What I Learned from D&D: First One-Shot

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It started with Critical Role, a twitch livestream/youtube webseries in which voice actor Matthew Mercer and other voice actors play a game of Dungeons & Dragons that’s been going on for about four years now. When I first heard about the show, I thought it sounded fun, but…Dungeons & Dragons isn’t my thing. Still, it was fun to read my friends’ reactions and look at some of the fan art. Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me and decided to watch it. But…it’s probably just going to make me want to play D&D and I’m really no good at oral storytelling.

I tried to watch it and just enjoy the story, despite the temptation to jump into a game when I saw how much fun the players had. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends started talking about playing a one-shot. A more experienced friend offered to DM for them. But…I don’t know, it just sounds so complicated.

Inevitably, my curiosity got the better of me.

For our one-shot, I created Fenoise, a high elf bard who had debilitating stage fright and one leg four inches shorter than the other. Fenoise’s parents were librarians and she spent most of her youth pouring over adventure tales and folklore.  Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she left home to become an adventuring bard herself, despite the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to get on a stage and perform anything. Fenoise was a good channel for my own writing insecurities, as well as my nervousness about my first game. I thought that I did a pretty good job of plotting out who she was as a person. Her motivations, her desires, her flaws. She was critically self-conscious, defensive and proud, a little unintentionally racist, but sympathetic and brave and she tried.  And then, once I felt like I had her personality and my character sheet was all finished, I stopped. All I had to do was wait, I figured. And maybe for some that would be true. It wasn’t quite for me, however.

The game was a lot of fun and I left it energized and wanting more. But it didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to. As content as I was with my characterization beforehand, I felt like I lost sight of my character through the game. She wasn’t coming off like I imagined. She’s not supposed to be this awkward–she is a bard, after all–and she should feel less comfortable with this character. And it wasn’t just the character. When we started the game, all four characters were in a waiting room, waiting for our employer to see us, and I didn’t know what to say or do. We asked the townspeople questions and I found myself at a loss when I tried to think of helpful questions. Witty one-liners became a far-off dream. At one point towards the end of the game, we were face to face with a small red dragon, and when my turn came, I was at a loss.

“I don’t know what to do,” I thought aloud. “I wasn’t prepared for a dragon.”

“In a game called Dungeons & Dragons?” the DM quipped, and we laughed.

I eventually just shot the dragon with a crossbow, and because they were already weakened by another player’s attacks, the DM borrowed a line from Critical Role and asked me, “How do you want to do this?” For those who don’t watch the show, it’s the same as, say, “Make it flashy.” I can describe, in dramatic detail, how my limping, insecure little bard slayed a fucking dragon. It was a swelling underdog moment worthy of an animated Disney movie with a killer soundtrack.

“Bard kills are the best kills,” the DM added as I hesitated. Except…

I blanked. I just couldn’t think of anything. She offered to give me a minute, but in my panic and utter lack of ideas, I just asked one of my other friends to take over and describe it for me.  And then it was over, and it was more good than awkward, and I don’t think anyone really cared except my anxiety.

But I decided there are lessons to take from this, lessons that can be put to use in my writing. Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, just another form of storytelling. I could say that I learned how awkward I am at oral storytelling, but I already knew that. Here’s what I did learn:

I am not a pantser.

I’ve seen this debate for a few years amongst writers: plotting vs. pantsing. Plotting means you prepare for your story, you outline, you plan; pantsing is diving in and “writing by the seat of your pants.” When I was a teenager, I only ever pantsed. To outline was to kill the story for me. But as I got older, I found that sometimes it helped me to have a sense of what I was writing and not get stuck if I wrote an outline first. In the past couple years, I’ve done a bit of a mix. Sometimes I plot; sometimes I pants; sometimes I start to plot and just end up pantsing. It depends on the story, I tell myself. Except it doesn’t. I always, always feel better about my story when I first take the time to figure out what story I’m trying to tell.

In D&D, you have to be able to play “by the seat of your pants,” and I was nervous about that going in. I am, after all, the girl who messed up an improv group exercise by bursting into giggles at everyone else, saved only by a much more talented improv actor who claimed I was drunk. Sure enough, it was an awkward experience for me. There’s only so much that can be done about that, but I think there are some things I can do to help it. I can spend a little time with my character before each game. I can write little snippets so I can get used to their voice and the way they respond to things. I can write out hypothetical scenarios, like killing a monster or questioning townspeople. And in my personal writing, I can accept that I am officially not a pantser. If I need to plot for a D&D game, I need to plot that much more when I’m trying to write a novel.

There was a time that I thought I would be less creative if I couldn’t just…form the story off the top of my head. But I grew up, and you know what? It’s okay. It’s good to know my weaknesses and to focus on my strengths instead. I’m great at plotting out a dynamic character and a compelling story. I just have to give myself the time and put in the work.

New Years Resolutions

Nothing makes my imposter syndrome kick up like making New Years Resolutions. Every last few months of the year, I tell myself that I’m not going to do New Years Resolutions, because I only ever finish half of them and there’s no point in setting myself up for failure. But every last week or so of the year, I get caught up in that spirit of newness and renewed motivation and soon I have a little list of goals in my mind of things I want to do over the course of the next year. I might as well write them down, right? And if I only finish half of them, well, that’s a half-list of accomplishments for which I can pat myself on the back.

So, here goes. My goals for 2017.

  1. Work on my relationship with God. This is my constant goal. If I have no other goals, this one will still remain, because I can never be close enough or rely enough on my LORD.  I’ve created a lot of obstacles between myself and God in the past few years, though, and while I’m trying to get back to where I was, it’s an uphill battle.
  2. Enter more writing contests and submit to magazines. To be specific, I want to enter a minimum of two contests and submit to a minimum of six magazines. I’m already on my way with this one. My friend Sam and I are both going to enter NYC Midnight‘s Short Story contest, the first round of which begins on January 21. It has the healthy-dose-of-panic sort of goals I love: first round is a short story in 8 days, second round is a short story in 3 days, and final round is a short story in 24 hours.
  3. Travel. I have plans to go to Philadelphia to visit a friend in April and to go to Bookcon in New York with another friend in June. So far, it looks like it might actually work out, if I’m careful with my savings. And that’s the catch. I’ll also be staying at hostels for the first time, so that will be fun. And in October, I should be going to a friend’s wedding in South Dakota.
  4. Decide where I want to move. I’m planning a move by fall of 2018 at the latest. I’ve always wanted to move out of Kentucky eventually, and I really feel like it’s time. Well, that might not be all of it.  The truth is, I’ve always liked the idea of living everywhere and I think I’m just ready for the next chapter of that book.  Right now, I have it narrowed down to Atlanta or Minneapolis, or Kansas City if I can’t afford either of those. I thought about this all through last year, and went through half a dozen cities. I don’t want to add more options to this list this year. By the end of the year, I want to have an idea of where I’m going.
  5. Read 55 books. This is actually just my Goodreads reading goal for the year. Shouldn’t be a problem, as last year I read 65.
  6. Get the guitar fixed up. Last March, my mom told me that she passed a stack of encyclopedias by one of the dumpsters at our apartment complex and that if I wanted them, I better go get them, because it would rain soon. While I was out there, I found an old Stella acoustic guitar. It was dusty and cracked, with two of the strings missing and all of them in bad shape. It had these old stickers from the 60s or 70s stuck to it. I don’t play guitar (tried to learn once, until my guitar teacher quit on me without warning to join a band), but it struck me so immediately that I couldn’t just leave it there to be ruined by the rain. I took it home, duck taped it as best I could, bought a case, bought some polish. I named it Chelsea Morning, with the help of Laney. And for several months, it’s just been resting between my bookshelf and my dresser. I didn’t want this to become one of my unfinished projects. I wanted to actually clean the guitar up, if it can be cleaned, and learn how to play it. So, this year, I’ll have to hit up music stores for new strings, a tuner, and probably show it to someone that knows something about guitars to see what can be done to rehabilitate Chelsea.tumblr_o3jlp7k1l81uccj6go1_1280
  7. And finally…blog more. Believe it or not, every week I set a goal of an amount of blogs I want to write. I have yet to meet my weekly goal. I never really expect to, it just gives me a little push to blog at all during the week. But I want to try harder to make a habit of it this year.

A Reader’s Thousand Lives: The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

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Before I started this blog, I had a Tumblr dedicated wholly to a new literary project I started in February. The premise was that I would take “life prompts” of sorts from every book I read.  It started out lacking focus. I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and sent an old journal of mine to a close friend, like Helen gave Gilbert. When I read The Raven Boys, I picked a lesser known historical figure to “search for”/research (in my case, it was the Breton pirate Jeanne de Clisson), and I knitted my own fingerless gloves, much like Blue Sargent. But eventually I started cutting to the real lesson to draw from the book. When I read A Wise Man’s Fear, in addition to rescuing an old guitar that someone had thrown in the trash, I did some soul searching to find the “question that drives me.”

When I started this blog, I realized I wouldn’t have time to keep the other one running. Each book usually had anything from 3-5 entries dedicated to it, and as quickly as I read, I was already running behind. I love that project, though, and I’ve learned so much from it, so I decided to incorporate it into this blog. Rather than several posts, I’ll just write one post per book, and it will be published after the book is already finished. More like a summary of the prompt I took from the book and how I followed it than a play-by-play. And now, without further ado…

I recently read The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown.

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What Christmas Means to Me

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As much as I love Christmas–and believe me, I really do–this year again, I find myself feeling a little cut off. I have my mom, my sister, my pets and my sister’s cat. But many of my loved ones are too far away for us to get together on Christmas. We mail each other presents, text each other our “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” texts, and like each other’s social media posts about Christmas, but at the end of the day, I still find myself missing them.

So, this year’s Christmas playlist, which is a little late coming (I only put it together last night), goes out to the faithful friends who are dear that can’t gather near. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to spend Christmas with some of you in person; in the meantime, we can listen to this together from far away.

  • “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Ella Fitzgerald. I’m a sap around Christmas time. Every year, I hope for snow, even though I live in Kentucky, and I know that snow on Christmas almost never happens. This is just a cute little classic that never gets old to me. And you can’t go wrong with Ella.
  • “What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder. Hands down the most fun Christmas song I know. I defy you to listen to this song completely still. Like most people who aren’t…little kids, I went through a disappointing period in my life in which Christmas just wasn’t as fun and magical as it used to be. It was just another day. It took me a couple years before I stopped expecting Christmas to be what it had been when I was little and just reevaluated what it was to me now. And it’s different, maybe smaller, but still a lovely reprieve from the rest of the year.
  • “What’s This?” from The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. I don’t know why, this always reminds me of my friend, Josh. Not the movie per say, but this song in particular. And it is an adorable movie. One that I might need to watch tonight.
  • “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Jars of Clay. As great as Christmas is, it’s not a wholly happy time for everyone. It can also be a really lonely time, especially when you’re surrounded by messages of togetherness and separated from those people you love. And that’s as much a part of Christmas as the “tidings of happiness and joy.”
  • “Christmas Bells” from the RENT Original Broadway Cast Recording.  I would ask if it was strange that RENT is one of my favorite Christmas movies/shows, but judging by the the posts on my friends’ social media lately, it’s not weird. As I’ve gotten older, my taste in Christmas movies and my mom’s have diverged a bit. She still loves the classics. I’m less moved by stories of the magic of believing in a holiday delivery man in a big red suit (even though yes, I understand, it’s a metaphor for faith in Christ and all that) and more interested in the magic of imperfect people who had a hell of a year pulling together and making the most of it.
  • “Light of the World” by Lauren Daigle. As a Christian, I do believe in reflecting on Christ and the sacrifice He made by coming to earth and living and dying for us all those years ago on Christmas. (Even though evidence actually points to Christ being born in spring or summer and the Catholic church placing Christmas on December 25 mostly to quash out pagan holy days.) But also as a Christian, I’ve heard all of the traditional Christian themed carols enough times that I’ve become kind of immune to them. I only heard this for the first time yesterday, and it really struck me because of the way it ties the story to today and not just this wondrous thing that happened 2000+ years ago. The world needs Christ and his love and light as much now as we did all that time ago. And His grace is a perennial gift, continuing until the end of time.
  • “Heaven Everywhere” by Francesca Battistelli. This is more of a resolution for next year. This year was a hard year, and next year there will be some…difficult trials for all of us, I think. But I want to be an example of love and positivity throughout the year. I don’t want to save it all for the last couple weeks of December.
  • “Only at Christmas Time” by Sufjan Stevens. This is just such a lovely, soft song. It never fails to be soothing. But then, that’s Sufjan Stevens in general.
  • “The Christmas Waltz” by She & Him. I’m actually pretty indifferent to She & Him for the most part, but this is such a nice song, I had to add it. It’s that time of year when the world falls in love… I wrote about how rough November was for me. December, by contrast, was softer and more healing. I’m not saying bad things didn’t happen or that there weren’t news stories that terrified me. But most of my energy was spent thinking about my friends and my God and what I have to be happy about. I needed that this year.
  • “Mvmt IV, ‘Every Bell Shall Ring'” by The Oh Hellos. I found this two days ago, actually. As soon as the idea of a Christmas song by The Oh Hellos was in my head, I thought, Oh, that must be so pretty! And when I heard that third, “siiiIIIng,” I was sold.
  • “The More You Give (The More You’ll Have)” by Michael Buble. Okay, Michael Buble is getting a little tired, especially when it comes to Christmas music. His “Santa Baby” is hilarious in his aggressive need to affirm his very masculine heterosexuality. But this one is actually pretty cute. It’s just another sappy, upbeat, feel-good kind of Christmas song.
  • “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Aimee Mann. Like I said, this year has been hard. It’s kicked the shit out of a lot of people I know, and I would like to have some words with it, but it kind of kicked the shit out of me, as well. I hope that you all have a softer Christmas, because you deserve that, and I hope that next year, things start to look up for you.

So, Merry Christmas, my friends (and Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate it)! I hope this playlist gives you a little smile and helps you to feel a little closer.

Fruit of the Day: Joy on a Monday

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About a year ago, I started an extension to my daily devotions. I take one trait from the “fruits of the spirit” listed in Galatians (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control), and do my best to practice that trait throughout the day. Usually, I fail, but the point is to keep striving. This week, joy landed on a Monday. Monday is already universally hated by all office staff everywhere, but Mondays have been especially rough where I am, with all the changes and negativity referenced in my last post still going strong. This is the day that I’m supposed to be joyful.

And that’s good. I won’t get into dictionary definitions here because they’re not really relevant to an intensely personal goal; but to me, happiness and joy are very different things. Happiness is a feeling that happens as a result of something positive, like spending time around people you love, or finding enjoyment in your art, or being surprised by someone who knows you really well. Joy, on the other hand, isn’t a feeling at all, but a spirit. Joy is an active choice to find reasons to be happy and to look on the bright side. Like most things, it wouldn’t be so remarkable if it were easy.

I didn’t feel very motivated today, but I tried. I kept my complaints to a minimum and bit my tongue when I heard others complain.  Every time I had a break, I read a bit of The Swish of the Curtain, which is adorable. I dressed in an outfit that makes even me feel cute, and I enjoyed the errands that got me out of the office for a bit. I looked up pretty poetry on my phone when I was bored.  I listened to a combination of Christmas music, Hamilton, and Disney.  All little things, but they kept my mood lighter and formed a wall of resistance against drudge and frustration.  I prayed throughout.

I’d never say I did it well. I don’t think my spirit today could have been called anything close to joyful. But it was one of the less abysmal failures since I started the project, and it was a better Monday than I’ve had in a long time.  Most of the time, it’s hard to see any improvement I’ve made. It feels more like one step forward, six steps back. But every now and then, I have a day like today, and I keep trying.

November in Review

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November is usually my favorite time of year. I love the crisp air and the bright colors of the leaves. I love the overindulgence of food and slightly commercialistic sense of togetherness that comes with a holiday about which I actually have pretty mixed feelings. But the main reason that November has been my favorite time of year for the past six years is NaNoWriMo.  Ahort for National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I first attempted in 2009 and only made it about halfway through. I tried again in 2011, won, and I’ve been winning every year since then. It combines two of my favorite things: writing and throwing myself into a healthy dose of panic for the sake of a challenge.  This year, I actually had the audacity to fear that just writing 50,000 words in a month was becoming too easy. I guess God heard me and decided to put those worries to rest.

This November was one of the harder months of an already hard year, beginning with NaNo. My novel idea was mostly a cathartic one, in which I tried to finally put words to still unresolved feelings about friendships that fizzled out years ago. Within the first couple days, I knew it felt wrong wrong.  I started the story with a character that I intended to be the catalyst but who soon proved to be irrelevant. On November 4, I broke the cardinal rule of NaNo: I deleted words. Not just a few words. I deleted the first four chapters of my story. But even after an exhausting day of catching back up and reworking the plot in a way that was at least more exciting, it still wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. This wasn’t a simple case of first draft messiness. There was something fundamentally wrong, like maybe I didn’t want to tell that story at all. Because every draft is a lesson and it had been seven years since I had lost NaNoWriMo, I pushed through that, but I never really felt any better about it.

Then there were external stressors: the election, for starters. This was the first time I voted in a presidential election and the most worried I had ever been about the outcome of any election. I could barely think about anything else.  My stomach was in knots for the entire week leading up to it. I felt alienated from close members of my family. The results were, for me, horrifying and depressing, and most of my friends were even worse off.  Hearing a paralegal at work sing “happy days are here again” or walking through the living room trying not to listen to the commentary of smug Fox News anchors didn’t help. My workplace went through a major change, as well, particularly in my department: we were outsourced.  We still have all the same people and we work at the same place, but we work for a company that runs things very differently from the habits to which we had all become accustomed.  New signs had to be posted everywhere. New logs had to be filled after each job.  New request slips.  New complaints about the new signs, new logs, and new request slips.  The change was not necessarily bad and I even got a raise, but it was exhausting, in a month that was already draining.

I’m not a reclusive person.  I’ve made so many friends during NaNoWriMo in past years, both in the online community and at the local write-ins, and that community has always been a powerful, encouraging force. This year, I pulled away from them most of the time. Sometimes going to the write-in was too much effort, or I had some minimal excuse to avoid it. When I did go to the write-ins, I often left early.  I was too tired to do anything more than try to stay caught up. But I think writing alone so much made it harder.

One evening as I left work, I realized that, for the first time, NaNoWriMo wasn’t fun. I wasn’t screaming with excitement as I plunged into freefall from the madness of fast drafting; I was just focused on getting to the end. NaNo this year was just something to get through, and I hated that. I know it wasn’t really NaNo that I wasn’t enjoying, though. It was everything else.  The exhaustion and fear of Everything Else poured into NaNo and made it feel like a waste of time. Writing has always been, among other things, a way of working through when times got tough, but this year, it wasn’t enough.

It’s unjust, however, to talk only about the negatives of November as if that’s all there was. There were some bright spots. If my personal NaNoWriMo journey was rough this year, I was excited for my friends. One particular friend had attempted NaNo once before, while in school, and given up before the end. This year, he was ahead of the daily wordcount all throughout, and he hit 50k with three days before.  Another friend used the month just to get in the habit of writing more consistently and expected not to exceed 20k. She ended above 40k. Still another stopped her novel after about a week when the conflict in the story felt too much like real life, but in that one week, she wrote more words than she had in three previous attempts at NaNoWriMo. Each one had a different experience, but I felt proud of all of them.

It was also the month that I first played Dungeons and Dragons, as a high elven bard with stage fright and a limp. The challenge of out loud, on the spot storytelling was new and terrifying. I’ll be honest, I froze and sputtered through most of the game, and I don’t think I contributed much creatively. But as anxious as I was, I enjoyed it so much more. Another friend and I even decided to start a campaign.

I finished my 50k and the last chapter of my novel at 11:30pm on November 30.  I may never touch it again, I wasn’t especially proud, but it’s there and it’s finished. That’s my general attitude towards November this year. I got through it. Wasn’t excited about it, wouldn’t like to relive it, but I made it to the other side. Now I’m giving myself a break.  I’ve jotted down a couple ideas, but I probably won’t work on any stories for at least a week. I already miss them, so I expect when I come back, I’ll be refreshed and able to remember what I love about writing. And come April, I’ll have to have an epic, doubly motivated Camp NaNo to make up it all.

Alex Sees Titus Andronicus in Butchertown

Listen, I’m a naturally squeamish person.  A bubble of blood makes me wince. I have to leave the room at the sight of full-on gore, or spend the duration of the scene whimpering with my face in my hands. A staged throat slitting ten feet from my seat did not sound like my idea of fun. I have an undying love for Kentucky Shakespeare, though, and a weakness for a good theme well-executed.  Shakespeare’s bloodiest play performed in a warehouse in Butchertown three nights before Halloween? That was an event I couldn’t miss.  My weak stomach would just have to deal with it.

In addition to being the Elizabethan equivalent of a slasher flick, Titus Andronicus was also Shakespeare’s first tragedy, written while he was still a newbie playwright. In the late 16th century, revenge tragedies were all the rage, so Shakespeare was kind of like a fledgling YA author writing a dystopia novel but deciding to make it the most dystopia. When it first opened, Titus was a hit. It was only in the centuries that followed, when writers and theatre-goers alike became more prudish, that Titus became infamous for the same thing that made it famous–excessive gore and violence. 18th and 19th century critics doubted that a genius like Shakespeare could have written such a disgusting mess of a play, feeding the Shakespeare ghostwriter conspiracy theories. Happily for Titus, we live in a world that is fascinated by violence and horror once again, and those bloody enemies, Titus and Tamora, can return again, this time dressed up as the heads of feuding organized crime families.

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