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So. Last blog post dated July 29, 2014. Today’s date January 25, 2015. What the heck? Well, things just got away from me. I got busy. Last fall my freelance work started picking up after several months of silence. After a mountain of metaphorical tumbleweeds rolling past though empty streets, with only Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith wandering about during daylight hours (Boom! Geek reference!), I started getting work.

Simon & Schuster called (well, emailed). Would I like to copyedit Ken Lui’s epic first fantasy novel Grace of Kings? Uh, yes, please. Then would I like to copyedit his collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories? Yes, I’ll have some more. Those two are forthcoming this year from the Saga Press imprint. Meanwhile, their Pocket Books imprint also dropped a dime on me (well, emailed). Would I like to copyedit Star Trek novels? Uh, would I?! Just last week I sent in the fifth novel I’ve copyedited in the Trek line. The first one I worked on, John Jackson Miller’s Next Generation novel Takedown, hits the stands any day now.

Then came work-for-hire writing. My former boss at my former day job at Zenith Press, gave me a jingle (well, emailed). Would I be interested in working with Piers Bizony on the 2015 brochure for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex? Uh, get paid to visit KSC and write about it? Mmm, yeah! Then a former coworker from my former day job—yeah, okay, he emailed, let’s just go with that. Would I be interested in writing some science-themed books for kids? Sure, why not? I’m a jack-of-all-trades, bring it.

And my friend Tony Dierckins called (no, really, on the actual phone). Would I like to cowrite his new history book on the Glensheen mansion in Duluth, Minnesota? Sure, buddy, sign me up!

Then things started getting a little wobbly. Some projects came in later than expected. Some projects came in sooner than expected. Deadlines started crashing together. Holiday scheduling at my part-time day job edged closer to full time. In October a couple weeks after getting back from my trip to Florida, I fell asleep at the wheel in broad daylight after the best night of sleep I’d had in weeks. My daughter, my only passenger, yelled at me, but as I woke up I still lost control of the car. We fishtailed wildly across the freeway before sliding off the pavement and rolling over once. That was the end of the car, but we walked away unscathed.

And now it’s 2015. After downgrading from coauthor to copyeditor on the history book and getting some deadline extensions during a scourge of a cold in early January, I was able to make it through the whole tangle of jobs. The schedule at my day job is getting lighter. I’m no longer saying yes to every freelance offer I get. I’m still behind on the podcast I do with my daughter, Generations Geek, but should get that back on track soon enough. I’m finally getting some of my own writing done, which had gotten backburnered to the point of falling off the stovetop during all this other stuff.

So . . . time to just dig back into my own projects. Irons in the fire. Stuff happening. Networking. Hope for some interesting things to happen this year. Be back soon. Yadda yadda yadda.
29 July 2014 @ 12:56 pm
A couple years ago I noticed that a lot of writers, both in general and people I knew personally, were involved in podcasts. I started thinking that perhaps I should have one but wondered what new angle I could come up with. I settled upon the idea of doing a monthly podcast with my equally geeky teenage daughter. She was game for it, and thus Generations Geek was born. (See “The Birth of Generations Geek: A Father/Daughter Nerdcast” back in September 2012.)

Flash forward to the present. Our twenty-third episode, “The War of the War of the Worlds,” has just gone up, and we’re looking forward to wrapping up our second year of podcasting in September with “Sizzler on Comics,” which will feature special guest Alan “Sizzler” Kistler, comic book historian and noted geek about town.

We’re pleased with the show and feel like we’ve found our groove. Our download numbers have been rising, and we’re enjoying ourselves. It was great fun when we were recently interviewed by the fine podcasting peoples from the Skiffy and Fanty Show, which was nominated for a 2014 Hugo Award. Interviewers Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer thought a father/daughter podcast was quite a unique animal. Similarly, when I mentioned doing a podcast with my daughter while I was on an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. panel at CONvergence, we got a spontaneous “Awwwww” from the packed room.

So now comes the latest development: Generations Geek is a finalist in the 2014 Parsec Awards! We were nominated in the category “Best Speculative Fiction Fan or News Podcast (General),” which is a fancy way of saying we talk about all kinds of geeky stuff.

Congrats to all our fellow finalists at the podcasts Geek Radio Daily, PodCulture: Equal Opportunity Geekness, Presents: Consumption, and Sword & Laser. It’s a cliché because it’s true: it’s an honor just to be included in this group of hard-working geeks.

Parsec Award winners will be announced over Labor Day weekend at the long-running Dragon Con in Atlanta. Wish us luck!
07 July 2014 @ 10:20 am
I’m in that weird post-con mood, somewhere between melancholy reminiscence on one hand and the joy of returning to regularly timed meals on the other. CONvergence was a blast of geek power that was both energizing and draining over four days at the DoubleTree Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota, just a short drive across the mighty Mississippi River from my lair in St. Paul. My daughter Ella came with, as did a friend of hers who did some mighty cosplay, five costumes in four days: Daryl from The Walking Dead, Peggy Carter from Captain America, Castiel and Dean from Supernatural, and a Hogwarts student from Harry Potter (I forget which house).

My Thursday started with attending the panel “Mainstreaming of Geekdom” on how geek culture has come into the limelight from the fringes of yesteryear. It was an interesting panel, including insightful commentary from panelist Michael R. Underwood. My first panel of the con, “Walking Dead: Comics or TV?” was next. In preparation, I read the comics from the first issue up through the issues corresponding roughly to the first half of the last season. For those who haven’t read the comics, I say “roughly” because the TV adaptation takes some diversions from the source material so it doesn’t line up exactly. The panel compared and contrasted the two versions of the story and made me excited for the upcoming season and reading more of the comics.

After a couple hours wandering around, I attended the panel “Many Faces of Dracula,” which included local horror author Joel Arnold, a friend of mine. The panel discussed many cinematic versions of the famous bloodsucker, including Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and more. Fun stuff.

Next I was back on stage for a Sherlock panel, focusing on the third season. We talked about what we loved and what we didn’t, touching upon Sherlock’s “return from the dead,” the fate of Moriarty, and the tone of a season that left a lot of fans divided. I left the con for a while to meet up with fellow Trek writer Bill Leisner, who kindly supplied, on consignment, a small box of the ReDeus anthologies (which we had both contributed to) for my signing the next day. After we had a bite to eat, I went back to the con for a bit and was able to drag the kids away from all the fun.

Friday kicked off with my time at the signing table. I shared the table with the super-personable Wesley Chu, who was a great guy to chat with when we weren’t talking with people dropping by the table. I sold just one book, and that was to Joel, but I had fun and did plenty of PR for my new Trek eBook, The More Things Change. Now I’ve got to get Bill’s books back to him.

Following my signing, I wandered around and stumbled into an unscheduled signing by Marina Sirtis, Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I took advantage of the opportunity to give her a signed copy of The Sky’s the Limit, the TNG twentieth-anniversary anthology in which I have a story. I told her my daughter would be furious that I had met her on my own, but Marina told me to bring her back later and she would give Ella a signed photo in trade for the book I’d given her. Cool! Then we all went to Marina’s first talk at the con, a hilarious hour of snark and attitude, and then quickly got in the autograph line so Ella got to meet Marina as well. Marina commented on Ella’s friend’s Peggy Carter cosplay.

The rest of Friday night is a blur . . . I attended one panel that never quite came together, and then wandered a bit with the kids before calling it a night.

Saturday was a busy day. I had a panel right away at 9:30 in the morning, “Cartoons You Can Watch With Your Kids.” This was a lot of fun, and one of my fellow panelists was animator Greg Guler, who has worked on, among many other things, Phineas and Ferb, a favorite of ours. He had great insider stories from his years in the business.

I dropped by the signing table when it was Joel’s turn and picked up his novel Northwoods Deep. I got a little something to eat and soon was on my next panel, “The Hobbit: That Wasn’t in the Book!” We talked about the changes Peter Jackson and Co. made in adapting the book into a trilogy of films, including which additional scenes were extrapolated from Tolkien’s writings and which were made up entirely outside canon. This was held in one of the bigger rooms and was well attended. It gave me the perfect opportunity to mention Middle-earth Envisioned: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings On Screen, On Stage, and Beyond, to which I contributed a sidebar. One of my fellow panelists was David Lenander, a Tolkien scholar long active in the Rivendell Group, a local chapter of the Mythopoeic Society.

I had another panel right away, “Agents of SHIELD.” This played to a packed room, there were even people who had to stand in back. We reviewed the first season, its hits and misses, its relation to the Marvel films, and what we hope for in season two. We’d done an episode on this topic for Generations Geek, the podcast I do with Ella, so I felt well prepared, and it seemed to go well, especially with the help of publisher/writer Lee Harris as moderator. He closed the panel by saying, “If you liked this panel, I’m Lee Harris. If you didn’t, I’m Paul Cornell.”

I met up with Joel after that and went to the hotel bar for a burger, fries, and a glass of cabernet. It’s nice to have a sit-down chat with a fellow writer. We then attended a panel, “Cover Art for Your eBook,” which covered a lot of the pitfalls inexperienced self-publishers fall into when they slap together a cover and gave advice on how to do a better job. Lee Harris was among the panelists. After that I called it a night.

And then it was Sunday, the last day. I started off with another 9:30 panel, “Your Child & Geekery.” We shared stories on raising geeky kids, and how we approached sharing our love of things geek with our children at various ages. Unfortunately, given the early hour on the last day of the con, the panel was sparsely attended, but it was an interesting talk nevertheless.

Following that, Ella and I were interviewed for the Skiffy and Fanty Show, a geeky podcast that was nominated for a Hugo Award earlier this year. We seemed to talk as though we knew what we were saying, and Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer were fun to talk with. I’ll post on Facebook and Twitter when I find out when our segment will become available.

That’s pretty much it. I got to talk to the eminently personable Emma Bull for a bit in the lobby, though most of her panels were scheduled opposite of mine, so I missed out on a lot of her con presence. I’ve known Emma since the early nineties when I worked at Barnes & Noble and would have her in for signings. I got to say hello to writer Paul Cornell a couple times as he dashed after his toddler in the corridor; I did a Gerry Anderson panel with him at CONvergence 2013. I introduced myself to comic book artist Christopher Jones, I’m happy to say, since I missed all his appearances as well. There’s always so much going on, there’s no way you can see it all. Also had a lovely chat with Carrie Patel, whose first novel, The Buried Life, comes out the end of July from Angry Robot.

All that remains is a shout out to all the panelists I didn’t name above and all the people at CONvergence, which is fan run, for putting on another great con. The kid and I both look forward to next year.
24 June 2014 @ 10:42 am
And by “we” I mean “me.” June 23 saw the release of my latest Star Trek novella, The More Things Change, an eBook exclusive for Kindle and Nook and such. It’s been four years (!) since my previous Trek book, Honor in the Night in the Myriad Universes: Shattered Light anthology.

Where Honor in the Night was my Trek version of Citizen Kane, a hundred-year-long story about Nilz Baris and an alternate timeline of the Federation, The More Things Change is a very focused story only covering a few days of adventure for Christine Chapel and Spock. Here’s a synopsis:

When Dr. Christine Chapel and Spock have to evacuate Audrid Dax from the Enterprise due to a medical emergency, Chapel is frustrated by Trill customs that don't allow her to treat her patient. Chapel finds herself questioning her long-term plans while also dealing with Spock's changing personality following his mind meld with V'ger. Soon, however, they have bigger problems when an unidentified vessel ambushes their shuttlecraft. They are forced into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game to evade their attacker long enough to get Dax to the Trill doctors who can save her life. Along the way, Chapel discovers much about herself, Spock, and the secrets of the Trill.

This was a fun story to write. The Chapel character wasn’t always served that well by the original series, and so the goal behind this story—thanks to the input of my editor, Margaret Clark—was to redeem her, to make her a strong character and define an arc for her that led from the often insecure nurse of the show through becoming a doctor in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and then on to the responsibilities she shoulders after leaving the Enterprise, as glimpsed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In addition, I got to play with her feelings for Spock, and how her growth through the years would affect her unrequited love for him, and, in turn, how that would be affected by Spock’s own personal changes.

That’s a lot of character-driven stuff, but it’s held together by the action of the story, as Spock tries to evade the hostile ship that’s pursuing them. I got to write intimate character scenes between Chapel and Spock as well as tense action scenes as they try to stay alive on a damaged shuttle. Plus, a Dax is in the house! I just hope the readers enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

To be completely self-serving, I now quote one of its first readers, Eric Cone, who posted this on Facebook: “If you want a quick, change-of-pace thrill-ride, get the Star Trek: The More Things Change eBook by Scott Pearson. I finished it in about 3 hrs and literally could not put my Nook down. . . . Fast-paced, funny, and highly-entertaining, this one is a real treat.”

Your mileage may vary, but thanks Eric!
17 April 2014 @ 12:13 pm
When I decided I wanted to be a writer, back in the miasmal swamps of prehistory, I was writing on an electric typewriter and using a lot of correction tape, Wite-Out, and erasers. Inevitably I did a lot of retyping when a page became too messy for submission. I also borrowed an idea from Ray Bradbury, who used 3x5 index cards to jot down story and title ideas. When he wanted to start something new, he could simply pull a card out of his little file box and let inspiration strike. I’ll pause a moment to let the kids Google “electric typewriter” and “Wite-Out” and “index cards.” There. Yes, we used to use those things.

It was all very simple. Write story. Look up markets in the Writer’s Market. Affix appropriate postage to envelopes. Mail story. Get rejection slip. Rinse. Repeat. That’s what you did. Writers who paid a fortune to get a box of hardcovers printed by a vanity press were generally suckers who wound up with a lot of extra insulation in their attic. But now we’re in the twenty-first century, and it’s a whole new ballgame.

Back in the day you really didn’t have to wonder how to be a writer. You just wrote and submitted. Boom. Now you can spend days surfing the net just researching self-publishing, traditional, hybrid, and what to do or not to do to best pursue each of those labels. Plus, buzzwords: platform, online presence, social media.

A few months ago, as I pursued freelance editorial work, I contacted an online business that’s a perfect example of the new publishing. A collective of freelancers that helps authors get published in both eBook and print formats, providing editorial and design services. I was hoping I might get some editorial work with them. But their response was “Hey, great resumé for both editing and writing . . . but can you produce eBook files?”

Ouch. Reality punch in the face. These days, you can’t simply be an editor, you also have to do eBook design. You can’t just be a writer, you also have to be a publisher. Agents are also trying to find their way in this new world, and they find themselves working with writers who aren’t interested in traditional publishers, which used to be the whole purpose for an agent.

Everyone’s trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. It reminds me of Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross, the old-school salesman, Shelley “The Machine” Levine, desperate for some good leads to reenergize his sales and keep his job. Writers, editors, agents . . . we’re all looking for some good leads so we can just get back to what we love doing.

As for me . . . I’m teaching myself a lot more about eBooks. I’ve got software for creating eBook files. I’m looking at my backlist of stories from two angles: what will I self-pub, and what will I continue to pursue traditionally. Long ago I came up with a name for my own imprint—Stuck in the Middle Press—and got a simple logo designed. We’ll see what happens. I’m working on a short collection of humorous vignettes and other silliness that I’ll self-pub when it’s ready. Stay tuned.
Movies about writing often slather too much Hollywood sizzle onto the process to dress it up for the silver screen. The end result is far-removed from the everyday nuts and bolts of pounding away at the keyboard. But one of the movies that gets it right—as unlikely as this may seem at first—is Throw Momma from the Train.

The movie has a number of it’s-funny-because-it’s-painfully-true moments that capture a writer’s life. There’s the hilarious writing class, where Billy Crystal’s character has to listen to the stilted work of student writers. Be honest: if you went back and read your first stories, they wouldn’t be that far removed from the clunkfest delivered by the mistakenly self-assured woman reading from her novel. We’ve all been there.

But the scene that I always mention as the most realistic depiction of a writer in the history of cinema is during the opening credits when Crystal sits down at his typewriter (yes, it was that long ago) and tries to write. He fidgets. He shoots baskets with wads of paper. He gets a cup of tea. He gets a shot to add to his tea. He cleans his desk. He stretches Scotch tape across his face, becoming the “phantom of the novel.” In short, everything but actually hitting those keys. We’ve all been there, part two.

My second favorite true fictional scene is from a different venue, and it’s not about a writer, but it still ties in nicely. On the sitcom Mad About You, Paul Reiser plays a filmmaker. While researching a documentary, he has to watch some classic comedians. His wife, played by Helen Hunt, is increasingly annoyed by his laughter and does not respond well to being told that he’s working.

Similarly, any how-to on writing will emphasize the need of a writer to read, but how many people think of it as work when a writer is curled up on the couch reading a new sci-fi novel? If some sort of repair guy is reading manuals or a painter is researching new techniques, I think most people recognize that as part of their trade, but not so much when a writer is reading a novel. Like when a filmmaker is watching a movie.

I do think it’s hard for people on the outside to recognize writing as actual work. It involves too much sitting. And the truth of it is—although the Crystal character was having bad writer’s block during that opening scene—even sitting at the keyboard not typing can be a part of the process, a priming of the pump. So pass me the tape, I’ve got work to do.
10 March 2014 @ 12:25 pm
I grew up in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, surrounded by forests and farmland. Consequently, I didn’t spend my childhood in the 1970s biking around the block with the neighborhood kids; instead, I spent a lot of time wandering in the woods with my dog and visiting my grandparents and my grandma’s sister who lived close by, just a short walk across a hayfield.

My grandma and her sister were tough old Finnish women, and when they weren’t having their next pot of boiled-on-the-stove coffee, they would have tea with me. That was my introduction to tea . . . in tea bags and steeped in boiling water, no matter the variety. I always took sugar, because I found tea to be a little bitter. Still, I liked it, unlike coffee, which I never acquired a taste for.

Flash forward to 1983. I spent my sophomore year of college in Birmingham, England. Some rather large spots of tea were consumed. I often had at least four cups a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The tea was served English style, obviously, with milk and sugar. The tea itself was a basic black blend. I loved it. When I came back to the States, I continued drinking various teas. I still used tea bags and sugar.

Flash forward to 1998. We had just moved into a new house and at about the same time, a tea shop opened in our neighborhood, the TeaSource (where I now work part time; see my earlier post, “Unpredictable Staggerings and Other Life Choices”). I popped in one day and started chatting with the owner, Bill Waddington. In five minutes I learned more about tea than I had known for the quarter of a century I’d been drinking it. For instance, there is only one tea plant, and all the varieties of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, puerh, and black come from it; it is how the tea is grown and processed that creates the different varieties.

Another big revelation was learning about proper water temperature and steeping times. When my grandma and her sister had green tea, they boiled the bejeebers out of it like they did to their coffee. Green tea should be steeped in water no hotter than 180 degrees Fahrenheit, never boiling, which makes the tea bitter. And tea bags . . . tea bags are often made with tea dust (there are higher-end bags with whole leaves), basically what’s left over after the proper leaves have been prepared. There’s a time and place for the convenience of such bags, but that dust steeps a lot faster than actual leaves. And steeping tea for too long, black or green, will make it bitter.

In other words, I took sugar in my tea only because I’d been making it wrong! As I started trying various properly prepared teas at the TeaSource, I found that I didn’t need sugar. And no more tea bags for me, now I only want loose leaf. My next bit of fanaticism comes from being on the other side of the counter; we measure tea leaves by the gram when making a someone a cup or pot. It’s the only way to ensure consistency, as the variation in tea leaf styles—some are whole, some are finely cut—makes measuring by the “rounded teaspoon” largely subjective. Although I’ve been using the teaspoon method for sixteen years now, a couple months of using a scale has converted me, and I’m buying a small scale for home use.

A last word on sugar. I have become semiaddicted to chai, which is traditionally sweetened. As any tea fanatic will tell you, “chai” is simply the word for tea, but has become common shorthand for this particular way of serving tea with spices, milk, and sweetener. There are many ways of making chai, from easiest to traditional, but don’t confuse it with the chai lattes that coffee shops make. That is a steamed milk beverage with tea and spice flavoring, not a tea beverage with spices and milk. It can be a perfectly tasty drink, but they’ve inverted the base of the beverage from tea to milk. (This has been a very abbreviated chai lesson, glossing over some finer points, but you get the picture.)

In addition to sweetened chai, I still have a nostalgic fondness for English-style tea, so I occasionally have an English breakfast blend—loose leaf, of course—with milk and sugar. Other than that, I take my tea unsweetened. But the real last word on sugar is to use it as you like. I’m not going to tell you not to use sugar in your tea, but I will want to make sure that you’re not using sugar to mask incorrectly prepared tea!

[To keep this post from getting any longer, I’ve left out discussing herbal “teas,” which don’t actually contain tea leaves, and are more correctly called “tisanes” to make the distinction.]
24 February 2014 @ 07:17 pm
In the early 1990s I worked at Barnes & Noble. It had been announced that Harlan Ellison was publishing his original teleplay for the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” This was exciting news; the bad blood between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry over the script was legendary. One customer placed a special order for the book, and as I was in charge of special orders, and was also a fan of Ellison and Trek, I was keeping a close watch for its arrival. The announced publication date came and went, but no book.

I called up Borderlands Press to see what was going on and found myself speaking with the publisher, Thomas Monteleone, whose name sounded familiar to me. He explained that he was a writer too, and I realized I had read one of his books, The Secret Sea, a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We chatted about that a bit, and then he explained that Ellison’s book was running behind schedule but they were trying to get it wrapped up.

Time passed. I checked back in with Borderlands a few times as the book came up on my unfilled special orders report. One day I was told that Ellison had instructed the publisher to have his increasingly impatient fans waiting for the book to call him directly. I was given a phone and fax number (yeah, fax . . . it was twenty years ago).

I scoffed at the idea—like Ellison wants people calling him and nagging about the book—as I dialed the number. Someone picked up, and a gruff voice said, “Yeah?”

Holy. Shit. I knew right away that this actually was Ellison. I was on the phone with Harlan Ellison! I explained why I was calling, then didn’t have a chance to say much else for maybe fifteen minutes as Ellison went off on one of his trademark rants against Gene Roddenberry and Paramount. He was hilarious, joking darkly that Roddenberry had died before Ellison could get even with him (Roddenberry had passed away the year before, in October 1991). He explained that his introduction for the script was still growing, that he just couldn’t stop adding stories about his long-running feud with Roddenberry. Outside of calls about getting published, it was the most amazing phone call I’ve ever had.

More time passed. I had another brief call with Ellison, a nice little chat. Still more time passed. Then he won a Bram Stoker Award in 1993 for his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I felt like congratulating him, but felt self-conscious about phoning him again. I didn’t want to be that guy, taking advantage of having his number. I decided on a compromise: I would fax him my congrats and also ask about City, which still wasn’t out. I jotted a quick note and hit send. It seemed like the sheet of paper hadn’t even fed all the way through the machine when I was paged.

“There’s a guy on the phone wants to talk to you,” my disbelieving coworker told me. “He says he’s Harlan Ellison.”

Oh. Shit. Ellison does not come across as a guy who’s going to call some bookseller to thank him for the congratulations. Something must be wrong. I took a deep breath and answered the phone.

“Did you just fax me?” Ellison growled.


“Why? Just to chat?”

“Yes, sir.” I think I did call him sir. Seemed like the thing to do.

“Well, you just woke up my sick wife and me . . .” That was only the start of him ripping me a new one. Turns out his fax machine was in his bedroom, and—it belatedly hit me—it was two hours earlier in California. So now I was being Ellisoned.

I quietly took my chewing out. When he had finished, I apologized, explaining that I had assumed I was sending the fax to an office, so I had not even considered the time difference between Minnesota and the West Coast. After a moment of consideration, he allowed that he could see that, but . . .

“You have my phone number, too?”


“Lose it.”

“Yes, sir.”

So that’s how I got Ellison’s phone number, had the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and then poured it all down the drain.

The book eventually came out as a limited edition hardcover from Borderlands in 1995 and in an expanded paperback—with a longer introduction!—from White Wolf Publishing in 1996. It’s a must-read, really.
Okay, sure, straight away, I admit it, this is (as the self-aware kids say) a first-world problem. But still. And settle in . . . this is a long one.

On February 7 I ordered Brave New World, an expansion pack for Civilization V, from GameAgent, Aspyr’s website for the Mac platform. Aspyr was having a 50% off sale for all the Civ V stuff in celebration of the release of Sid Meier’s Civilization V: The Complete Edition. When I tried to use PayPal for my purchase, the site crashed. I logged back in and tried again. It still seemed a little wonky, but soon after three emails popped up in my box from GameAgent: an invoice (for the sale price), order details, and an order confirmation. Two problems became quickly apparent.

First, none of the emails from GameAgent included the download code; they use Steam to deliver the software, and you need the code when you log into Steam. Second, I didn’t receive an email from PayPal confirming the transfer of funds. I logged into PayPal, and, sure enough, they showed no record of the transaction. It was clear the order had not actually completed, even though I had that confirmation email. So I sent GameAgent an email through a web form on their site.

On February 10, which was the last day of the sale, I got a reply from them telling me the order had been reset, so all I had to do was log in and complete it. They made no reference to the PayPal issue, so I tried paying with PayPal again because it was working with other sites. Once again the GameAgent order process crashed. I emailed GameAgent customer service again.

On February 11 I got an email telling me to “attempt a new order.” They didn’t say anything about their site’s inability to process a PayPal payment. I logged in and opened my shopping cart. Brave New World was still there, but now that the sale was over, it was at full price. The email had mentioned “If you are attempting to place an order from a promotional offer, please use the link provided by that offer.” But, of course, that link was already expired as of the day before. I emailed customer service, telling them I had been planning to use my credit card to avoid the apparent PayPal issue, but that I should still get the game at the sale price.

On February 14 they told me that they had to “investigate further this issue” before I could try ordering again. They also said, “This error could be the result of attempting several orders that fail, which would cause our credit system to detect possible fraudulent credit card use and then place a block against the credit card. This is for the protection of both our customers and our business. We take credit card fraud very seriously.”  Well . . . I’m glad they take credit card fraud seriously, but I had never tried to use my credit card and there was still no response to the pricing problem or the PayPal trouble. Hmmm. I was finally beginning to notice that their responses often didn’t jibe with the contents of my emails to them.

Later that day I was informed “we have reviewed your order and it is now ready to be completed.” Great. I logged in . . . and there was the game at full price. I emailed customer service, once again explaining that I had originally ordered the game during their sale and that they needed to give me a promo code for 50% off.

On February 16 I got their reply: “The Game Agent Online Store strives to offer the products at the lowest available prices. Unfortunately, we are unable to match prices and discounts available through other resellers.”

Okay, WTF? I wasn’t asking them to match another vendor’s price, I was asking them to sell me their own game from their own website at the price I had ordered it for during their own sale! It was more clear than ever that either their customer service staff is incredibly incompetent or that I had yet to get an actual real person on the other end, and this was just a computer program sending automated responses based on superficial keyword searches . . . and with fake names at the bottom. I said as much in my follow-up email and once again emphasized that I had ordered the game during the sale and had email proof that I deserved to get the game at the sale price.

Later that day I got another email: “Please attempt a new order. . . . If you are attempting to place an order from a promotional offer, please use the link provided by that offer.”

AAAAAGGGGGGH! The same frackin’ form response with no acknowledgment about the sale price problem. And there it was in my cart, still at full price. There’s just no way that this is coming from a person, unless the person is working with a traumatic head wound.

So I sent off another email, wrapping it up with this:

Why can't anyone in customer service understand what I'm saying? Surely someone there has the ability to simply reset the price in my cart or give me a promo code for 50% off so I can get the game at the price I ordered it for. Come on, how is this difficult? I've tried to be patient, but now it's been ten days since I ordered the game, and I still can't get anyone to give me a clear, direct response that acknowledges the situation. These must be automated responses, which means that this current email of mine will have been just more of my time wasted without any resolution of the problem. This is the worst customer service I've ever received from any vendor in person or on line. You should just give me the game for free at this point.

I’ll update as the situation develops . . .

Update 1, February 17:

Shortly after I posted the above—I announced it on the Twitter with “On my blog, I try to buy a game from ‪@GameAgentStore & get the worst service short of them pooping on my iMac. ‪ ‪#FWP”—I got a response from Russ Looney, who works for Aspyr and helps with the GameAgent site. He apologized for my troubles and pointed me to a different help link, assuring me that the in-house support team would do much better than the Digital River team, the place that manages the GameAgent checkout cart. He even said to tell them he had sent me there, and that he would ask them to “add on a little something extra for my trouble.” Fabulous! So I have sent off my story to the new link and await hearing from them. Thanks again to Russ for stepping in.

Meanwhile, I got another email from the Digital River people, which I simply have to quote in full. This person, “Jaqueline A.,” is either punking me in response to the frustrated tone of my last email to them, or she has taken a big dose of psychadelic shrooms:

Thank you for contacting the Game Agent Online Store.

Unfortunately, we require further information to assist you, as we
assist thousands of vendors in the sale of their products to customers
who shop online.

Please provide additional information about the product you are
inquiring about, the vendor's home page address and the address where
the product information is displayed. We will then try to assist you
with your issue.

Jacqueline A.
Game Agent Online Store
Customer Service

Holy. Frack. Jacqueline, you’ve had a complete psychotic break. Not only was the product I’m having issues with mentioned repeatedly in all the previous emails, as was the vendor, GameAgent, you mention the vendor yourself RIGHT IN THE FIRST LINE OF YOUR OWN EMAIL AND AGAIN UNDER YOUR OWN NAME. Seriously, Jaqueline, seek medical attention.

I hope my next update will be about actually getting the game.

Update 2, February 18:

Got an email from GameAgent’s in-house customer service. It was an activation code for the game. Boom! On the house because of my week and a half of wrestling with the Digital River people. Now I have to send GameAgent that last email (as posted above in Update 1) so that they know the nonsense that’s going on over at the other place.

I close this post with another shout out to Russ Looney for stepping in and making this happen. That’s some great customer service.
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Twenty-eight years ago when I graduated college with the highly employable degree of Bachelor of Arts, English and Philosophy (the previous statement has been validated by the Sarcasmatron 9000), I just wanted to get some job I liked to pay the bills while I put most of my energy into my writing. That led to four years of working at a video rental store (there used to be these things called video rental stores) followed by four years of working at Barnes & Noble (there used to be these things called bookstores). I had a couple years at home unsuccessfully pursuing freelance work, and then became  employed as a stay-at-home dad for five years.

Shortly after I become a stay-at-home dad, we moved into a new house. About the same time we moved into the neighborhood, a tea shop, called TeaSource, opened up six blocks or so from our house, and I became a regular there, known to the people in the surrounding shops as “the guy with the baby in the stroller.” A couple times I proofed the TeaSource catalog and was paid in bulk tea. I did a lot of the editing of the true crime book Will to Murder there. The owner sometimes joked that I kept the shop open for the first year until business started picking up.

All during that time, from college through stay-at-home dad years, I was realizing a couple things. For one thing, as I did more freelance editing, I found that it didn’t wear me out on writing. I’d never considered a job in publishing because I thought working all day on editing would burn me out for my own writing. But that wasn’t the case. Another thing was that my writing wasn’t selling anyway. So when the kid started kindergarten, I took the plunge and got a day job as an editor. The following year I had a Star Trek story published by Simon & Schuster. Over the next several years I had two more stories and a novella published by S&S, and also had some small press success with short stories in a number of genres. Clearly, editing as a day job wasn’t hurting my writing.

When I was laid off last spring, I plunged into my freelance editing career. Or, rather, I plunged into trying to jumpstart my freelance editing career. It rapidly became clear I was not going to bring in the kind of paychecks I needed anytime soon. And although I had some good stuff going on with my writing, like my upcoming Trek eBook, I really needed to get a job.

There were two ways to go: get back into a full-time editorial position or reinvent my post-college strategy of getting some job I liked while, this time around, growing my freelance editing business and keeping the momentum going on my writing. I gave a shot at the full-time day job, but such positions are few and far between, and I didn’t get either of the positions I applied for.

So this brings us to my new job . . . I’m working part time at TeaSource! That’s just weird. For sixteen years I’ve been a customer, but now I’m brewing tea for people. I can walk to work, and, since I’m only working twenty-five to thirty hours a week, I’ve got good writing and editing time left over. I’m drinking lots of tea, I’m working on my steampunkish novel, and there are other various irons in the fire. It seems 2014 is going to be interesting . . . who knows which way I’ll stagger next.