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What If No One in Your Family Had Ever Gone to College?

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All images courtesy of College Bound.

I'm the only person in my immediate family to obtain a college degree--neither of my parents has a degree, and none of my three siblings chose the four-year degree route in their careers.

HOWEVER, my mother attended university for a time, with an eye toward earning a bachelor's in Education. A year away from graduating, she chose to marry my father and commit herself to stay-at-home motherhood instead of finishing. You could make that choice back in the early 70s, even on enlisted military pay.

But that college experience stayed with my mother, and I sensed early on that she regretted not snagging the BA. She talked about life at the university often, and she instilled in me the desire to go to college myself. To earn that degree.

Not everyone has the privilege of a mother's influence toward college. While some families take a university education as a given, for many, it's a foreign concept, and especially with the astronomical cost of tuition these days, it can seem as remote as a distant planet.

It's that distance that the organization College Bound works to bridge.

"Just one adult with a college degree can change the cycle of poverty in a family forever," say the folks at CB. They function as coaches, guides, and tutors in the effort to help students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds achieve bachelor's degrees and fulfilling careers.

I know a lot about the organization because my husband, a former-game-industry-brand-manager-turned-grant-manager, works there. And because he does, they found out about me and my work as a visiting professor of game design at Webster University. They invited me to speak to students on a panel for Career Night. Here I am, talking with my hands, as usual.

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The students asked fantastic questions, and we had a lively discussion that got real, if you know what I mean. There were two CB alums on the panel with me, and they were a study in contrasts. One chose to become an accountant, and while he doesn't "love" his job, he loves being able to live comfortably and even travel. His counterpoint was a young woman who took a job teaching at a school in a disadvantaged neighborhood where some of her students struggle with simply getting enough to eat. She loves what she does.

It wasn't planned this way, but it turned out that every single person on the panel was the first one in our families to get a bachelor's degree. Fortunately, two of them had College Bound.

The students apparently thought I was a riot, or so says my husband, Anthony, who was the only guy in the room wearing a tie.

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If you're local and looking to get involved with College Bound, check out their Trivia Night fundraiser on August 25. Of course, you can support them even if you don't live in the Lou. 

So what's your education story? Did you go to college? Skip it and climb to wild success by other means? And who helped you along the way? Tell me in the comments below. Stories are my religion.

And have a Happy 4th of July!

 

 


Events Where I Will Be Speaking

For one whole week in July, it's a 24/7 Lisa channel here in the River City. Or so it seems to me; I've been in introvert mode since the teaching professorship wrapped at the end of May, so stepping out for two public-speaking events in one week feels like a big deal.

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First, PixelPop Festival is a two-day event in St. Louis, Missouri, "celebrating unique games and the people who make them possible." It's the cornerstone conference for a growing local gaming community comprised of a few highly successful start-ups, a major game studio's satellite office, and loads of energetic entrepreneurs and students of game design.

This is one of the reasons I returned to my roots--because I saw this happening.

The past year has been a pretty much near-constant barrage of nostalgia and memory triggers as I've done what people say you can't do: gone home again. PixelPop is no exception. It takes place at my alma mater, St. Louis University, in the student center, a building that served as a sort of "third place" during my undergrad years at SLU. I saw Maya Angelou speak there, and fittingly, I lost a friend to the card game Magic there when he defected from our convo group to join a daily meetup of players. (In retrospect, I should've joined 'em.)

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Here's my session abstract:

In this interactive session, Lisa Brunette draws on her decade-long career focus in narrative design and game writing to tackle a thorny question that really shouldn’t be so thorny: Why does story matter? You’ll design your own game narrative and come away with do’s and don’ts based on a wealth of development experience across hundreds of games.

There's more info on Facebook, and here's where you can find the full schedule. My talk is Sunday.

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Like I said, THE VERY SAME WEEK, I'm also speaking at a St. Louis County Library branch, as part of their "Science in St. Louis" series. I know, right? I'm all science-y.

Here's that session abstract:

"The Rock, Paper, Scissors Phenomenon!" Using a simple hand game as a starting point, participants will learn fundamentals of game design and storytelling in this interactive experience led by a 10-year game industry veteran.

And the Facebook event page.

What are YOUR plans for the summer? Exciting career moves? Public escapades? Feel free to promote them in the comments below.

 


The End of the Dream(slippers): Year in Review

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When I set out to write the Dreamslippers series back in 2012, the self-publishing business was still bright, shiny, and promising.

Still, I wasn't sure if I'd go that route. I had to be convinced, and I was, in the end--by research that showed you had a better chance of making a living as a fiction writer if you went indie. Around a very demanding day job, it took me two years to write the first book. During that time, I shopped it around to agents and editors in traditional publishing, and I had an incredible amount of interest--just no follow-through. I worked on the book, getting a ton of feedback from alpha and beta readers--as well as some of those agents--and revising over and over. It wasn't my first book; I'd had an agent back in 2005 who shopped a short-story collection around. I'd honed my skill since then and felt confident about the manuscript. I talked to a lot of people, authors and agents and marketers and others. It seemed to make the most sense to take a leap into self-publishing.

Cat in the Flock performed well, enough to warrant further attention. A celebrity Hollywood director reached out to me about rights, I was interviewed by the Seattle Weekly, and I won my first indieBRAG medallion. This despite a homemade book cover and struggles with Amazon's category algorithms, which plunked the book in "pet noir" because of the title. 'Cat' referred to the protagonist's nickname, a shortening of her full name, Cathedral. There are no felines in the book.

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The original cover for Cat in the Flock.

Perhaps most important to me, the book was reviewed well by people whose opinions I trusted. The writers Jon Talton, Mary Daheim, and Corrina Wycoff all contributed praiseful blurbs. None other than the venerable Kirkus Reviews called it "a mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."

According to some successful indie authors I've talked to, what I should have done right then was release two more books that year and keep going as fast as I could.

But I didn't. Writing and releasing Cat around the day job (and my own wedding, by the way) had been exhausting. So instead, I took a poetry manuscript out of a drawer and published that, too. Half the poems in Broom of Anger had already appeared in literary journals, and for some of them, I'd won awards. I was curious to see how it would do.

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It probably won't surprise you to learn that sales were pretty much non-existent. Poetry is a tough enough sell for traditionals, and self-published poetry, no matter the quality of the work nor the stature of the authors contributing blurbs, is a non-starter.

But I persevered. My husband and I had a change in our living situation when he was offered an opportunity to steer a grant at a small college in a small town... And the semi-rural life held appeal for us both. I stepped down from my management position at the day job and dropped to four days per week, which I would work remotely, from the small town. I hoped this would provide more time for the novel series.

I'd published Cat in late July of 2014 and followed it with Framed and Burning in the fall of 2015. From first draft to release, it took me nine months.

There's a lot that goes into self-publishing that takes up time. You could think of an iceberg, how you see only 1/3rd of it, the part above the water. The other 2/3rds of being an indie is everything ranging from reviewing voice actor demos for your audiobook to formatting the actual manuscript to writing a marketing plan. Most of it has nothing to do with the actual writing.

Framed and Burning garnered a good deal of critical success, most notably as a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. A huge fan of the celebrity librarian, I was awash with honor over that nomination. But the top prize went to a traditional author who already had a long list of such awards. I won a second indieBRAG and was nominated for a RONE Award, but sales were just okay.

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I'd worked diligently to professionalize my novel-writing business, forming an LLC and hiring professional editors, a book cover artist, marketing consultants, and so on. I researched social media, tried to get good at it, and bootstrapped as much as I could, making lovely connections in my small town, where people still treat writers as if we're at least minor celebrities.

Meanwhile, I'd made the decision to exit from the day job. It had been a heady, exhilarating, and at times, challenging, five years. I'd created a narrative design team, basically a group of game storytelling experts, and together we raised the bar on storytelling in the company's collector's edition games. Passionate about game storytelling, I wanted to continue to write and design games, but a no-compete clause in my contract kept me from any work that could be construed as "materially similar" for a blackout period of one year. So I tried my hand at some new genres, such as Smash Squad for WG Cells, and I wrote about games for several publications and my own blog.

And I continued to write novels. I released the third book in the series the week of the presidential election in 2016. 

The country was in upheaval with Trump's victory, and no one paid any attention to Bound to the Truth. I won a third indieBRAG for it, though. The medallion represents the top 10 percent in independent publishing, so it's a strong achievement, especially considering the volume of self-published works. I still think it's the best book in the series, but it launched to dismal sales and never recovered.

Brokenhearted, I had long conversations with two successful authors--one indie and the other a hybrid of traditional and indie--who both proclaimed the self-publishing bubble had burst. The hybrid author has gone back to 100 percent traditional. The indie is aggressively pursuing a career in scriptwriting, which she believes is the next big opportunity.

I pulled back on investment in the Dreamslippers series and made due with one final pro cover, for the boxed set. After a year, it's still sitting on Amazon without a single review, and sales have been poor. It's tough, because I know some indies who are still making an all right living. But they tend to serve niches (such as a Christian apocalyptic writer) that are ignored by New York publishing. They also usually have military pensions or are kept financially afloat by their spouses' incomes. 

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But frankly, it would have surprised me if I'd been able to make a living on indie books alone. I'd already survived the collapse of the journalism industry, and I understand that we are in the throes of a digital revolution that places primacy on the visual. I approached the entire enterprise with the idea that it was a huge experiment, and a gamble. While there are many things I might have done differently, on the whole, I learned a lot, acquired new skills and further honed old ones, and grew as a writer. The result is an award-winning novel series to my credit and scores of articles written by and about me and my work.

On balance, I'm glad I tried to become a full-time novelist, though commercial success proved to be an elusive beast. 

What continues to do extremely well for me is my work in games.

The one-year blockout from my no-compete clause ended in February 2017, and it was as if the floodgates opened. Without having to actually look for any work, it has consistently found me. By spring, I was already at full-time capacity, writing and designing games for Daily Magic, an old partner of mine from the day job, as well as a few studios new to me that were trying innovative game formats. 

I wrote and co-designed what could be considered a "game novel" or "interactive novel" called Sender Unknown: The Woods. It released in the "New Games We Love" section of the App Store and has been a top 10 in several categories. Gamezebo calls it "the next leap forward in mobile." Another writing/co-designing title for me, Matchington Mansion, has pretty much blown the doors off mobile with its popularity. I'm just now finishing up a "visual novel" for Pixelberry Studios, and it will release in March of this year. Additionally, I'm at work on a project for GSN Games, releasing in early 2018, and in talks with Jam City, a studio I've admired for some time. I'm also designing and writing levels for G5's hit game, Survivors: The Quest.

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It was into this exciting vortex that Webster University entered last summer, and with it, an opportunity to return to my roots--in two ways. One, as a professor of games and game design, as visiting faculty for the 2017-18 school year. Two, in St. Louis, where I'm, as we say, "from."

Some of you know I used to teach English at Pierce College, back in the early 2000s. I had tenure but left to pursue a writing career on my agent's recommendation and because I struggled to pay off my student loans on that faculty income. But I feel the classroom never really left me; I was destined to return and had already as a guest-lecturer at University of Florida and Seattle University.

My family is here in the area, on both sides of the river. I earned my bachelor's degree at Saint Louis University, and I cut teeth early in my career as a writer for the St. Louis Science Center and various city publications. I wasn't born here, having grown up a child of the Air Force with its mandate of frequent moves, but I attended part of junior high and all of high school in Illinois and still think of the Lou as "home." 

Honestly, I wasn't sure I could take on full-time faculty duties with the game work ramping up so quickly. But I hit it off with the faculty there, and it became an opportunity not to pass up. I knew of Webster University's strong reputation, and since the program is new and in need of leadership, there's a chance to put my stamp on something that could be key to the success of not just the school but the whole St. Louis region. What impresses me most is the seed of entrepreneurship being sown here by a small but quickly growing local game industry.

I've had to say no to some work, which is regrettable, but I feel reborn in the classroom. Teaching game design is in many ways a dream-come-true, and a fitting transition from all that dreamslipping.

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Image courtesy of Webster Today.

So here I am at year end, a novelist, game designer, and teacher. All the best to you in the New Year, and I'd love to hear from you by email or in the comments below.