Short fiction review: “86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine

Part of being an effective writer is learning how to be a good critic. This will be an ongoing series of posts that will review pieces of short fiction in order to both highlight other writers and help me think critically about the things that I read.

The first review is the short story “86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine. Her story appeared in Clarksworld Magazine and can be found here http://bit.ly/10wSD00.  You can also visit her website at http://www.genevievevalentine.com/.

When a city takes action against its own, the ones that are left end up picking up the pieces.

Genevieve Valentine’s short story “86,87,88,89” looks at domestic terrorism through the eyes of those who have to live with the consequences. When terrorists blow up the American Museum of Natural History, the result were raids by the government that left huge swaths of the city in ruins.

The story followed one of many archivists hired by Homeland Security to collect evidence following the raids. The archivist is unnamed, but clearly a New Yorker. Through her, the reader sees a government seeking to justify its war on terrorism.

“When you applied to Homeland Security, they asked a lot of questions about how many questions you asked.”

— Unnamed

The use of secondary documents like reports and email correspondents were central to the story. The documents revealed a government that was obsessed with cataloguing seditious material. This was particularly effective when put up against the unnamed archivist’s narrative.

The archivist believed that the government was doing right at first. That she was doing her part to rid the city of terrorism, but her perspective changed after weeks of picking through through the wreckage and dead bodies.

Seeing her perspective shift was the power in this story.

The archivist was forced to confront the narrative that government needed to find and eradicate terrorism at all costs. Even if that meant turning the guns on its own citizens. Her partner Jesse pointed out the government spies amongst the archivists. They were there to ensure that none were sympathizers.

The most powerful scene involved another archivist named named Kepler who followed the rules and turned in turned in seditious materials to Homeland Security. She watched as Kepler was whisked away for interrogation.

“It would have been someone, eventually. The city needs examples.” — Jesse

What was left at the end was a sense of resignation. That raids could never be undone and whatever sliver of truth the archivist saw on the job would never come to light.

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Your career is a game have fun with it

The pressure of building a career  can be overwhelming no matter what you are trying to pursue, but for a person trying to parlay their creativity into a career that pressure can be stifling.

The more time spent worrying translates into mental energy diverted from whatever it is you are passionate about. The way this pressure drives you to inaction often isn’t overt. It’s not an overwhelming fear that paralyzes you, but a low background noise of doubt and fear that nags at you.

Procrastination is the byproduct of this stress. It’s a mechanism of avoidance that is in direct response to our own fears and doubts about what needs to be done. It’s natural to gravitate toward doing things that provide instant gratification, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the right or appropriate thing to do.

Important tasks and procrastination are like planets and gravity— the bigger the task the stronger the urge to procrastinate. Higher stakes mean the consequences for failure are much greater, which ratchets up the fear and our craving to avoid dealing with it.

There’s no reason to approach your life and goals with such of grim determination. Creating the life and career you envision should be an enjoyable process, not cause you to flee from it. So why do we torture ourselves in this way?

The simple reason is fear. Our careers are such a huge part of our identity that the notion of failure is terrifying. Failing is akin to getting killed— it’s like having a huge part of yourself ripped out and called invalid. Perhaps dealing with this effectively requires a shift in thinking.

To borrow a phrase from Joker in the Dark Knight “Why so serious?

Think of your life, career and everything you do as a game. This game is fun, but it’s not frivolous because there are rules and consequences for breaking them. The beauty of this game though is that you are both player and game designer so by default you should be an expert.

Gamefication is the concept of applying game-like experiences to to real life situations. Generally this is applied to business and marketing campaigns, but it works in your personal and professional life. Knowing that you are in control is critical to a successful career and this is like setting the ground rules. The idea is to set up a framework for what it means to accomplish something and the specific rewards for finishing. When it’s clear what success means then it’s much easier to shoot for it.

Take a moment to consider yourself as the game designer of your own life. The concept and rules are yours to consider, set and abide by. What would this game look like? How would it play?

Start from the top

There’s a concept in game design called Epic Meaning, which is the motivation or belief that players are going to achieve something great. Deciding on the Epic Meaning for your life is the first step because this is the reason why your are playing in the first place.

Franchises like Halo and Mass Effect are prime examples of this. There is no better feeling in the world than knowing that you are the badass that saved the entire human race from extinction so we play out those fantasies. Perhaps your Epic Meaning is not so lofty, but don’t make your life aspirations the equivalent of Tetris.

The key is to make it compelling, something that would get you excited about approaching each day.

Achievement system

Once you’ve decided on an Epic Meaning decide on an Achievement System. These are the parameters for your game and determines the way you approach getting things done.

Think about what kind of game you are playing then create a system that applies to your life. Do you view life as a fighting game that is predicated on mastering techniques and conducted round by round? Is it an action RPG predicated on leveling up and completing quests that contribute to a much longer journey?

Create a system to chart your progress and the parameters for succeeding. If you love competition for example then perhaps create a series of challenges that will allow you to acquire a certain skill. Remember that challenges in a game sense imply a time limit and quantity of things to do so be specific about what completing a challenge means.

If you like Role Playing Games then perhaps your life is a journey and the tasks you accomplish are quests that contribute to a much larger narrative. Define the main quests you need to embark on and the side quests that are worthwhile to pursue. Set clear objectives in completing your quests and the steps needed to get there.

The best way to do this is to take a look at your favorite games and see how the designers went about getting you to play. Structure your goals like the mission structure in your favorite military shooter. Organize your to do list like the challenge mode in your favorite fighting game for example.

Reward Schedule and payoff

The Reward Schedule provides closure and fosters a sense of accomplishment for being productive. Knowing the benefits of playing your game is just as important as what the system of achievement is.

The benefit of completing a certain set of challenges might be learning a new skill or acquiring a new item. Perhaps finishing off that side quest will help you in the journey find a new job or get published. Whatever it is, make sure you know exactly what it is you are getting at the end.

Profiling Professionals- Tricia Peterson

Profiling Professionals is a series of articles that highlights individuals that don’t take the beaten path when it comes to their careers. If you know of anybody that fits this profile email Jose San Mateo at info@jasanmateo.com.

Name Tricia Peterson

Occupation: Artist

Website: http://www.ratgirlproductions.com/

Contact information: support@ratgirlproductions.com

 

It’s fitting that Tricia Peterson’s career as an artist and her website Ratgirl Productions owes part of its launch to a corporate pet supply store’s need to shutter its business.

“I got laid off working a job for six days a week. I was managing a pet supply store and working my bum off,” Peterson said. “One day they set me aside and said the figures were not looking good. It really hit me hard, but I was in an ok place. Then it just clicked and I asked myself ‘why am I not doing art.’”

Ratgirl Productions is now two years old and what started out as an idea has grown into a business with a steady following. She still sets up shop at anime, comic, and furry conventions throughout California, at one point working a pace of three in one month, but now its to the point where she has a group of regular clients and now sells merchandise online.

It usually starts early

Peterson always had an inclination for art. As a young girl growing up in the Napa Valley there was little else to do but spend time drawing up in her room.

“I definitely had a lot of free time and drawing tended to fill that up. When I was young, I’d spend a couple of hours on a doodle,  slaving away to get the perfect shading in. You go into kind of a zone and block out time.”

Her dad was a musician with a penchant for the arts while her mother managed a video store called Video Point in Sacramento. As a kid her family would often watch films together.

“I was born and raised in the Napa Valley; surprisingly not as a wine and dine personality,” she said. “I really had a lot of inspiration from things my parents showed me. My dad would bring home a lot of animated movies especially.”

Peterson hung out with a lot of animals and she often spent her days watching Looney Toons and Disney movies. She said her favorite movie was the Lion King, which had an influence on her style. Visit her website and nearly every page you’ll be greeted by a cute furry creatures that wear human clothes and stand up on two legs.

In the way of formal art classes, Peterson started with art classes and took a video production class at Napa High School during her junior and senior year. She got her hands on studio grade equipment and learned the tools of the trade for an animator. In the summer of 1999, Peterson attended a college level animation course in Valencia, CA at a school called CSSSA (California State Summer School for the Arts. She said that learning techniques like storyboarding and creating scripts were useful for her.

After High School she went to Santa Rosa Junior College and took courses online at Anthem College, but for the most part Peterson taught herself.

Peterson developed her own style through imitation. She would often fall in love with certain characters and stories, try and mimic them then incorporate it into into her own original works.

“I’d watch a movie, see a certain style then try and develop my own sorts of style in genres like anime or disney character types,” she said.

Learning this way allowed her to be flexible when it comes to commissioned works. She can easily adapt to what a client is looking for. Peterson said that clients are often surprised when they look through her portfolio and see all the different styles that she is able to do.

She still learns the same way, often watching animation from countries like France and Russia or exploring animated cartoons from decades past.

Striking it out on your own

Real life was often the most challenging part of pursuing a career in art. Peterson was always a hard worker and after high school she was working 40 hours a week in addition to taking her college courses.

She spent time working retail with a five-year run working at various WalMart’s, but it left her little time to work on her art.  She said, “Certain retail job required a lot of mental focus and my art would definitely take a beating. I wouldn’t draw something for months at a time.”

It wasn’t until she was laid off around Halloween in 2009 that she decided to commit much of her time to Ratgirl productions. She finally took the plunge after she went with her sister to the bank and opened a business account.

The skills she learned from working customer service were useful to her business. She was already saavy with social media and knew how to design a website for herself. It also helped to have strong support from her family.

“I am really thankful from my husband and friends and family who have been supportive of what I’ve been trying to do,” Peteson said. “They would ask  ‘are you sure you want to do just this?’ whereas the average joe will ask ‘how do you make a living?’”

The two most difficult things about starting Ratgirl Productions was time management and marketing. She said that becoming a sole proprietary business was juggling being the boss, production artist, public relations writer and everything else.
A typical day is often a lesson in multitasking.

“Pop in movie to get some inspiration and let my mind flow. I’ll definitely try to keep a somewhat rigid schedule so I don’t work on one thing all day,” Peterson said. “I try to  mix it up and work on couple of different things at once so I don’t get restless and fatigued.”

The more difficult task is marketing. With so so many different artists out there, it’s difficult to get yourself noticed so she spends a couple of hours scouring facebook and social media interacting with her fans.

“Regular posting on my site and keeping a good online presence shows people I’m not just a part time artist, but I’m but here to stay,” Peterson said. “It gives them security that they can hire me and I’m not just going to blow them off. I give each project their due time and people appreciate that.”

Not all of her time is spent online though, she also hits the convention circuit working the artist alleys and dealer room. Peterson said that she had been frequenting conventions as a fan for years so it was natural to bring Ratgirl productions to conventions.

“More often I am trying to keep a face to face presence at conventions,” Peterson said. “It’s really major haul getting to every single events. Whenever I’m at conventions it’s usually on a professional level at dealers room or artists alley.”

Selected Works

Ninja Time

This is a parody inspired by The Cartoon Network Show Adventure time and the popular anime series Naruto. She said It’s a fan favorite on her pages and often the kids that see her at conventions recognize the style.

Kitten Vs. Yarn

This started out as a request from friends to build a little bit more artwork in her portfolio. The very flat style is inspired by some of the more recent cartoons on Cartoon Network.

The Watcher

Produced inbetween getting laid off and starting her business. She produced this piece after seeing a contest on Deviant Art. The theme was Dreams and nightmares.

The Importance of Platform

I’ve always known that building a platform is important to your writing career, but defining exactly what your platform is and how it functions was harder for me to understand. The best way I can explain it is a personal example.

It happened during work when I was doing research for an article at the Vallejo Times-Herald. I was sifting through our online archive, searching for an article I’d written a year ago when I noticed exactly how many times my byline appeared in the newspaper.

In the span of three years, my byline has appeared in the newspaper 340 times and given our circulation size of about 15,000 readers, that’s a lot of people who may view me as an expert on sports in Solano County.

I remember writing a fraction of those articles, but unknowingly I’d built a pretty sturdy platform as a sports reporter.

What is a Platform?

The idea of having a platform is not a new concept and many of my ideas on the subject come from reading about it. The two best sources I’ve found on the subject are in Sage Cohen’s book The Productive Writer and Christina Katz book Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. Katz’s book is great if you really want to get serious about this subject.

Platform is an expression of your expertise. It says to people ‘hey world, this is me and this is my experise.’ If you look at it from a business sense this is the organizing principal that will govern what you work on, how you work on it and who you work with.

Being clear about your platform brings focus to your writing life and gives you the criteria to evaluate what projects to work on, what type of research you need to do and allows you to take advantage of opportunities that may be staring you right in the face.

Creating multiple Platforms

The best example I’ve seen of exactly what your platform is actually supposed to look like and how it functions in your writing life is the website of job coach and professional geek Steven Savage.

Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a professional geek whose aim is to help people combine passion, talent, media and technology. Find info on his current project at http://www.focusedfandom.com

You can find his website here.

I met Steven during the Animation on Display Festival in San Francisco two weeks ago. I was trying to network and develop a second platform as an anime and video game writer, when I stumbled upon his panel called “Fans Without a Dream Job.” His tips on leveraging your hobbies and interests into a career led to the creation of this blog and now this post.

If you’d never met Steven before you could figure out who he is and what he’s about by going to his website and taking a quick glance at the home page. It’s the perfect example of clearly defining your platform.

“I am Geek 2.0, where technology, culture, media, and career come together…”

These days, writers rarely have just one platform and many times people that get into writing are experts in something else and fall into writing. Steven has been an Technology Project Manager for the better part of 16 years. He’s also a fan of anime and all things geeky, which he’s leveraged into jobs as a career coach, freelance writer and public speaker.

Steven is also the author of five books that deal with helping anime fans turn their hobbies into careers.

“Any writing job is communication and any career is about communication so it’s not hard for everything you do to feed it back into itself,” Savage said. “It’s easy to think of these things as separate, but you have to tie them together.”

It’s not just important, but essential for writers develop multiple platforms. If your goal is to make a business out of your writing life, it’s important to use every opportunity to bring the service you provide to all the people who need it.

In other words, the more you write the more chances you have to get paid. The faster you produce work, the faster those dollars come.

“A writing job is a lot more complicated,” Steven said. “People think they are  going to be one kind of writer, but the big thing is if you want to write for a living. Write as much as you can.”

Building your Platform

I think Steven Pressfield said it best in his book War of Art. He has a chapter called YOU INC, which expresses the idea that as a writer you are the President and CEO of your writing life. Thinking of yourself as a professional puts you in the proper mindset to think of your writing and work as a service. Your platform is the guiding principal that dictates where you put your time and effort.

In Steven’s case he was fortunate enough to be a Project Manager before being a writer.

“What I’m doing is applying project management skills to writing. What I like to do is start with the endpoint in mind. Ask yourself where your trying to go. This is something a lot of people miss. Look at where you’re trying to go then try to understand it. It helps to understand cause-and-effect once you understand how you’re getting there and where your trying to go. If you have a goal in mind then you can work back and get there much better.”

You have to decide what you are an expert at before you can tell people you are an expert at something. Sit down and figure out what subjects you know the most about and you may realize that is your expertise. If it’s something you have a passion for, but don’t know much about then figure out what you need to do in order to become an expert at that subject.

Once you’ve found your expertise, put it down on paper as a single statement of purpose. This will be your guide as you map out out exactly how you are going to get there.

Proper planning is essential no matter whether you see success as writing a book, running a successful blog or building a freelance career. “Planning is a creative process. The act of planning can be inspiring,” Savage said. “ It’s seeing what we can do. Creativity is something you have to take everywhere.”

The key to planning anything is having clear measurable goals and hard deadlines to get it done.

“The really difficult thing is knowing how long something is going to take. Even project managers at large companies have trouble estimating the size of a project,” Savage said. “The secret for planning a good project is to break things down to reasonably sized compliments. If you’re doing a book, go for X amount of work each day.”

The final and perhaps the most important step is to get started. Whether that is defining your platform, planning out how to reach your goals, or writing. Do something toward building your platform every day, because many times putting in steady consistent effort is the one thing that stops people from succeeding.