Each day most of us get out of bed and clean ourselves up, put on decent clothes, smile when we see others, and present a positive image to the world. “I’m doing fine, things are handled, nothing is really bothering me.” This extends to the online world, where we curate pictures and words to very literally publish the version of our lives we want others to see. We’ll take photos that offer our “good side” and select only one from a dozen to post on social media, we announce triumphs and good news, or share links that make it clear what issues we care about and what stances we take—even though we leave out beliefs that might receive negative feedback.
On the flip side, there are people who use the internet as a stream of consciousness device to publish every stray thought. Others can get addicted to the attention that comes from sharing bad news and dark thoughts and personal pain. I’m not judging any anyone harshly, because at different points I’ve been all of the above.
Recently I’ve been working on a personal writing project under a pen name, one that might go somewhere and make some income on the side or just might be for fun and self-therapy. I created a funhouse mirror version of myself, a guy who is enough like me that I can slip into his head and write very easily, even if his life and circumstances are quite different. He has a lot of problems and personal pain but they are far enough of away from mine that it’s weirdly comforting to write in his voice. If you’re interested in reading it, you’ll find the link below. It’s not that the project is shrouded in secrecy, but like the Tooth Fairy it’s fun to play along and keep up the game for those who aren’t yet in on the conspiracy.
Making a fake identity for the purpose of giving my fiction more verisimilitude has shown me just how effortless, even unconscious, it can be just to offer up the version of ourselves we want others to see—good or bad—and breeze by everyone else without really connecting. We each have a narrative going and mostly we don’t want to mess it up by talking about something that doesn’t support the story we are telling.
The biggest problem with telling the story of ourselves each and every day is that we’re the first to believe it. Self-honesty is one of our most difficult struggles, and has been one of my biggest challenges in the last decade. I encourage you to think about your mistakes, your flaws, your fears, and find a trusted someone you can open up to about it all. You don’t have to write a public blog about it like I’m doing—I’m clearly not “normal” by any stretch of the word—but you should go a friend, family member, clergy member, therapist, anyone you trust with the version of you that you don’t enjoy talking about. Write it in a private journal if that’s the only thing that you can handle. But you need to get it out of those dark corners of your mind so the problems exist out in the world, and once they are real you can begin to deal with them.
So ends the advice was the advice portion of the blog. Now I’m going to practice what I preach, and put some of my stuff out there. No hard feelings if you’d rather close out now. Here is a funny Star Wars joke!
As pretty much everyone knows, for more than a year the focus of my life was my daughter’s health. Elizabeth was diagnosed with blood cancer at the end of February in 2016, and our family endured a year of fear and uncertainty while Liz battled her illness. I made both her survival and the quality of her life my absolute, number-one priority, which was difficult for the rest of my family since we have a lot of kids in our huge Brady Bunch. My youngest son was only a few months old when Liz got sick, my oldest daughter got married and I only got to hear about it after it the fact. Being Liz’s bone-marrow donor for a transplant was one of those real-life perfect metaphors for what I was willing to sacrifice for my daughter: my life itself, without hesitation.
I still get the question “How’s Liz?” at least a dozen times a day and I’m always happy to give the answer. She is doing great! We still maintain a website that has updates on her health that are thankfully infrequent (no news is good news!), and use the hashtag #Fun4Liz to make it easy for anyone to find information that we post online.
And while Liz’s illness was horrific—something I wouldn’t wish on any child or parent—there was something strangely liberating about how it made things simple. And by that I mean emotional simplicity. The rest of my life still existed, and in fact almost every problem got worse during this time, but they were easily ignored and shoved to the side because there was only one thing that truly mattered, my child who was in mortal danger. I have zero regrets about my laser-focus and how I set my priorities, but now that Liz is doing well I am peeking out of the hole and seeing every problem and issue that is either still around from before or has appeared during the year I wasn’t looking.
For so long my family has been lifted up and supported by countless friends, loved ones, and strangers that it feels petty and selfish to admit we have other problems. We were given food, cash, things we needed, luxuries that we didn’t but kept our spirits up. Personally, I’ve had friends who’ve gone above and beyond to give me things I don’t even need. I’m humbled and I’m grateful.
It feels like the correct thing to do is to shower, shave, put on the nice clothes, smile, and pretend that things are all right now. To show everyone that with their help everything is fine. That’s pride talking. Pride can be healthy, and it can drive us in the right direction. But like anything, too much pride can work against us.
Actually, I’m not okay right now. I can’t deal with it all by myself. And for reasons I mentioned above, and to be fair with everyone who has stood with me and helped me during the hardest times of my life, I’d like to open up about some of my struggles and tell my amazing support system, my friends who have already done so much, that I still need help.
It’s not easy to say that, and I’m having an internal battle just pushing forward with this blog. I wrote the above paragraph and I think about the people I know who are just within walking distance who have problems that are objectively worse than mine. There are people I truly care about close by who are dealing with trauma, PTSD, abandonment, abuse, poverty, disabilities, and more. It goes against every prideful instinct to put my struggles up alongside them and still say that I need some help.
But I do need help. If nothing else, I need to put these problems down on a page and out into the world so they are real. And then I can figure out how to make things better, one thing at a time.
Before I get into it, I want anyone still reading to know I’ve decided to see a therapist. I’m lucky enough to once again have health insurance, and even though it’s not exactly cheap to do so regularly, I’m going to set aside some funds to have a professional to speak with at least once in a while. Even as I try to fix some practical concerns in my life to alleviate stress, I need someone to help me get a handle on my emotions and my priorities and help me sort out some of my personal relationships.
And one last thing. I don’t ask, or even want, anyone else to fix my problems for me. But I appreciate advice, input, ideas, or resources that I might not have considered. Basically, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing and I’m making it all up as I go along. I’m grateful for knowledge and even for those of you patient enough to simply listen.
All that said … here we go.
This is the big one, so let’s get it out of the way. It was only because of generous donations and people patronizing the little store I created for Liz that allowed our family to survive during the past year. I also sold a ton of back inventory and over half of my collection of original artwork. With my primary business essentially on hold that’s how I was able to make up the difference.
Even still, I have to admit that the last year wiped us out. We haven’t been able to do more than stay current on essential bills. Some old debts have either grown or just hung ominously in the background (hello student loans!). We had to replace appliances (fridge and dryer just within the past year, and we had help with the former) and we were not able to pay off the car so we could get a much-needed second vehicle like we hoped. As you’ll see below, we have a ridiculous list of things we need to spend money on but can’t, as we barely make it paycheck to paycheck. My direct sales were going fairly strong until the holiday shopping season ended, and now my income has been a shadow of its former self.
Our savings is long wiped out, the tax return spent on just helping us get caught back up, and we have a needs-list a mile long. It really sucks to not be in a position to think about taking the family on a vacation, or having to constantly tell the kids No when they come to us with something they need or want.
Help? This is something that will absolutely get better as I build up my business and my income rises from the ashes. So many people gave direct donations when Liz was sick, so I am not asking for handouts when there are so many individuals and worthy charities that need cash. But help in stretching a tight family budget, easy ways to save on food and standard household needs, ideas on how to plan fun but affordable things for both the teens and young children would be very much appreciated. We’re building to a much better future with financial stability, but tips to survive as we get back on our feet could make all the difference.
Signal Fire Studios – Fun & Games
After moving back to Georgia eight years ago, I created Signal Fire Studios LLC and published our first product sold in stores five years ago. The talented and incredibly generous Ben Mund approached me with an idea for a simple tile-laying card game called Building An Elder God. While I had other projects in the works, I realized that we should fast-track the game. Other than some playtesting and feedback, it was just the two of us and we took the product to completion faster than anything else I’ve worked on in the hobby games industry. I used crowdfunding to pay the printing costs, and got the game done and out the door.
I also overcomplicated the crowdfunding process and bungled some of the higher-level rewards. Since then I’ve done two additional projects funded by Kickstarter backers, and while the core products have all shipped, I’ve got a mix of secondary rewards that didn’t get handled correctly or are still just waiting in a queue to be attended to after an embarrassingly long period of time. I run my business as a solo act, and I’m absolutely guilty of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, always intending to systematically fix things once I had the time. And naturally each new crisis and project requiring my attention and resources pulled me away.
There are a bunch of people who are really angry at me and have some nasty things to say about my business, and I absolutely earned them all. There is a mess that still needs to be cleaned up and a lot of people who are owed a bunch of stuff. Some have asked for refunds. I need to figure out how to make it right without the process tripping me up and messing up new projects and products I have planned, or costing more than I can afford. To be brutally honest, I don’t have a lot to work with at the moment.
Because my daughter got sick my business essentially got put on hold. I was able to nudge our first roleplaying game product, the new edition of Metamorphosis Alpha, over the finish line and get it printed, out to our crowdfunding backers, and into distribution. But other than that things just coasted and ground to a halt. My sales haven’t yet even paid for the cost of shipping the last two products to the Kickstarter backers, so I haven’t received a check from trade sales since the middle of last year. Signal Fire Studios was effectively stalled, though I’ve been cranking the engine recently.
Thanks to the help of amazing friends, I was able to attend the GAMA Trade Show last month, and I spoke with people about my company along with the games and other products that I have in mind—both from companies that I do business with directly and those who I hope will sell our stuff—to help form a new business plan and product schedule. It went VERY well, and I came home and turned my notes into a lineup that’s achievable and potentially profitable, games and books I’m proud to produce.
Last week a board game I’m very excited about, Sojourner Tales, hit my warehouse. Created by Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman, it combines the storytelling of pick-a-path books with a straightforward family board game. Every time you play you’ll be able to plug in a new story to make it a new experience each time you open the box, and can pair with your smartphone, tablet, or other e-reading device! It will be the first new Signal Fire Studios product in 2017 and will be in stores May 3, 2017. We have a selection of stories to go with the game at launch and I’ll be working with Tracy and Laura and other authors to create new tales to go with this interesting game.
I’m not going to use this space to plug all the ideas I have, but I have a tentative product schedule through the end of a 2018 and a list of ideas even beyond that. It’s a combination of card games, some roleplaying games, and related book-format products. It’s exciting!
But … my company is in the hole. Not only is Signal Fire not generating much revenue at the moment, we’re in debt. I’m paying off a freight invoice, I owe a large convention for booth space in 2015, there are some back sales taxes to settle. I also owe royalties to those I’ve partnered with on these early products and some of the freelancers who helped make them happen. (It’s not an incredible amount of debt, but it’s enough.) And I have all those people who supported our early products on Kickstarter who are still owed additional items. While I’m jazzed about moving forward with new stuff, I want to put the house in order and move forward with a clean slate and a clear conscience. Tough to do when I don’t have anything to work with but a head full of ideas and a go-get-’em attitude.
Help? I could use some advice. These are not insurmountable problems, but I need to have a plan that goes beyond what products I’m producing. I want to settle the debts and produce the extras I owe the Kickstarter folks (and refunds for those who aren’t so patient and understanding). Marketing is hugely important and has been largely neglected since I started the new business, as the best approach has changed so drastically since I first became a full-time publisher back in 2001. What listings do I need to make sure my products can be found on? What websites should I try to advertise with, and what online communities should I participate in? What podcasts should I be talking to? Is there a social media approach that we should consider? I have my own ideas on all of these but I have so many friends in the industry who could steer me in a better direction. And of course, how the hell am I gonna get the money needed to get this process started? I plan to use crowdfunding once more to help finance new projects, but I want to take care of what I owe the older backers. And it’s not right to use funds for a new project to pay down old debts. These are the uncomfortable questions I keep avoiding as I figure out my business, and as always the most uncomfortable questions are usually the most important. I want to build up a successful company but I want to do it the right way, to take care of the people I work with and handle future deals with integrity. It’s way too tempting to just throw my hands in the air and rush forward into the future without handling my old business, but that’s not the person I want to be or the company I want to run.
Our lives were already hectic and things already falling behind before Liz was diagnosed with cancer. I went from being a single Dad with two kids in the house to being a blended family with a crowd to manage every day. My Jeep died, turning us into a single-car family that can’t even all ride together at once, and all kinds of little problems have become increasingly worse.
My Dad was a handy man, an old-school guy who grabbed his tools and fixed most household problems himself. Chambers men are known for maintaining and improving their property. And to my great shame, I am not them. Add the time, stress, and incredible distractions and now there is a long list of things to fix.
We have electrical issues, especially in our finished basement where our boys stay, where we have light fixtures that aren’t working even with new bulbs, and each time it rains half the outlets go out and won’t come back on until it dries up. Upstairs we have several outlets and one light fixture that’s out, so at least one breaker likely needs replacing.
Speaking of the downstairs, damage from when the water heater was leaking (since fixed) creeped under the hardwood floor in the basement apartment and warped the wood, so it looks like waves on the water or the world’s smallest skate park. The flooring needs to be repaired, replaced, or (my personal preference) re-done with tile. The boys report seeing termites in the wood on the floor.
In the back we have a large pool that needs to either be repaired or filled in. The original lining tore a few years ago, so it’s covered with a tarp and just sitting there. At this point I have no idea how the pump and filter are doing after sitting for years. Fencing around the back yard is in disrepair, and ultimately needs to be replaced. It’s overgrown and needs to be cleared out, with a constant battle to keep weeds from sprouting up and kudzu from creeping in over the back fence from the neighbor’s yard. Our back deck, which sits high off the ground, has wood going bad. The entire back of the house needs to be pressure washed.
We have a broken garage door, cracks in the concrete of our driveway and sidewalk that are allowing plant growth that needs to be dealt with. The front hedges are overgrown and need to be trimmed down, our front porch, steps, and guard rail needs to be repaired. There are a few holes that need to be patched in various walls, along with other minor repairs. We have a mounted microwave above our stovetop that needs to be replaced. The hardwood floors in our kitchen and dining room are gouged and scratched up and need to either be sanded down and refinished, or replaced entirely. We have damaged blinds that need to be thrown out and replaced. The carpets in the entire house desperately need professional cleaning. A dozen other minor issues that I’m not thinking of need tending to, I’m sure.
Help? Damn I miss my Dad. Honestly, I could use someone better at this sort of thing than me to help me prioritize and organize all of this so we can have a gameplan of what we can tackle ourselves. I have three teenage boys to put to work, not to mention ladies who are quite capable themselves, so we can theoretically put some time into long-term projects and get this house back in shape. Once we can afford it, I need to consult with good and honest professionals to help with our electrical and plumbing issues, and see just what we can do with that pool area in the backyard. Oh, and we have two dogs that need shots and a trip to the vet. Any locals have advice on where to best do that, and what online resources are good to save on things like flea and heartworm prevention?
I’m 42 years old, overweight, with a bad back, obstructive sleep apnea, and mild asthma and allergies. I’ve had my tonsils and adenoids removed, some corrective surgery in my nasal passages to try and help me breathe, and two abdominal hernia repairs. Not exactly in stellar shape, but it could be worse.
As of Monday, I’ve lost just over twenty pounds through diet and medication since the start of the year. Obviously I need to get my ass to the gym and increase my general level of activity, since all of the “work” I do involves sitting on said ass in front of a computer.
An MRI revealed degeneration in the disks of my lower spine, caused by age and being overweight for about half of my life. (Once upon a time I was a tall, skinny kid!) It’s irreversible and quite easy to aggravate, so while I need to exercise I need to be careful not to injure myself. I grew up with a father whose back was ruined by injury and surgery, so I’m terrified of making things worse.
There are some surgical options my doctor wants to discuss that might really help or “cure” my sleep apnea. It’s not fun to think about my throat being carved up once more, but the idea of being able to sleep like a normal person makes it all worth it. And since weight loss is incredibly important for most of my problems, I definitely would lose a few extra pounds if I had throat surgery.
Help? I could use some advice on diet, exercise, and weight loss to help me reach those health goals. Once our family income is back up where it needs to be I can explore surgery and other options that aren’t fully covered by our health insurance. Until then, I have to wait.
Writing & Sure Fire Books
It’s been very important for me to get back to writing fiction. A long time ago I built up a modest but well-received collection of short fiction. I got what I always dreamed of, a novel contract with a major publisher and a fat advance check. (Fat for a noob such as myself, anyway.) And … I choked. I was trying to write at the end of the day after I finished my full-time job running a game publishing company bearing someone else’s name, at a time when my life in Wisconsin was falling apart. My novel was canceled because I couldn’t make the deadline, that particular dream chucked into the trash with no one to blame but myself. So I stopped writing fiction.
And that sucks, because I love writing stories, and I like to think it’s one of my gifts. I began when I was eight years old, right around the time I started playing tabletop games. Writer and Game Designer are what I literally put on my business card, but other than some nonfiction and blogs, I stopped writing for years.
It was after I heard a talented voice actress perform a story I wrote back in 2004 that I got the familiar itch to write, buried for years under self-loathing. New story ideas bubbled up and I was figuring it all out when life happened, my daughter got sick, and the goals got sidelined.
Now I can and will write again. In fact, I’ve already begun. As mentioned above, I’ve started a side project: a fictional blog written under a pen name. Maybe it’ll get enough of an audience who will chip in a little cash to keep it going, or maybe I’ll collect it into a full book at some point and publish it. Or maybe it’ll just be a valuable exercise to write consistently, meet deadlines, find my voice, and flex those creative muscles that have atrophied for so long.
To hell with it, if you wanna check out the “Sekrit Projekt“: Click Here! Just be aware it’s the equivalent of a Rated R movie in terms of language and subject matter, and is more mainstream and less nerdy than the material I write under my own name. It’s definitely not for everyone.
In between the weekly faux-blog, I’m setting aside some time to write a short story, a novella, and then a full-length novel. These have been clawing around my brain for a while now, and once I’ve scratched them out I hope someone out there will enjoy my stories.
Rather than try to find a publisher for this material once it’s done, I’m just going to pave my own way. I’m lucky enough to have a small-but-solid audience already that might like reading this stuff, as well as author-friends willing to help me find readers. I’ve created Sure Fire Books LLC as a separate company to host my fiction, along with some ideas to help some friends of mine bring out-of-print books back from the dead.
Help? I’m a creature of habit that thrives on a predictable schedule, but my life is the opposite of that. I don’t know week-to-week what hours I’ll exactly be able to sit down and work, how much uninterrupted time I’ll get in one session, or even if I’ll be in my office in Marietta or the desk in my bedroom or at the coffee shop down the street. I need some advice on how to make that work. How much time should I block for this kind of writing, which is technically not part of my “day job” business that pays the bills. What kind of daily word counts are reasonable? Are there are any tools or productivity tips or anything else that will help me get back on track and treat my fiction writing with the importance it deserves? Since I’m self-publishing everything from a goofy fake blog to full-on novels, what are the best ways to market and sell them? I could use some tips from the pros on how to make the most of what I’m doing.
The Stuff I Haven’t Mentioned
This thing has already gone on too long, but obviously I haven’t mentioned everything—just scratched the surface on the major stuff. One thing is clear: I need to do damage control on relationships, as I’ve screwed things up with some friends and been terrible about appreciating others. My family needs much better from me, and I need to figure out how to be the man they deserve.
I spend a lot of time haunted by the idea that I’m a giant disappointment, that people with half the gifts and opportunities do twice as much with their lives. The people I love, those who believe in me, deserve better. I worry that I waste my time and my potential, and that I’m letting everyone down, myself included.
Help? I’ve written this for myself. I’ve typed it out and put out in the world like a message in a bottle. Even if no one reads it or no one responds, I’ve acknowledged what some of these problems are, and I’ve even written them out so I can begin the process of breaking them down so they can be solved, eliminated, or improved. I’m going to make things better, I’m going to make myself better. I will figure this out by getting the help I need, thinking things through, and leaving behind my fear to roll up my sleeves and get the work done.
I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for the incredible people who’ve helped my family and myself over the years—especially the last one. I may be a mess, but I’ve survived past disappointments and weathered storms and lived to screw up another day. For all of you’ve who’ve made the journey with me, you’ve been an incredible blessing and I’m grateful for you all. Without you I wouldn’t even have the guts to admit that I’ve got problems that need fixing, nor would I have the strength to even try to make things better.
There are people I have wronged. You know who you are, and I hope you know how sorry I am, how much I want to make it up to you. If you give me the chance I will do my best.
I’ve received far more love in my life than I deserve, but I want to send some back.
I love you.
Thursday, April 6, 2017