What Joe Dever Taught Me

My friend, fantasy author and game designer, Joe Dever passed away today of Lone Wolf fame, and my thoughts are with his family and close friends in this difficult time.

I’ve been struggling with the anecdote I wanted to share about Joe this afternoon, because it feels a little too personal and self-serving to me. I wanted to write something more than platitudes and condolences, and this is what popped into my mind. Forgive me if there’s too much “me” in this post, I just didn’t know how else to say what I needed to.

I first met Joe when I was over in the UK for UK Game Fest as a special guest. He was working with Cubicle 7 for his Lone Wolf RPG, and several folks said I had to meet him. I was completely and totally unaware of his work at the time, but recognized how much he meant to his fans because of the look of awe upon their faces as they walked by or shook hands with him.(1)

I waited until there was a break in the action for fans, in my mind, always come first. And we simply chatted. Both of us opened the conversation the same way, both of us wanting to know more about the other author. No bullshit. No “Well, don’t you know who I am?” No PR PR PR. Just two human beings having a conversation about art, about how writing is more important than sound bites and followers, about how stories matter. We exchanged business cards, and pledged to keep in touch.

Fast forward. Fast forward past a happy, surprised, and awed me looking up his work and understanding how much his work meant to the genre and to his fans. Fast forward to Gen Con. Fast forward to me wandering about the hall, running into him again, and having another great conversation about art and making games and being able to do that for a living. Fast forward to a few convention attendees, who were shocked that a bigger announcement hadn’t been made, grinning from ear to ear upon meeting Joe. This, I thought, was a moment that needed to be shared and not kept in the dark. So I fixed it as best I could via social media. It had to be done.

In the time that I knew him, Joe never asked to stand under the spotlight. He wasn’t hungry for fame, and wasn’t a jerk about it, either. I never once got the impression that he was “above me” or that the popularity he did have, after selling millions of books, went to his head. He was simply Joe Dever, the sharply-dressed creator of Lone Wolf, wholly dedicated to making more art for himself and his fans.

What Joe taught me was what matters most: our art. Nothing else matters. No amount of funny Tweets will change that, or demands for PR, or followers online, or “who” we know, or “what” people say. Nothing. All that matters, is the stories we tell–in whatever medium we choose–because that’s all that will be left behind. Our stories are pieces of ourselves that we share. We get tired sharing them, because we don’t know who is reading them. We get tired of writing them, because we don’t know who will buy them. But, we’ll never know who needs our stories even after we tell them.

Well, I’m telling you now. I’m telling you this after seeing those looks of pure joy on a reader’s/player’s face after meeting their hero. I’m telling you this after meeting a man who loved to write. Someone needs your story. Someone does. Whether you tell it in a comic, or interactively through a game, or in a novel, someone needs your story. You may never meet that person, you may never hear how much they love your story, but do it anyway.

Just write. You have no time to waste.

(1) For context, my fandom and knowledge of science fiction and fantasy and, to a larger extent, the gaming, comics, and SF&F communities is filled with gaping holes. I didn’t have the same experiences many fans and gamers have had growing up, and this often translates to me feeling as if I’m an outsider–even after ten years of working, reading, playing, writing, editing, etc.

On Fake News

The Tick Weapons Lab Avatar

If confirmation bias is based on the idea that what “sounds” good is what is likely to be believed, then critical thinking is its nemesis. Critical thinking requires the objective examination and review of facts in order to lead a conclusion, and on the surface emotions don’t play into critical thinking–which is, in and of itself, a fallacy. Human beings are emotional creatures, and while we can manage our feelings we don’t typically rid ourselves of them (or ignore them) entirely. Critical thinking, however, is far more challenging because it requires the acknowledgement of one’s own biases, and that’s often where human beings fall down–especially online.

Confirmation bias is something that everyone can fall prey to, myself included, and it’s often been ignored due to the way that information is presented online. Now, however, it’s not necessarily confirmation bias that I’m concerned about, it’s the side effects that can have a dramatic impact for the simple fact that the more information we share, the more views tend to be simplified, the less critical discussion takes place, and the more stereotypes (via confirmation biases) are reinforced. Unfortunately, confirmation bias is supported by yellow journalism. The goal of failing news outlets, that have not been able to navigate various mediums financially, has long been to trigger an emotional response for the goal of making money. Both legitimate and fake news sources have an agenda; both require an emotional reaction in order to get readers to take action via a share, like, etc. Both require those reactions to make money and stay in business, and only one is based on facts. The other? Inspired by the facts, which means that those lies can be believed because they sound real. Both operate the way they do, because they are businesses.

When a site’s agenda is to make money based on the attention it gets, there is no floor or ceiling for what will or won’t be covered. This is a numbers game. Visits and actions taken are what’s being counted–not the quality of either–and confirmation bias fuels both. The site’s metrics don’t “care” whether that article is being refuted or not. The point of the article is engagement, not belief or disbelief, and no matter how many times I’ve said it–the truth is that fake news sites can be bankrupted if we stop paying attention to them. Attention, now more than ever, has effectively legitimized the need for screaming headlines. To retain critical thinking and pay less attention to fake news, however, a reader needs something that isn’t often afforded online–time.

In order to make an informed decision about the validity of a piece of news, the reader has to click through and read the article. Many don’t, however, and there’s no incentive to do that. Sharing is an incentive, and serves as a separate metric to reading the content on the actual page. Sharing, however, is impacted by confirmation bias. If the headline sounds good, it’s shared. But, if it doesn’t sound good that headline has to be appalling enough to be shared. This means that content needs to be written more and more aggressively, to “keep the reader on their toes”, in order to continue attracting readers. Make no mistake: the long-term goals of retaining readers, encouraging them to think critically, and building so-called brand loyalty aren’t as important as getting eyeballs on the page right now, simply because there is a financial reward associated with immediacy. The more “cliffhangers” there are, to coin a phrase, the more money fake news outlets make because not all of them are beholden to the 24-hour news cycle from mainstream media and, if they are, they can continue riffing off of verified news.

As fake news outlets are paid more attention to, their worth becomes legitimized not only because of confirmation bias, but because of the money and trusted high profile individuals supporting them. (Think back to the power of celebrity endorsements, and how a celebrity’s product placement can influence what a consumer buys.) The more money that fuels fake news, the less goes to factual or well-established organizations, and the less incentive mainstream outlets have to take the higher road. This, too, however, has an impact on critical thinking in the sense that being emotional online is encouraged because someone is making money off of the responses involved. Offline this would never happen. Most people don’t want to deal with a highly emotional person because that individual is viewed as a drama queen, unstable, and untrustworthy, and emotional expression is often taboo. But, emotions are attached to words, they are felt by reading them. That’s why so much of what’s happening can’t be “seen” as too emotional–they’re just words, after all.

Compare this to subliminal advertising. Subliminal advertising is engineered to influence a consumer’s decision without their knowledge, and it’s considered subliminal because the purpose of those ads falls below the average person’s attention span. It was thought to be widely used, but wasn’t addressed until the public demanded it to be.

In 1973 the book Subliminal Seduction claimed that subliminal techniques were in wide use in advertising. The book contributed to a general climate of fear with regard to Orwellian dangers (of subliminal messaging). Public concern was enough to lead the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings and to declare subliminal advertising “contrary to the public interest” because it involved “intentional deception” of the public. — SOURCE: Psychologist World

Consider, then, that perhaps fake news sites are using a form of subliminal advertising with the intent of intentionally deceiving the public in order to make money. One of the side effects of confirmation bias, is that even after being told something the reader believed to be true was false, the reader still believes that initial article. (This is partially fueld by “The Backfire Effect.”) This is the reason why sites like Politifact and Snopes exist. At the same time, since there’s literally no consequences for lying to get the reader’s attention, there’s no incentive to clamp down on fake news of any sort.

Regardless of whether you buy into the idea that misleading information is a form of subliminal advertising or not, the reality of these sites is that they are producing more money than verified news outlets. That’s concerning at the best of times, and more worrisome as we move further into a “cliffhanger”-style political news cycle. With a divided country, confirmation bias is at an all-time high–which allows misinformation to be used for misdirection that will reduce public pressure in crisis situations partly because there’s only one emotional tone–outrage.

When a reader’s emotional feedback loop begins with outrage, then continues with a momentary spot of guilt for being outraged, and ends with a fresh round of outrage, it will be difficult for the average reader to prioritize what crises are worth responding to in addition to having a job, taking care of themselves and their families, etc. Worse, in my mind, will be the fact that as crises continue to happen, critical thinking will be shunned in favor of an easy answer–which puts emergency professionals like detectives, doctors, firefighters, etc. at risk because they’re simply not “thinking fast enough” to come up with the answer in a crisis situation.

Since it’s unlikely that an entire culture would engage in critical thinking all at once, it’s more probable that one of two things will happen with respect to fake news in particular: either a third party authentication site or ruling body will step in, or we will see a push for verified or trusted websites (a la the Better Business Bureau) as we do individual social media accounts. Both are predicated on the assumption that publishing fake news isn’t grounds for prosecution or public pressure en masse. In order to encourage reform, first there needs to be a demand for it from an audience who has the power to seek it.

Regardless, I sense we’re now reaching critical mass of the content being produced online. We’ve stepped away from “produce, produce, produce” to “produce to evoke an emotional reaction to make money”. What comes after that? What comes after: “I have no time to process the information I’m receiving, so I’ll go with my gut reaction instead.” I don’t know, but I will tell you one thing: the critical mass I thought we were heading towards is happening even faster than I believed it would.

This is not sustainable. If we’re also on track to lose the battle for net neutrality, I suspect the future of the internet will be reduced to pay-to-pay corporate-run conglomerates that produce content within their silos to attract “their” customers or readers. By doing so, the presentation of opposing viewpoints to stir conversation/reaction and extend the life cycle of a piece of news will be continued and amplified with more cliffhangers, instead of presenting verified facts when necessary in repeated intervals.

It goes without saying that I hope I’m wrong. Fictional stories have power, but what happens when the news becomes a fictional story? I guess we’ll find out.



Cyber Monday! New Coffee Mug and eBooks Sale

Wanted to pop in briefly and mention a couple of sales going on today. Apex Book Company is running a forty percent off sale on their store. Use the discount code GIVE16 at checkout to save on some great books.

Over at DriveThruFiction.com, there’s a ton of sales going on, too. I’ve been checking out the reference materials for writers, and have seen the print edition in several bookstores. There’s no discount to be applied, you can visit the DriveThruFiction Sale to check out the books, or you can check out the DriveThruFiction Black Friday Sale which ends today. Some titles that I recommend would be Dynamic Characters, On Writing Horror, and the 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists.

Last but not least, something fun! After I cracked a joke about wanting this illustration on Facebook, my friend Charlie Bates illustrated a fairy smacking a troll upside the head with a rainbow and dubbed it the “Rainbow Smackdown”. This illustration is now available via Society 6; you can get a T-shirt or a coffee mug and support an amazing artist. Plus, this is on sale for Cyber Monday, too. Bonus!

rainbow-smackdown-mugs

Preparing for the Long, Stormy Night Ahead

Celtic Wheel

Change is in the air, and pundits believe that what happened during the Wisconsin protests will occur on a national level. I don’t know the future, but I do know the past. If what happened in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Kansas are any indication, then we are in for a long night. More concerning to me, however, is the blatant acts of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that have been committed in the past couple of weeks, and the fear that many of my friends and family have. No pundit, no band-aid can fix that. People are afraid and, quite frankly, they should be. White supremacists, whether they are simply sabre-rattling or not, are not “normal” as so many have loudly proclaimed, nor do they deserve to be understood. Hate, my dear readers, is not a partisan issue. It’s a force of nature, like love. The issues to acknowledge the depth and breadth of humanity and give everyone equal rights is a human rights issue. Reproductive rights. Gender. Sexuality. Race. All human. And yet, the idea that we’re not all created equal is being entertained–not in 1950 or 1960 or 1980–but now. Right now.

How did we get here? I see a lot of fingers being pointed, to understand what happened to lay the blame. Someone has to be responsible or somebody is riled up right now, and someone else needs to fix it. I don’t care about any of that, because I’ve been there before both personally and politically. If the divisiveness felt in Wisconsin is any indication, then yes it will be a long night. What happened here, is that people were forced to pick a side. It didn’t matter where your beliefs were on the spectrum, or if you were moderate politically, or if you were dispassionate about what was happening. You were either “one of us” or “one of them.” That, I fear, is what’s coming and everyone is to blame for that. Everybody. However this national movement, for lack of a better word, does not seem like it’s going to be a fight about labor laws, it’s shaping up to be a fight about retaining and ensuring that all humans have the same rights. That cuts far more deeply that what’s in someone’s wallet, and already I’m seeing people double down and say affected folks are “over-reacting”. Which is not true. If someone threatens me because I’m a woman, tomorrow I can’t wake up and *poof* not be a woman anymore. These threats are taken as legitimate, because it’s not the first time we’ve been threatened or hurt.

Right now, I don’t care about blame, because I can’t. What I do care about, however, is how to be resilient in the face of despair, how to rise up and seek the dawn, how to learn from our mistakes, how to connect with others. As it turns out, I do know a little something about resilience. This, beyond the stories I tell or the games I make, is what I can offer folks who have never experienced anything as awful as being hated or denigrated for your soul’s container, your body, the flesh and blood and bone you had no decision or hand in making.

I don’t know if this post will be the balm you need or not, but I wanted to share this anyway–even if it reaches one person that matters to me. So, here are ten things I recommend doing next to prepare yourselves for a long night ahead. If nothing happens? If it’s “politics as usual”? Great! Fantastic! I’m thrilled! If you think there’s even a small chance that your rights will be at risk, however, it can’t hurt to ensure you build those tools of emotional resilience now. They could help you as they did me–no matter what comes next.

1.) Decide where you stand.
Remember what I said about being forced to take a side? Having control over where you stand will help give you your personal power back. It also requires listening to people impacted by rights changes, to understand what’s at risk, and setting aside your personal pride–especially if you’re not affected. No, you may not know now how far you’re willing to go to fight for your beliefs, but having a foundation based on your ethics/morality instead of politics will help you set aside the barriers that come from being labeled as one thing or another. Those of you who know where you stand, you can take that a step further. Join the groups that agree with your stand. Buy from places that donate to your similar viewpoints, too. Why? Because if you don’t, someone else who disagrees with you will. Apathy, “it won’t happen to me”, and the believe that human rights violations could never happen in America (even though they already have) further inaction. If you truly believe something, back it up. Now’s the time. Even if it’s five dollars a month!

One last note here, because it’s important. Taking a stand also means recognizing confirmation bias, and the misinformation that is rampant right now. There are people who, for a multitude of reasons from making money on ad revenue to deliberating spreading misinformation, that do not fact check because they are relying on people to agree with them no matter if it’s true or not. Be vigilant about the truth and know that there are people who will manipulating innocuous information not to get you to switch “sides”, but to force you to hate people who disagree with you even more. Remember clickbait exists. Emotions get clicks online, and strong emotional reactions make certain people money. The best way to get them to stop making clickbait? Bankrupt them, by not reading or sharing that shit. Seriously.

2.) Find connecting threads. I have someone I’ve pledged to check in wherever I’m active online, and offline I’m rebuilding my so-called zombie apocalypse friends. This is tough for introverts pretending to be extroverts like myself, which is why I’m also figuring out how/when/where to get back into performing. I’ve also got a list of places I hope to volunteer/visit, etc. pending my next point. The worst thing you can do, is to isolate yourself. If you need to, do it for a little bit, but don’t go silent for months on end. Your perspective will shift–especially now–and that’s the real danger, because when that happens depression and other things can set in. Unfortunately, it’s called “slip into depression” for a reason. Connecting threads will help prevent that.

3.) Identify anchors. An anchor is Monica-speak for something that you hold onto when times are tough. It can be a simple ritual, a song you listen to, or something physical you have or wear. When you are feeling awful, light a candle. Say a prayer. Listen to a song that makes you happy or write in your journal or grab a worry stone or get a massage or whatever it is you need to ground yourself. (Or, a combination of things.) Anchors build security, and that can help if you’re feeling uncertain.

4.) Establish mundane activities.
Basically, mundane activities are what grounds you in the real world. No matter what happens, you still need to eat. Still need to wash your clothes, your car, your dishes. These mundane activities are important, because once they go–your mental health can go. Routines can also be a boon here, too, because they help establish discipline. It’s also an easy way for you to signal a partner, friend, roommate, etc. to check up on you. “Hey, I’ve committed to making the bed every week day. Can you give me a heads up if I skipped it, or remind me to keep at it?”

5.) Ignore the flies.
There are a thousand and one distractions. Who’s dating who with what. Which celebrity is divorcing who. While some of this may sound like the aforementioned point four, the more shit you have to deal with, the more you can’t deal with. Something has to give, and that’s usually what either isn’t important to you or what doesn’t affect or impact you personally. Not everyone deals with shit going bad the same way. Sometimes, some people will create more drama instead of dealing with their personal bullshit. I’m saying that long-term, that will hurt more than help.

6.) Establish a goal for yourself that has nothing to do with what you’re worried about.
Maybe you want to save up for a car, get your nails done, play new games, read any number of books, train for a marathon. Do something for yourself, even if you get great pleasure from giving to other people. This is so important, I can’t even begin to tell you where or why or how. So many people, especially women, who have been through some shit feel guilty every time they give to themselves. Self-worth is tricky to manage, but abusers often attack your self-worth so you don’t take care of yourself. By making yourself a priority in some fashion, even if it’s tiny, you’ll be better able to help others in the long run.

7.) Use your talent. Knit? Make jewelry? Sing? Do carpentry? Do it. Do it, because a physical form of self-expression is another way to connect to yourself and the world around you. It doesn’t matter how good you are, who you share it with, or why you need to do it. I believe, with all my heart, that art can change the world–but it starts with each of us. There are so many different ways to engage with your art nowadays, and that’s great! But, each piece you make is a little bit of yourself out there in the universe. That’s a physical way of screaming into the ether that yes, you are here and present.

8.) Get thine house in order.
Whatever you’ve been procrastinating? Stop. Seriously. Just stop. Make a list of what you want to do, and do it. Why? This is another way of taking your personal power back. Remember: when you feel helpless, you will seek ways to get that power back in healthy and unhealthy ways. Focus on your own life first, because the actions you take will directly impact you and you can see the results. Then, once your oxygen mask is secure, then you can help others and share an emotional burden or whatever it is you volunteer to do. Often, getting your shit together will generate a mixture of other emotions you need to go through, too. This, by far, can be the hardest thing to deal with, because you might not remember how much you have to do until you start doing it.

9.) Remember kindness is not a weakness. Random acts of kindness, doing something nice for strangers, giving to friends who wind up not being your friends… Look, everyone responds to kindness differently. Some won’t acknowledge/respect it. Others will look down on you with pity. Others will appreciate it at that moment, or later on when they need to remember there’s somebody out there who is kind. Kindness, giving, etc. these are not weaknesses but they are viewed as such because they’ve been feminized and, for many, are an expectation when a gentle, beautiful soul is encountered. What I’m saying, is that none of that matters. It doesn’t matter if the 20-something year old looks at you with disdain because they mistakenly think you have no friends. It doesn’t matter if your friends think you are too nice, or if your enemies believe you’re weak. If being kind is who you are, don’t give in. Be kind anyway. Reach out anyway. Why? Because that’s who you are, and that’s all that matters.

10.) Establish boundaries. Whoo-eee. That’s a big’un. Look, people are infinitely complicated. Some people you can take in small doses. Some people you might agree with on an ideological basis, but you don’t get along with on a personal level. That’s all normal. But, it helps to know what boundaries you have in place to deal with things when shit goes south. That abusive boyfriend or family member. The news. Internet trolls. Don’t wait for someone to figure out your boundaries for you; determine that for yourself. And, don’t be afraid to recognize when friendships are failing or if something it’s working. Evaluate them, and if they can’t be repaired decide for yourself if you need to say good-bye.

All of these things I’m recommending circle back to your identity, your personal power, your connection to your community which you will need should the overall mood of this country turn dark. I can’t possibly know every situation there is to know, or what it is you want to do now and going forward. What I do know is that fear–that visceral, tangible moment of panic–that someone else has control over you is what will force you back into the darkness. By all means, be afraid. If you are afraid, then be afraid. Then, acknowledge that fear and use it to love and live and love some more. No one, not anyone, can take your personal story away from you–no politician, no pundit, no one. And, they cannot take away the best parts of you, nor can they control the worst, either.

What you do next, is all up to you. But, I believe in you. I really do. Thanks for listening to me pontificate. Now let’s kick some ass, and show people what we’re really made of.



To My Fellow Artists and Our Fans

It’s been an emotional past couple of days, and I know there’s a long struggle for human rights ahead of us. As an artist, I don’t know what my role in this mess will be. I know some people believe that being an artist isn’t a crucial or worthy calling, that giving some relief or challenging the way people thought or playing games was not as important as heading issues straight on. All we are, are stories. Every article you read is a story. Every TV show you watch is a story. We intellectually distinguish fact from fiction, but not if that fiction sounds like fact. Stories are important–now more than ever–and they gave me a reason to live when I needed it the most.

The gaming industry, for all our issues, is part of my family, and people I’ve met in SF&F over the past few years are becoming that as well. Now, more than ever, artists of all stripes need each other. Our world may be divided, but we do not have to spread a message of hate. We are the story-makers, and we have that power. It’s time to saddle up, and bring some hope back that is badly, sorely needed. Who’s with me?

I posted a list on Twitter of ways to help your fellow artists, and here’s a summary of what I said:

Many freelancers like myself are worried about health insurance changes. There are a couple of ways to help. They are:

1) Write/share reviews: Many sites employ algorithms that use this as a metric, and reviews influence word-of-mouth sales as well.

2) Support disaster relief funds like The Hero Initiative and the RPG Creators Relief Fund

3) Support artists by talking about what you love, and not only what you “hate”. Yes, issues need to be called out–but so does the good.

4) Drop a thank you or letter of encouragement to your favorite artist. I cannot stress how important that will be and is right now.

5) Support diversity/inclusion by supporting better representation. Buy, read, and recommend books by authors affected. Directly helps!

6) When you see an artist attempting to say something positive as a means of fighting back against the negativity, RT them. It *matters*.

7) Keep in mind some artists won’t share their political views, not b/c they don’t care–but b/c they care TOO much. Have to protect hearts.

And lastly 8) Many of us have a Patreon, Etsy, Kickstarter, etc. We’d appreciate a signal boost even if you can’t afford it. Thank you!

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