Category Archives: Essays

Bucket Dipper #parenting #storytelling

My son, who turns six in May, didn’t want to keep working on his dictation assignment for kindergarten.

The task called for me to read a short sentence, which he would then write on the paper. He’d had a decent day at school – even completed his in-class work – but it was late afternoon and I sensed he was tired.

I didn’t want him to quit, though. We were halfway through this. I just wanted him to finish. But he wouldn’t.

So, I said, after a long sigh: “OK, go to your room.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.

“Yes,” I said. Calm, but firm.

His brow furrowed. Foot thumped against the chair leg. “No.”

“I’m counting to three. One…”

Eyes already glistening with tears: “No!”

“Two…”

Grimacing: “No! No!”

“Three.”

Fists clenched. Tears streamed from squinted eyes. “NOOOOO!” But he was already climbing down from the chair at our high kitchen table and stomping toward the stairs.

The baby monitor in his room is the same that let us keep tabs on him when he was an infant in the majestic old house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Durham in 2013. It now broadcasts to a speaker in the kitchen in the townhouse our family has called home since 2016. Through it, I could hear him ranting between sobs:

“You’re a…a…a…bucket dipper, Dad! That makes me so sad! I bet you didn’t know everybody’s got an invisible bucket! And bullies take from other people’s buckets! I can’t believe you dipped into my bucket! You’re a bucket dipper!”

While this went on, I plucked my iPhone off the counter and opened the web browser. Apparently, a teacher at school had read the students a book called Fill A Bucket. I’d never heard of it before, but the premise is that, as the boy related, everyone’s got a bucket and when you do nice things for people, you fill their buckets. When you do bad things, you take from them. You’re a bucket dipper.

Well. I wasn’t going to settle for that. “Get down here,” I said up the stairwell.

Sullen, he made his way back down.

“You don’t have to like the consequences I dish out for your actions,” I told him. “That’s fine. But I didn’t do anything to your bucket. I gave you time to pick a different path. You refused. You made your choice. You took from yourself and you kind of took from me too. I didn’t want to spend our time together this way today.”

He looked shocked, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks. “I can’t believe I dipped into my own bucket and poured it out.”

“It happens,” I told him. To a lot of people, kids and grownups alike. More often than I dared admit.

Telecommuter’s Lament #amwriting #storytelling #struggles

Working at home works great for work. Not so much for creativity.

About a year ago, my supervisor asked if I wouldn’t mind giving up my cubicle on the fourth floor of an office park building about 30 minutes from home.

I didn’t put up any kind of fight. I packed my laptop and an extra monitor, drove home, and converted a corner of our upstairs bonus room into my workspace.

So much to love about this arrangement:

  • No commute. Great gas savings and reduced wear and tear on my car.
  • Relative autonomy while remaining connected to co-workers via email and Slack.
  • Freedom to care for our infant daughter in the mornings during the week, saving us money on child care.

I don’t have trouble focusing on work. Never have. Back in 1994, I launched a regional edition of The St. Petersburg Times from a spare bedroom in my house in Land O’Lakes, Fla. It took a few years to win approval for planting the flag with an actual strip mall bureau, so I already had plenty of work-from-home experience.

It’s not perfect, though.

One really challenging aspect of this arrangement: work brain never seems to turn off.

In the year since I started working from home, my creative productivity has plummeted. My work computer and personal computer sit on an L-shaped desk, inches apart, and yet – no matter the hour – 9 times out of 10, if I sit at this desk, my attention is turned to the work laptop and whatever the next thing is on my to-do list.

This week, I *finally* finished a roleplaying scene on OtherSpace that had been lingering for months. It wasn’t a crazy combat sequence, just characters talking to each other as part of a denouement for a crazy combat sequence that took just a couple of weeks to play out. That conversation scene? Started about a year ago.

I *did* manage several #bookstorewindow stories soon after the 20th anniversary of OtherSpace in June and July, but with the resurging obligations at work for product releases in August and October, I totally lost my creative focus and went into workbot machine mode.

I’m not sure how I’ll find balance. All I know for certain is that I must find that balance. I’m not getting any younger and the stories in my mind won’t just magically put themselves on a page. Scenes won’t run themselves on the Slack platforms.

I don’t suffer from the traditional kind of writer’s block where I can’t think of anything to write – I have a lot that I want to write, but I keep finding excuses to work instead.

It’s time to figure out how to compartmentalize my work obligations at home the way I could always compartmentalize my creative interests during work hours when I was at the office.

Finding magic in a bookstore window

The first I heard about Harlan Ellison was from my Dad when he gave me a used copy of Dangerous Visions from Jerry Cooper’s First Amendment bookstore near the drive-in off Highway 50 in Union Park.

I was a teenager at the time and a Star Trek fanatic, but didn’t yet realize that Ellison authored the original script for the best original series episode (fight me) “City on the Edge of Forever.”

What Dad told me about Ellison, the thing that stuck with me – even to this day – was this gimmick of sitting in a bookstore window with a typewriter and just churning out short fiction based on prompts from the crowd outside.

In a 1981 NBC interview, Ellison explained why he liked to write in public: “Well, when I write a story, I get into a story and the world that I’m creating is more real than the world around me. I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job of work like being a plumber or an electrician.”

Harlan Ellison died on June 27, the day before OtherSpace turned 20. And, really, thinking back, it’s difficult to imagine OtherSpace coming to pass without Ellison’s influence and inspiration. Another of his anthologies, Partners in Wonder, captured collaborations between Ellison and other speculative fiction writers. And what is OtherSpace if not a speculative fiction collaboration, done in real-time, now in a browser-based bookstore window?

Ellison also got his fingerprints all over Babylon 5, the TV series that persuaded me to follow a story arc format as I developed OtherSpace back in 1998.

So here we are, 20 years later, on the shoulders of another fallen giant (who likely would bristle at the idea). We’re trying to keep the OtherSpace story going while opening new windows into some of our other favorite imaginary realms. At the same time, I sometimes feel rudderless with my solo creative efforts. It’s easy to blame it on the demands of work and parenthood, which are legitimate and necessary distractions. But the truth is: Sometimes I just need prompting. It’s how I got started in creative writing in elementary school, after all, asking friends to give me a few words to weave together into a story that (hopefully) made some kind of sense.

Ellison’s passing reminds me that I won’t live forever. Ellison’s life reminds me that I’ve got a decent option for borrowed inspiration.

Now the JointheSaga Slack community includes a channel (#bookstorewindow) where, using prompts provided (I hope!) by readers like you, I’ll generate stories in real-time as my schedule permits. I’m optimistic it’ll be like warming up an engine in a car that’s been kept in the garage all winter, getting ready for spring.

True confessions: The audacity of wanting something out of all this

Seventeen years ago, I got this idea to help raise awareness about OtherSpace – and to create a sort of keepsake for participants who helped shape the first few story arcs with their characters.

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And in the years since, this has been what some angry people point to as proof that 1) I’m greedy and 2) I’m stealing the work of other people and calling it mine.

Well, no to both those things.

Let’s start with the second point first, which I feel is most critical. In 2001, when OtherSpace: Revolutions was published via iUniverse, the publication interface asked for an author and it would not accept “Wes Platt and Everyone Else on OtherSpace” as an answer. So that’s why my name is on the cover. In the acknowledgements, though, I made it clear this wasn’t a solo work:

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I didn’t want credit for anyone else’s work. If anything, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the collaborative storytelling that made us so successful at the time – and that wasn’t, by any stretch of imagination, something I could’ve done all by myself. Players brought their own vivid imaginations and storytelling styles to OtherSpace and added unique flavors to our literary gumbo. I just brought plots and a few characters to get into the mix once in a while.

By the time I got around to OtherSpace: Storm Warning in 2003, I went further to include a comment on the back cover to make it clear that although I had a part to play in the story, I wasn’t alone in bringing it to life:

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These books weren’t ever about me wanting strangers to mistake all those characters as my own. Nor were they about stuffing my pockets with cash, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

I thought of these books first as souvenirs for players of their experiences on OtherSpace, because who knew how long the game or the website would last? And, honestly, the rate at which I tinkered with changing the website and forums could be wildly frustrating and leave libraries of logs incomplete or, worse, missing. The few folks who bought these books were participants in the stories. They knew how they ended, but wanted a record of it.

Second, I thought of the books as a public relations tool to spread the word about the game. OtherSpace: Revolutions was, at the time (as far as I know) the first published work of its kind. I don’t know of any other online collaborative roleplaying games that published a chronicle of their stories before 2001. If you know of one, tell me!

Now let’s get to the other issue: greed. Critics alleged at the time (and since – as recently as within the past few years, it turns out) that I was profiting off the backs of OtherSpace players, like some kind of virtual Gordon Gecko.

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I can’t remember the last time I got a royalty check from iUniverse. Pretty sure it was during my first marriage, which ended back in 2008. But when the checks came (I think it was quarterly), they weren’t ever for much more than $20 or so, as I recall. Not even enough to cover a month’s worth of server hosting. And that’s OK, because, as I said, the books weren’t much of a money-making venture for me. iUniverse offered a print-on-demand service. The books were really long. As a result, they were about $32 to purchase. Seriously, only the sort of thing someone who wanted the memento would get.

The point when I did start trying to make money – off virtual castles in an imaginary realm called Fastheld – came after I made the leap from journalism to full-time indie game design with Chiaroscuro. One could certainly argue with that project that I was chasing the almighty dollar. One would be right. I had bills to pay. I worked hard on my games, which cost money for me to run. I believed then and I believe now that creators deserve to be paid for their creations. That’s not greed. That’s common decency and respect for the effort.

But, ohmygod, the hassles that came with the castles. Most players were fine, but just a couple of vindictive primadonnas with overblown senses of entitlement could ruin my day. As a sole proprietor with a handful of volunteer admins helping out, it just wasn’t worth it in the long run.

And then World of Warcraft happened. It’s not really the fact that it sucked the virtual air out of the internet for online text-based games – although, honestly, it did. It’s more that it sucked me in. I became an MMORPG believer. Wanted to work for Blizzard, but jumped at the chance to join the crew at Icarus Studios to work on Fallen Earth. The text-based projects slid to the side for a while as I dedicated most of my attention and energy to helping bring to life the post-apocalyptic Grand Canyon Province.

I came back full-force to the text games in 2011 after Fallen Earth’s launch, but, of course, nothing’s ever come close to matching what we had on OtherSpace in 1999-2000. Probably, nothing ever will. I’m OK with that. I’ve got a full-time job. Kids. But I’m still going to remain as involved as I can with these games, for as long as I can – while my eyes can see, my brain can process words, and my fingers can type.

My detractors have argued that I’m in this for greed, and also insist that I’m a megalomaniac. Eh. I’ll own a mild narcissism with – at least in the early days of OtherSpace – a little too much taste for playing the bad cop when it came to dealing with immature players.

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Sometimes I wanted to be feared more than loved, depending on the person. Freely, I admit that. However, I like to think I’ve mellowed with age. And having children of my own is teaching me new lessons in patience every day.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a Hard Case browbeating – particularly when I dug my heels in and basically got all blunt with a “my way or the highway, wait, no, just hit the highway” attitude – I’m sorry.

Have I made mistakes in 20 years of running games here? God, yes.

Is trying to make back some of the money I’ve spent on them one of those mistakes? Hell, no.

Would I do some things differently? Yes, no question. But every chance I took taught me something, for good or ill. The steps I take going into the next 20 years should teach me plenty more.