of David Lynch. Where do we see a "blue box" in Lynch's work? Mulholland Dr. What is it? The link between reality and illusions — the link between fictional and fictionalized versions of people in an industry fraught with corruption.

Here we have a game designer who's gotten a straight-up fairy godmother deal, who doesn't want us to ask why his situation seems so suspicious, who can't explain to us why his story seems so blotchy, who keeps putting off his explanation. And we have red strings that lead back so perfectly to him and his company and his whole scene being a Kojima creation.

This is the theory: Hasan Kahraman is, in the fiction of this ARG, a character who doesn't know he's a Kojima creation. He believes he is an original creator releasing an original game, but he's being confronted on all sides by fans who see the clues. We're all a part of the fiction: we're playing his antagonists. We're doing exactly as we've trained ourselves to do, following leads that can't be coincidence because they're just too perfect. All while a fictional character, trying to create his dream project and just thinking he got super lucky, slowly comes to terms with the fact that he is living in an illusion on the other side of his own blue box.

... at least, that's what I'd say if Blue Box had not actually made profit off The Haunting.

See, it's one thing to play a long game. And I think Kojima would be willing to play very long games. But six or seven years long, in an industry where deals are made and broken so quickly that one was announced while I wrote this? Running a Kickstarter and banking on it to fail? Deliberately releasing a bad and buggy game and taking people's money for it?

If this is an ARG, it's a bad ARG. And I don't think Kojima would do something like release a buggy game under a fake name, take money, and then go "haha just kidding it was all for Silent Hill, you're not mad right?" He's eccentric as hell, but there's a line.

Figure in, too, just how much of what's been getting around isn't actually true. "Hideo" and "Kahraman" do translate to each other, according to Google Translate; but it's a tenuous link relying on alternate kanji readings, and is still flimsy at best. And his games looking Silent Hill-ish confirm only one thing: he likes and is inspired by Silent Hill.

A lot of the influence behind the spread of the rumor came from two places: a YouTube channel later proven to be unconnected to Blue Box, and Schreier's own confidence in the conspiracy. Which he recanted on the same day.

So Kara, are you saying that this guy Hasan Kahraman really is just a guy who's made years' worth of flubs, somehow got surprisingly major deals for undisclosed reasons, and all the clues and similarities are coincidences? Yep. That's what I'm saying.

The final nail in the coffin for me was his June 25 Twitter update. Many people have argued that this is a convincing actor, or even a highly-advanced CG render. But what I see when I look at this video is a dude who is legitimately stressed and scared. This is a guy in over his head.

I don't know much about Kahraman. But operating on the most basic assumption that he's real, I can assume — and I apologize, I'm sure he's a lovely dude — that marketing is not his strong suit. An absence of information could be a sign of a company being fake, but it can also be a sign of just not knowing what you're doing. Awkwardly refusing to divulge more of your game could be a red flag that you are secretly a fictional character created by Hideo Kojima, or it could mean you're very awkward at self-promotion.

"But big studios!" For assets? It's quite possible. Now, it does to me seem wild that Rewind would have caught Sony's eye. But I have seen weirder deals be struck in many industries.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the real story:

Hasan Kahraman is real. Blue Box Game Studios is real. He might be the totality of Blue Box Game Studios, and wanted to give the impression that he wasn't, and that's why he names no co-workers. That, I can't say. After multiple failures, he's gotten the deal of a lifetime: someone's going to fund a game for him. Perhaps he's created something that will use a new peripheral or a new technology; perhaps not. But he is making something.

He's also clearly a Silent Hill fan. It's influenced his work for years. So when mild buzz started that he was actually a Kojima invention, maybe he rode it, in hopes that when all eyes were on him, he could flip it and reverse it. (Perhaps that's the real reason for the swiftly deleted "We're making something that starts with S and ends with L" tweet, which he's been apologizing for ever since.) Or maybe not, maybe he didn't encourage it at all.

Either way, he is now staring down the barrel of the Abandoned gameplay release: the moment everyone cracks it open and realizes that, no, it's not the game of their dreams, it's exactly what was advertised. This is an indie dev who bit off more than he could chew, one way or another, and he's watched it spiral out of control, and realized he can never deliver on the hype he's generated, because that hype isn't for him or his game.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe Kahraman's work has been faked and backdated. Maybe Kojima is working with a real person with a real history, in order to add verisimilitude to his story. But the more you poke, the less of a slam dunk the story is.

Someone on Twitter said something along the lines of — when the Abandoned gameplay trailer drops, everyone's going to get either a detective badge or a clown nose. I have no idea which one I'm getting. But I will say, if you're on this roller coaster, enjoy it while you can. I don't think any gameplay trailer is going to cash this check.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

NEW SHORT STORY: "Feather Fall" in Corvid-19


A robot, a skeleton, and a crow dance on the cover of Corvid-19

For many years now, I've been attending or working at RavenCon, a Virginia-based literary and sci-fi convention. I was there for the first one, when it was held in an airport hotel. I've performed there, done panels, and for a few years ran their Artist/Author Alley. Unsurprisingly, they did not hold an event this year — and have made the call early not to do so next year.

Anyone who's run or worked a con knows that taking a year off can be detrimental to an event on multiple levels. Be it the staff's own money, the money of people who have already bought memberships, keeping the name and event active and relevant enough to hold interest... basically, cancelling sucks. But there's also really not been much of a choice this year.

It's been cool to see events working around this in different ways, from virtual events to smaller interactive panels scattered throughout the year. In the case of RavenCon, they're keeping themselves funded and active with a crowdfunding campaign and new short story anthology. And they've already reached their crowdfunding goal, but that shouldn't stop you from giving this book a look.

Corvid-19 sums itself up pretty well in its title. Besides the obvious pun, it's also literally what it say: a collection of 19 stories that, in some way, each involve a crow. As a previous guest of the event, and a planned guest for the 2020 convention before it was cancelled, I was one of the authors featured in the book.

The stories are all over the map in terms of genre and tone. We basically just had the one proviso of including a corvid. Mine, "Feather Fall," was written based on a lot of what I was feeling (and to be fair, still am feeling) during lockdown. In the story, a girl with no name and no memory finds herself at a café for wayward souls, in the middle of a city where time never seems to budge past twilight.

It's unclear why she's there and under what circumstances she'll be allowed to leave, but the girl discovers that there is a bridge to a different world, accessible via the feathers of the café's owner.

"Feather Fall" doesn't come from a specific idea in need of a home, but rather a series of images and moods I'd had floating around in my head while navigating days alone. With winter upon us, it feels even more appropriate to be talking about it. There's a lot of that same darkness going around, inside and outside. Poking at it usually feels like a bad idea. But sometimes to get past it, we need to step through it.

As much as I love dark imagery and horror and all those gruesome things, I like to write stories with at least some shred of optimism. I want to know that, if someone's found this story on their worst day, I've given them something to ease it a little — the way my favorite stories have done for me. "Feather Fall" touches on some of the darker parts of my own life, but I feel like it's ultimately a happy story.

That's what I really want to be able to offer right now: happy stories. The idea that there is an other side to the darkness, and it's okay to lose sight of that sometimes. We don't have to always remember that the darkness will end. I sure don't. But it will, and that's why it's worthwhile to keep pushing ahead. And to help others on the days they can't.

I really hope you'll pitch in on the Corvid-19 Kickstarter and help them push ahead to even bigger goals. There are also music rewards, the chance to be on an RPG podcast, and opportunities to become a part of an upcoming novel by one of several authors (not myself - though if you really want that, leave a comment and maybe they'll add it to the stretch goals?). Thanks in advance for your support, and I hope you enjoy the book!

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Gentle NaNoWriMo Tips for 2020

It's that time of year again. Well, it's a lot of different times of year at once — but in particular, it is NaNoWriMo time. I've participated (and completed the requisite 50,000 word manuscript) twice, and know plenty of others who've participated to varying degrees. It's encouraging, it increases the amount of written word there is in the world, and (unlike some creative challenges out there) they're connected to charities rather than plagiarism and lawsuits. Not naming names, but we all know.

I'm not participating this year, but I'm seeing a lot of people in my various online communities who are. And a few who want to, but have opted out for one reason or another. It's a big commitment, and it can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.

For those considering it, here's what I've picked up in the past, and what I've learned from writing books throughout the year.

It's more about the discipline than the result.

I've had friends who opted out of NaNo because they couldn't finish it. Or who felt defeated because they "lost" — i.e., they didn't finish 50,000 words in the allotted time. I can understand why that would be discouraging. The whole point of the exercise is that anyone can get that many words on paper with a little effort per day.

But life is weird. Sometimes work gets in the way. Sometimes you oversleep. Sometimes your gallbladder needs to come out, like, now. Some days you aren't feeling it, and you're not a writer by trade where "not feeling it" could result in no paycheck.

The thing I think NaNo themselves get wrong about their own exercise is that the true value isn't in the completion. I mean, yeah, the "win state" is good. But even if you only make it a few days, you learn something. Someone who's never written x number of words every day before is going to have the same problem that someone who's never exercised before would have with doing a half hour of aerobics every day. It's untrained muscles. Some people might hash it, but it's not a surprise that people don't finish.

To that end, if you do participate and are new, it's more valuable to treat it as self discovery. How many words do you feel good writing per day before you burn out? What time(s) of day work for you? What do you find gets in the way? Do you find you don't like writing things that are tends of thousands of words long? All of these things are valuable, and all can lead to progress on your next writing project, should you aim for it.

The Shovel is valid, but it doesn't have to stay.

Amongst NaNo's writer's block tips is a meme called the Traveling Shovel of Death. Basically the idea is: if you find yourself completely stuck, kill someone with a shovel. It can be a main character, minor character, rando, whatever. It can be on-screen or off-screen. Just have someone be killed with a shovel. It's a twist on tried-and-true writing advice with a little more heft and a much weirder visual.

It's weird but I'm here to tell you it works.

Why? Because you've shaken things up. You've introduced, in one move, a whole package of imponderables that now have to be dealt with. Who died? What happens without them? Who did it? Will someone else get blamed for it? Has the Shovel murder alerted authorities to actions in your story that should remain hidden?

When I used it (in an unpublished work), I killed off a background character who wasn't coming back anyway. In later edits, I've removed the Shovel, but kept the sudden death. I was able in retrospect to see what elements it introduced that served the story and which overcomplicated it. And it was nice to have that grab bag of effects to play with.

Will it serve every story? It might not. If you're writing a children's book, I'd advise against it (or find a gentler way to introduce chaos). But in general, it's done a surprising amount of good.

Forget "planning" vs. "pantsing." Your story will change.

"Planners" and "pantsers" (and a third in-between hybrid) are different categories of writers when it comes to how a story evolves. "Planners" are, as you'd expect, the ones who carefully plan and organize every action. They know the beginning, the end, and everything in the middle. "Pantsers" fly by the seat of their pants, letting the story organically and seeing where it takes them.

The fact of the matter is, you will be both at some point, and that's okay.

If you intend to pursue a career in writing, you will be required to turn in pitches describing the full intended course of your story. So there is some merit, even if you're not a planner by trade, to be able to be one. Just because it'll come up. On the other hand, even the most tightly-planned story will start to go its own direction as it evolves. And that's fine and good. It's better to let these organic things happen if they're going to improve the story, and provided you're not working in an environment where going off the rails without approval would cause significant issues.

If it's overly stressing you, try another challenge instead.

There's a difficulty curve to be expected in all things. If you've never written this much before (and also if you have, let's be real), you can expect some stress. But if you find you're unhappy with yourself while trying to find time, or disappointed with your progress, or anything else that makes it a slog rather than an experience — don't do it.

The point of NaNoWriMo is to show you what you can do, not make you feel like you can't do things. And if participating has the opposite effect on you consistently, it may be a sign that you should search out other methods or challenges for getting your writing game up. That doesn't mean you're a failure. It just means you currently need something different to inspire you.

April and July offer Camp NaNoWriMo, which is more flexible in terms of what you track. Rather than word count, you can track pages written, time spent writing, or editing progress for a finished manuscript. In other words, you're not looking to finish a project (though you can totally do that) so much as set daily goals that may or may not add up to a whole.

There's also the 750 Words Challenge, which asks you to write three pages a day, privately, on whatever you want. Or there's A Round of Words in 80 Days, taking place four times a year and inviting you to set whatever writing goal you want.

Yes, NaNo is objectively the most popular and talked about, and will by default have a larger community. But it is admittedly not one size fits all, and it's totally okay to look elsewhere for a different challenge. As you can see, others have also felt the need.

Best of luck to everyone participating. Remember, even if you don't clock in at 50k by November 30, you've still done something, and that's what matters.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

SINoALICE Is Too Relatable for Writers

I can't play gacha games because I have no impulse control. I've played (and loved) Fate/Grand Order, Love Live!, and Love Nikki, but damned if all of them didn't make grabs at my wallet. And while I absolutely believe creators deserve money for their work — talk to me for five seconds and you will know how I am about this — I also know that a freelancer like me has no business being tempted to spend real human dollars on a 0.002% chance at getting a JPG.

I scrubbed every damn game from my phone because they're time sinks and money sinks. I have upwards of seven writing deadlines on my plate, not counting daily anime news. I get addicted easily. I don't need 'em.

Then SINoALICE went global and look I can explain.

So yes, this is a gacha game. It hails from the mind of Yoko Taro, the masked madman who brought us the Drakengard and NieR games and holds equal standing for Industry's Biggest Troll alongside Bkub Okawa. This is a dude who can look a production company in the eye and say "I am going to set myself on fire and yeet myself into hell and I'm taking you down with me," and they'll respond, "Thank you, sensei, the check is in the mail." I can't not love Yoko Taro.

It's Dark And Edgy Fairy Tale Stuff. And I know theoretically we should've gotten that out of our system with the Dark And Edgy Fairy Tale Boom of the 2010s, but I sure didn't. Neither did you. Especially not if it's got Alice in Wonderland, and especially not if she's got a sword as big as she is. Snow White's there. Cinderella's there. Hansel and Gretel is there, one of them is just a rotting head in a cage, and I'm not telling you which one.

Also, the whole point of the game is that these characters are in a massive battle royale to resurrect their respective authors. And honestly, this was the tipping point because I can't look away from that — especially when you start finding out why each one of them has this motivation.

Character vs. Author is, I'll be honest, a tricky field. I've seen it done beautifully. I've seen it done basically okay. More often than not lately, I see it done cringe-level bad. It's a valid and interesting thing to explore, because — as writers know — we don't always feel the most in control. And telling a compelling story means putting our darlings through the wringer.

The whole concept of characters as other people occupying space in our brains feels true when you're in the midst of a project. You have to learn to talk, think, and act like a person who doesn't exist so you can write them well. And so eventually, your thoughts get ahead of you and "they act on their own," because you have achieved your goal. Sometimes that means your carefully crafted story outline goes in the shredder. Okay, it means that a lot.

Exploring this phenomenon is challenging to do without coming over a bit up yourself, but the rare ones who do are pretty damn relatable.

Anyway, I was talking about SINoALICE.

Our storybook characters — Alice, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and so on — are fighting each other for the privilege of resurrecting their respective author(s). Each has a reason. Cinderella wants a new story penned where she's a powerful queen. The Little Mermaid wants Hans Christian Andersen to write her an even more painful story than the one she already has. Alice simply wants Lewis Carroll to be alive again, even if she never actually sees him.

And then there's Red Riding Hood, who wants her story to go on longer so she can just kill people forever... including the author, maybe? Dorothy (who will be coming to the global server eventually but is well active in Japan) apparently wants to resurrect L. Frank Baum so she can put his brain in a jar. As you do.

Considering the number of characters I've abandoned, put though the wringer, and occasionally outright killed, there's something unpleasantly relatable about a game full of characters turning into murderhobos just for a chance to shake their writers down.

The game does have its issues as regards UI, playability, and usage of its characters. It ends up being more about the weapons than the characters themselves, and you can't use your stable of kickass-looking protagonists to actually build a team — you're one of a group, with the others either being the CPU or other players currently online. The upside of that is I am less tempted to put real money down for gacha. All the characters are beautifully designed, so my main becomes whichever character I think is prettiest, rather than absolutely needing a certain one. And considering you can gather a fair variety of characters just by playing the main story, even those of us most curséd in the eyes of the RNG gods can get some variety.

I won't lie, though. There's something about the "personal attack" of SINoALICE that keeps me coming back, along with the promise of a story that goes completely off the rails reality-wise. And I can't help wondering to myself which of my characters would venture into the Library and fight everyone else off just for a chance at taking a swing at me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Freelance Ghosting Conundrum

When we think of "ghosting," we tend to think of relationships: everything is going just fine and then bam, they're gone, full disappearance with no notice. There's no explanation, no closure, no way of finding out why it happened or if there was anything you could have done. (It's also a completely different situation from escaping an abusive relationship, which is important to state up front for reasons that will become obvious.)

But, as with many things, an issue evident in relationships can exist — in equally painful ways — in different parts of your life. And if you're a freelancer, you'll know that the pain and confusion of ghosting isn't just the stuff of dating apps. It can take a very real bite out of your professional life... and, in some cases, your paycheck.

As an aside — this isn't a call-out post. I'm fortunate to have several good clients at the moment, all of whom are fantastic at communicating in all sorts of situations. But with the job market as rocky as it is right now and more people eyeing the freelance life, it feels like the time to address some of the rougher bits of the lifestyle so you can all be prepared.

Job by Job

As a freelancer, you'll probably spend a lot of your time as a contractor — that is, instead of being hourly or salaried, you'll be brought in job by job. In the lines of work I'm in, that has meant everything from editing one show's worth of subtitles to working on a feature-by-feature basis. Basically it means your job begins at the beginning of the project in question, and ends when you get the money for it.

Ideally, you build up a decent relationship with a company, and they continue to send more work your way. You're still paid by the project, but you've been on-boarded and there's a sort of unspoken understanding that you're "in the stable," as it were. That as long as you continue to deliver good work, they will continue to turn to you for more and more projects.

Sometimes that continues up to an amicable parting of ways. Sometimes it leads to elevation within the company. And then sometimes you just... stop hearing from them. One day it all goes silent. You check in, and your emails seem to go into the ether. Other people are clearly getting contacted regularly, so you know there's nothing wrong at the home office.

Eventually, it becomes clear: you've been dropped. And, worst of all, there was nothing but unspoken etiquette preventing this from happening. Legally, your client has done nothing wrong. And that's the most uncomfortable part of it.

The Exit Interview

If you take pride in your work, getting ghosted by a client can hurt. Even if the client would prefer to part ways with you, it can be helpful to know why. Are they no longer using contractors? Does the client feel you were a bad fit? Did something specific happen that, were you made aware of it, you'd be willing and able to correct? Was it some sort of inter-office politics you'll never be privy to?

At times like these, it's common to jump to conclusions, and which conclusion you jump to depends on you. In my case, I have a habit of assuming it's entirely my fault. Others may assume they've done nothing and, in every case, it is the client treating them unfairly. Others still will just sort of drift and not know what to do.

The thing is, any of these situations is equally possible. Maybe you did make a mistake. Maybe you and your client had clashing personalities that weren't conducive to working together. Maybe it wasn't anything to do with you — or maybe it was. And that's not to cause anxiety, so much as to say that every situation is different. If you are successfully working with several other happy clients and one gives you the cold shoulder, for instance, it's unlikely that you are just a bad or hard to work with person in general. If this happens to you regularly, on the other hand, that might be another story.

Only one thing holds true in these situations: whatever the reason, ghosting is borne of a fear of confrontation. And that's a thing a lot of us have to some degree. You can be right or wrong, speaking for yourself or someone else, speaking to someone you like or dislike, and have that fear.

So What Do?

Know that this can happen, and there's not a lot you can do about it. As long as everything in writing has been fulfilled, that's basically it. You can have had a strong working relationship, done good work, have had verbal promises made concerning future work — but none of that is legally binding. No matter how annoying it is. Just because something's not illegal doesn't make it fair or fun or nice, but it does curtail your thought process on what to do next.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. You will get ghosted by clients; it's a fact. Ideally it won't be a regular occurrence, but the likelihood of you having at least one client who avoids conflict and has to break off the working relationship is high. This is one of the many reasons you diversify: if your best and most eager client just disappears one day, you won't be up a creek.

Avoid assumptions. Let's be real. If you know, you know. If you realize you've been cut loose and in your gut you know exactly why, there it is. Otherwise, there's only so much good that assumptions can do you. They won't offer closure, for a start. They're more likely to either lead to anxiety and self-hatred, or leave you with a grudge. Neither of which is good.

If it helps, do a personal audit. Are you worried that you're difficult to work with, or aren't at your best? It's fair to sit down and have a think about that. Grab your journal and make some notes on how you deal with stress, how you've been about deadlines, how you speak up for yourself, how you treat others, etc. Don't berate yourself; be honest. At best, you'll find you're doing all right; at worst, you can begin to find what issues need addressing as you go into new jobs. (Also note that self-respect isn't an "issue" — the ability to look after ourselves and speak up for our own rights effectively is just as important as the rest.)

Remember why this happens. Ghosting is a lack of communication brought about by a fear of confrontation. In other words, someone with whom you had a business relationship chose not to communicate with you on a fairly important matter. No matter who was "in the right," or if there even is a "right," lack of communication isn't good for a business relationship, anyway. The ghosting itself may be a sign that you're better off elsewhere.

Learn from this. One thing I took away from being ghosted is that it sucks. Which seems obvious, but the more pertinent point is that I am now aware of the unhappiness that one simple choice can cause. If I'm ever in a situation where I'm tempted to slip out the back instead of addressing my issues, I can look back on how it feels to be slipped out on. Stepping up to communicate these difficult issues isn't fun, but it's also very necessary. And in future, we have a chance to avoid doing to someone else what was done to us.

None of this, however, has to do with being dropped without being paid. You are within your rights to take legal recourse for non-payment from a client. If you realize you have been ghosted without pay, start by sending a detailed invoice for all unpaid service. If they are still silent, it's time to start looking into your legal options.

As always, stay safe and smart out there. Freelancing is risk and reward.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

It's Time to Lay Perfect Attendance Awards to Rest

An empty classroom.

There are a lot of discussions of "our new normal" going on — be it our position until These Uncertain Times™ have passed, or what we'll do afterwards based on what we've learned. There's a near endless selection of hills to die on, if that's your ideal of a good time: political, social, economic, you name it. My personal standard is to die on one hill at a time, because most of the others are admirably covered and there's only one of me. Selective commentary doesn't mean I don't care about other things; it just means I know where I'm best qualified to speak as compared to other people. And by God, I've been training all my life to speak on this particular issue.

School ended early in the United States, which made sense considering our summer holidays start in June anyway. In the case of my home state of Virginia, the goal appears to be careful monitoring and roll-out over the summer with an eye to a safe return to school in the autumn. And when that happens, I hope — probably fruitlessly — that Perfect Attendance Awards will also have burned off.

An empty school hallway.

I nearly didn't write this post because I thought, there's surely no way these awards are still a thing. Between an uptick in distance learning and the knowledge that illnesses really can be devastating, I thought 2020 would be above that. I assumed it was left behind in my 80s and 90s schooldays, along with pinching our waists with plastic pincers to see how fat we were. But a quick search shows that not only do they still exist, there are free ones to print online and handy little guides on how to upsell them to your students.

To some extent, I understand the thinking — especially if you assume that, like participation trophies, perfect attendance awards are really for the parents. (And they are, aren't they?) Susie may not be valedictorian or a track star, but at least she never missed a day of school. And for that you get a piece of paper, maybe a pencil if your school has them to spare.

But I swear. I do swear. If we haven't gotten past being horny for Perfect Attendance after this year, I'm going to be distressed. There's literally no reason for it, there's no merit, and if anything it encourages the same sort of flippant attitude toward contagious illness that has businesses scrambling to learn what disinfectant is as we speak.

From the Desk Bed of a Sick Girl

Hiding under the covers on yet another sick day.

A good portion of my school memories involve staying home sick. I got the flu. I got bronchitis. I got strep throat and every single cold and stomach bug that came anywhere near me. Plus I had the bonus of endometriosis from an early age, meaning every period was potentially a three-day bout of excruciating pain. I bounced back from all of them, but I spent my fair share of days laid up on the sofa watching The Price Is Right and hydrating with a bowl of crushed ice.

The Internet as we know it was only making its way into homes in the last part of my high school career. You still had to hang up the phone to get online and vice-versa. The idea of online classes was still fairly far off, so missing classes was a bit more of, as they say in scholarly circles, a bitch. I did suffer whenever I missed a day, so I hated staying home, no matter how bad I felt.

Also I wanted that pointless Perfect Attendance award, because I was an overachiever. I can only think of one time I stayed home for any reason other than actual illness, but that's another story for another time (if indeed any time). I didn't like being sick. I didn't want to not be there. And I do think that's true of a lot more students than we like to believe.

Much as with my constant C's in PE because I couldn't run a mile as fast as the other kids, my only thought was "I'm failing because I'm not as healthy as the other kids." And even with my multiple hidden illnesses that wouldn't be diagnosed until college or later, I was closer to "Healthy" on the continuum than many many people. In retrospect, not getting that little piece of paper was a whiff in the wind compared to other students whose failure came in the form of actual grades dropping, who had even worse immune systems than mine.

A Grown-Up Perspective

man looking at the window

As adults, we spend a lot of time piecing apart and rebuilding thoughts we had as kids. My primary one is the idea that not everything that happens to me is something warranted — a consideration I afford others, but not myself. You know how it is. Logic applies to everyone except ourselves because, you know, reasons.

The point is, a lot of kids struggle with this on a regular basis. It can be a lot harder to differentiate between actual judgment from an authoritative source and Just Plain Unfairness as a kid. Teachers are an authority. Schools are an authority. So if school rewards always having your butt in the seat no matter what, then what does that tell us?

It tells us — and teachers and other school faculty, please absorb this — it tells us that our health and the health of others are secondary to appearances. It means that even if we have the flu, our physical presence is of more value than our wellness or the wellness of anyone else in that classroom.

That's a mentality that's damaged a lot of how we work as adults. It's "walk it off" on steroids, and it's bled into our personal psyches and managerial level psyches. I have been the person who was convinced that faux invulnerability is ideal. I have worked and volunteered in environments where running yourself ragged got you praise — to the point that nowadays, if an editor or overseer puts my health ahead of my deadline, I'm actually confused.

This is something that's bred into you early: the idea that being ill is shameful, and the only penance is pretending you're not. In some cases the upshot of that is well out of our hands, depending on where we work or attend school. But if nothing else, we can at least look inward, and maybe speak up.

Going Forward

woman in black long sleeve shirt holding white smartphone

I'm not fool enough to believe that phasing out Perfect Attendance Awards would singlehandedly resolve our unhealthy fixation with productivity over health. This is a widespread thing, present in a lot of venues, to the point that it's seeped into our mindset. I still struggle with listening to my body when it's telling me to lie down or sleep.

The world is turbulent right now, and we're learning a lot of things suddenly and by necessity. One good thing we've learned is that in 2020, we have a phenomenal capacity for continuing on via the Internet. We're making entertainment, uniting over fandoms, restructuring classrooms, making political moves... and all of the things we're learning and discovering will still have a place in the world post-lockdown. There is, quite honestly, no merit to an antiquated non-honor that does nothing to combat truancy and everything to break down a child's impression of the value of their health.

Once the masks are off and the schools are open, we should be just as vehement about protecting each other and availing ourselves of online resources to make it possible. And that starts in the classroom.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Actual Work-from-Home Tips That Don't Suck

person sitting on sofa resting its feet on top of coffee table while using laptop

I've worked from home for the last several years, so the only real change in my life is that there's no toilet paper at the story and I can't go to D&D nights with my friends. For those people currently doing their jobs from home... well, I think a lot of them are finally realizing that their perceptions of the work-from-home life aren't quite on track.

"It must be nice to work from home, you can set your own schedule!"... is not a sentiment I've heard in the last handful of weeks, as many people in my sphere finally discover the distraction, the waxing and waning motivation, and overall "why does my head feel like it's full of cotton batting"-ness of a work life conducted entirely from home. It's not something I take for granted; it is something I understand both the good and the bad of.

While my plan is to remain working from home for the long haul, for the rest of you this is a temporary arrangement to be braved until normality returns at some point. Some of you will be "over it" soon. Others already are. And I don't know, some of you may discover you prefer this and work better this way. There are all sorts out there.

In the interim, you're going to see a lot of very informative articles on how to master the work-from-home grind. One of these might work for you — but as a long-term home-office type, I can confirm that there is no one-size-fits all solution. Even the most common, broadly accepted advice you'll see comes with caveats; and half the people offering this advice want to sell you something. 

So rather than giving you tips on mastering working from home, I'm here to offer tips on figuring out your personal vibe. Firstly, and most importantly:

Don't buy a course from a life coach.

MacBook Air beside gold-colored study lamp and spiral books

I mean, this is life advice I stand by in general. Never, ever, ever, ever trust anyone who promises to to "turn your life around" or "give you the one tool you need to succeed" or whatever it is. Any human being selling you a way to realize your potential is already undercutting your potential. Whatever they're selling is advice you can find somewhere else online, repackaged with their brand on it. I see these ads all the time, as I'm a thirtysomething female freelancer and thus in their target demographic. These same people will come around and target confused work-from-home types until things fall back into place.

Now, if you know someone who teaches good organizational skills, who'll work with you one-on-one, who has a good track record, and who doesn't paint themselves as your one gateway to success, then you may have some luck there. But even then, a lot of the things you'll get from those people can be found on YouTube or Skillshare. You almost certainly don't need a course; but if you feel you do, shop around intelligently, and look at your free options first.

Make a morning routine, even if it sucks.

white ceramic mug on table

You've probably read about the morning routines of successful entrepreneurs — people who get up at 5 am, go to the gym, have a green smoothie while reading an improving book, spend 20 minutes meditating, what have you. And it's true, having a Morning Routine is good for you. But honestly, it can suck, just as long as it exists.

If you have a day job that requires you (usually) to go out in the morning, you have a morning routine already. It might be splashing water on your face, getting dressed, and choking down coffee and a Pop Tart, but that's still a routine. It's still something that draws the line between sleeping and functioning. And as much as starting your day like a billionaire genius would probably be hugely self-improving, all you really need to do is tell your brain it's meant to be on.

My actual morning routine consists solely of making my bed, washing up, and getting dressed. That's it. No intellectual podcasts, no spin class. If I've actually gotten up with my alarm and am functional, sure, there are other things I do to get my brain working. But all that really matters is being up and put together. And for people not used to working from home, that bare minimum is super important.

If you're feeling jazzed and want to try more, go for it. But if you like the idea of a fancy and elaborate morning routine and not the execution, don't push yourself. Do what you can.

Schedule your day with distractions in mind.

woman sitting on window

We all wanna hit that magical Flow State, find ourselves in that perfect time when we're just cranking out all that work with all the motivation. But you're at home, and there'll be distractions. And I don't mean the desire to watch TV or play video games or just wander off. Those will be there too, sure. But there are others that are far tougher to avoid.

That's the freelancer's big secret: reasonable distractions. A call from a family member. The sudden realization that you are entirely out of shampoo. Going to the kitchen to make lunch, but then something spills or breaks or no longer works, so you have a new task. Throw in a work-from-home partner or homeschooled kids, and even the nicest workspace is going to be prone to interruption.

If you have the ability to close a door and be in an Office Space in your home where you will literally be in the same mindset as an office, that's great. But odds are you're going to be fielding at least one imponderable per day. If you set your day's work goals based on the idea that you will avoid all distractions, you'll feel defeated as soon as the first one kicks in.

How you go about working around this will depend on how you work best. In my case, I add two hours to my projected work day as I'm scheduling it out. Those two hours go toward being stuck on the phone with my insurance company, or running an emergency errand for my grandfather, or getting stranded on my way to the grocery store because of unforeseen car trouble. If nothing happens to me that day, I wrap two hours early and watch a movie or play some video games. That doesn't mean that's how you have to do it... but working in allowance, either time-wise or even just mentally, for imponderables around the house will leave you less frustrated.

Don't work in your jammies... but other than that, do whatever.

child wearing gray and white pajama lying on bed while holding phone

I don't know how you have to dress usually at work. I worked at a news desk before I went freelance, so I rarely dressed up. I needed to look presentable, but I didn't have a massive handbook like I did at my old bank teller job. Now, as a freelancer, I dress down but make it a point to put myself together at least somewhat. I could get up from my desk and go to the store without changing anything.

Just about everyone will tell you that you need to have a "work outfit," and I agree... to a point. I definitely think you need to not be working in your pyjamas. See the above point on morning routines: you need something to delineate sleep time and active time. That's also a reason not to work from your bed (that, and making sure your brain only associates your bed with sleep, so you can sleep better).

For some people, work-ish clothes for work hours followed by casual clothes after may bring structure to the day. For others, comfort is more important. A good guideline is, wear something you'd be okay leaving the house in with no changes (unless you don't wear shoes in the house). The main thing is that suggestion that it's not time for sleep.

Beware Schedule Drift

orange and yellow analog alarm clock at 11:03

In an ideal situation, all that's really changed about your job in the short term is location. In other words, you'll likely be going back to the office. And when that happens — whenever that is — you have to go back to actual normal.

Normally I would tell people in this situation to keep getting up at the time they usually do, lack of commute notwithstanding. But in a time when health and stress levels are major concerns, any sleep you can get is valuable. So if you're usually obligated to roll out at 6 am and you can manage an extra hour, take it while you can. That said.

If you're largely self-monitoring when it comes to your work time, it is important to not let yourself slide too much. This is especially true if your work-from-home situation is not going to be permanent, though it applies overall. Memes aside, it's very easy for your sense of time to get all screwed around when you're doing everything at home. Do that long enough unchecked, and you'll eventually have a noon start time that takes a lot of work to crank back.

white ceramic mug on table

The big secret of work-from-home success, which no one wants to tell you, is that it's extremely individual. There was a time when all I wanted was for someone to hand me a guidebook that explained how to "get it right." But it doesn't work that way, because we aren't all the same person. We thrive differently, and during this time at home I think a lot of people are going to learn what their ideal work environment is.

This is uncharted territory and you're under no obligation to nail it right away. This is an adjustment that, for many people, only comes alongside a significant career change or choice. And here, you kind of had no choice. The good news is, you're under no obligation to find it fun, ace it overnight, or even do it forever. 

The bottom line is actually very simple: preserve a basic line of consistency and responsibility that will allow you to focus on work, while still making allowances for what your presence in the home entails. You don't have to have a Pinterest-perfect home office and a killer morning ritual. You just have to have something sustainable — the trimming can come later if you want it. If you're getting up, eating breakfast, and working somewhere in your house that isn't your bedroom wearing something that isn't your pyjamas, congrats: you're already doing better than a lot of us who do this long-term.

Most of all, be nice to yourself during this time. You're going to have days where you mess it up. That's fine. No one actually knows what they're doing right now. Anyone who says differently is probably selling something.

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