Blood & Scars - Prying Open Beats and the One True Path
aka "It's my duty as a knight to sample as much peril as I can"
by CM Boots-Faubert
(An early chapter from my autobiography - Mind the Gum Tree, Mate - a WiP)
Every week my inbox contains email from aspiring writers seeking information on how they, too, can break into a video game beat.
That question is important to them - I know that - but that said, I have no doubts I am not the only writer that they ask that question.
About half the time, what they are asking for is a tip or a nudge in the right direction. That's a bit of help I - and most other writers - are happy to provide.
The fact that my answer these days comes in the form of a canned reply should not be construed as a lack of consideration on my part towards these new writers - it should be seen for what it is, that being a lack of time to personally address each email.
That noted, the canned reply I do send has been very carefully crafted to offer lessons I have learned spanning nearly two decades of writing on the many beats I have worked - which is sort of the point to all of that.
Now with respect to the other half? Well that is an entirely different can of ouch - because that lot are, for the most part, asking for something completely different.
What they seek is something more along the lines of a secret shortcut. A less-than-honorable bit of help.
That's a problem though, because on the one hand, no such magic shortcut exists. On the other hand?
Well, on the other hand when you ask someone a question like that one, what you're really saying is you think THEY must have used something like that, at some point in the past, while establishing their career as a writer.
That's not just insulting mind you - no, well, yeah, it is insulting - but it is also proof that the person asking for help is not really a writer.
In my experience writers write not because they want to, but because they have to. To scratch that itch you can satisfy in no other way.
The Butterfly Effect Illustrated
Sounds simple, right? That's because it is.
I enrolled in the maths course; I paid for the maths course; and I had to either take the course or test out.
There was no alternative.
What complicates this is that if a student passes the test, that class is removed from their schedule.
The problem with that is that, as this was first term, and with no prior demonstrated capabilities as a student, I was not permitted to exceed the maximum limited course load for the term - no first year's are allowed to do that.
The consequences for this were simple: pass the test with a score sufficient to demonstrate fluency, my status changed. Fail it and I have to take the course.
The three credit hours for the maths course whose test I had taken - and passed nicely - were thus removed from my schedule and instantly altered my status from full-time to part-time.
The test that was supposed to be my magic sword turned out to be a double-edged blade.
At the time I thought that was actually a good thing, since it meant one less class and so more time to study for the courses I was actually excited about taking - but there were consequences mates.
Consequences like having to have a schedule with a set minimum number of course hours on it to qualify for full-time status, which status was important to me because first years had to qualify for full-time status in order to be permitted to live in on-campus fraternity housing.
I had no interest in living in the dorms for reasons I won't go into here - and I had already joined the same frat my father and his father had been members of.
There was a bed and bedroom waiting for me there, and more to the point there was also a requirement that ALL first year's MUST live on-campus.
So even if I could afford to rent my own flat off-campus, I would STILL have to either live in a dorm or the frat house.
If you have jumped to the conclusion that I spent another weekend locked in my room reading policy and rules books, well I reckon you are not as omniscient as you think you are...
I had taken the test on the Tuesday prior to the start of term - classes would begin the following Monday, and I had to figure out where I was going to be living before then.
On the advice of my academic counselor - who by the way was not happy with the way I basically side-stepped the whole protocol on classes and required courses and all that. She felt I made her look bad...
So on her advice I requested a printout of the Intro Courses for my first term that still had seats open and whose book was not closed by the prof teaching the course.
You can probably imagine that there were more than a few obscure courses, and lots of academically heavy courses, but the criteria I was using was to find a course that I would have taken anyway or that qualified as an elective under my program.
At the time there was a push to make the sciences a more complete or broader range of study - to turn out less socially-awkward engineers and scientists I would guess.
In addition to the required courses and maths, we had to choose a set number of elective courses outside of our major areas of study, the idea being to make us better educated in non-science subjects.
So as I had to take courses outside of the disciplines I was reading for my degree, I might as well make one of them a course that would restore my full-time status.
One of the courses on the printout was Intro to Philosophy - so I registered for that course and my schedule restored my status - and all was well.
Thank You Bertrand Russell
My first class of my first term - Introduction to Philosophy - turned out to be one of the best classes I took that first year.
It was my first experience with large classes taught in lecture halls which, you might think is the sort of environment that is strongly intimidating and difficult to find immersion in, but in fact turned out to be among the best places on earth to teach philosophy.
The size of the hall and the acre of wood it was built with gave it a sort of physical impact often seen in film and on TV - but this was real life - so you will simply have to take my word for it...
The course was divided up into two pretty obvious elements: its lecture period with almost complete class participation, and what I thought of as a sort of fusion of research and writing that totally lacked the regurgitation process so typical of my other classes that term.
During its first session we were paired with what he called "Study Partners" which is to say that he seemed to randomly pair us off with another student using some sort of system that involved who was sitting the farthest away from each other, and what sex they were. Almost every pair had some sort of obvious difference - either being different genders, or races, or well, something.
That could have been a very bad situation except that he made it clear to us that he expected us to make those pairings work because they were permanant and he allowed for no appeals.
There was also a lurking point that the combination - for a course that was dry or taught badly - would have been an instant disaster - but in this case it certainly helped that the prof was one of those larger-than-life personalities who really believed in what he taught and, like the second shot in a two-shot duel, he so strongly intimidated the class that we all felt an earnest desire to make it work. So it worked!
The section on Epistemology opened with a lecture about a man named Bertrand Russell - who was in fact Bertrand Arthur Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS, who happened to also be a historian, logician, mathematician, philosopher, social critic, and writer.
He was also a Nobel laureate and one of the founders of the school of analytic philosophy who had a lifelong fascination with epistemology.
Basically you would be hard-pressed to find a student in that class who did not have at least something in common with Russell.
About midway through the term I found myself short on pocket money and decided that my decision at the start of term not to seek a part-time job on campus had been a mistake.
As a result of that change of belief I paid a visit to the employment office where I inquired about work just to learn that, if I had sincerely desired consideration for employment, I should have been there at the start of term, not the middle of it.
They went on to explain that - if I wanted a part-time on-campus job - I would either need to wait until just before the start of the next term (because there were no jobs available now according to their computer), or I would need to find an unregistered open position myself - and secure it through that department's designated employment counselor.
It was pointed out to me that I was, of course, free to seek a job off-campus, as I was not on academic restriction.
The student-clerk (who obviously had found THEIR part-time gig for the term) provided me with several leads for possible work, which I wrote on the back of a paper in my notebook.
That contact information was written on the back of one of my assignments for Intro to Philosophy as it turns out - my assessment of Russell's Why Men Fight that was, as I remember it, a rather precocious piece of drivel that attempted to contrast how Russell's take on analytic philosophy influenced the conclusions he drew in Why Men Fight.
Needless to say it was not well received by my prof - but in spite of the fact that I had no idea what I was talking about, it was the paper itself that turned out to have made a significant impression.
At the end of class when papers were handed back there was a note pined to mine requesting me to see him during his office hours.
I appeared the very next day -- twenty minutes early so as to be the first one through the door when he arrived -- operating under my established personal policy of "Better Early for Trouble" which I still follow today.
That personal policy is based on my reckoning that when you know you are going to be dressed down, it's best to just get it over with as soon as possible, so you can stop dreading it.
When I took the visitor's chair in his office, I expected to be heavily criticized for all of the presumptions I used as the logic points in the paper, only to discover I had been summoned for a completely unexpected reason.
He began that conversation with a comment I'm trying to reconstruct here as best I can. Assume that if I am being complimented it is with mild sarcasm, alright then?
"I didn't like your paper at all, it's clear to me that you have no notion about just what analytic philosophy is.
"Is it truly a possibility that someone wrote a summary pamphlet for Why Men Fight?" or something to that effect was what he said.
He then surprised - no, it is more accurate to say that he shocked and rattled - me, observing that, while he did not like the paper, he very much liked the manner in which it was written.
He proceeded to explain to me that, while I had all the facts wrong, and I clearly lacked even a basic grasp of the subject matter, the paper I handed in was - from a communications point-of-view - among the clearest and cleanest he had read from a student.
The language and style of my writing was very convincing and clear, he said, noting that it fully communicated my ideas on the subject to the reader in a way that even somebody with the least interest in the subject would, if they actually read it, be likely to come away with a solid grasp of the points I had made, even if they were all wrong.
"That's a rare gift you have," he said - and yes, I was blushing and feeling a symphony of pride despite the fact that he had just told me that the paper was total shit.
As the conversation unfolded I worked out that (a) he had noticed the phone numbers I had written on the back of the second page, and (b) he knew what offices those numbers would ring. From that he correctly deduced I was looking for work.
"You won't find anything there, not this late in the term," he told me. "But I know someone looking for a part-time writer, are you interested?"
Sooner or later, everybody goes to the Zoo
It is fair to say that, even decades later I often find myself fondly recalling that first writing job.
I was given a number to call that connected me with a company whose name even I was familiar with.
At the end of a twenty minute telephone interview, I found that I had accepted a position as a staff writer for a newspaper I had never heard of let alone seen before, and that, despite the fact that I had no idea what the wage was, or when I would be paid.
I was told that the offer of employment was based entirey upon the recommendation of my professor, and that the first six months would be a trial period to see how well I did the job.
The paper was called The Weekly Zoo, and it consisted of around ten pages of copy published twice a week - on Monday and Friday.
Mrs. Murphy was responsible for the day-to-day running of the paper, picking assignments and, when called upon to do so, sourcing special materials.
An example of special materials includes books I was assigned to read and review as well as create talking points for that the Australian Classification Board declined to issue a classification for - and that happened more than you might think.
She described the duties for my position thusly: I was to write with care, and with clarity the assignments I would receive. Clear communication was the most important and emphasized part of my work.
My regular deadline was close-of-business every Wednesday (that worked out to 4PM) and no excuses were accepted should I somehow miss a deadline - whatever that meant. I never missed one so I don't know.
Of course I had no way to know it at the time - never having worked as a writer in any capacity other than as unpaid staffer on the student newspaper - but this was a very good and incredibly rare gig.
Looking back and with the benefit of hingsight it was good. Truly good. And also a bundle of funny, interesting, strange and insane all at the same time.
My office was located in Smithfield, which is an inland suburb of Western Sydney located around 20 miles from the CBD. I reached it every Wednesday afternoon by ringing the car service the company used.
The first time I visited to file my copy I found a closet-sized office with a desk, a rather plush chair, and an empty filing cabinet and waste bin.
Along the back wall was a narrow table on which was placed a fax machine and a dot matrix printer. The walls were bare with the exception of a single large framed photo showing an aerial view of the mill..
On my desk was a monster of a computer -- and as far as I was concerned having access to that alone made this the Best Job Ever.
The computer was an IBM PC-XT equipped with a massive 10MB hard drive, a green monochrome display, and the dot matrix printer that was attached.
Eventually I learned that The Weekly Zoo had been in business since the early 1950s, and its target audience was the owner, a Polish-born Australian who wanted current talking points about pop culture he didn't have time to experience himself.
The first edition each week was largely filled with articles about the paper industry and various events that took place or would take place later in the week within the company and out in the larger world.
That was not the edition I wrote for.
The Friday Zoo was the one I wrote for, and its deadline was end-of-business on Wednesday. What was my beat? Entertainment obviously.
Working that beat basically consisted of me taking assignments from the subeditor, who would call me on Monday and tell me what was needed.
I dug out my notes for a typical assignment from late August of 1986:
"Go see Back to School and Ferris Bueller's Day Off; write a summary and your impressions and explain the point of the stories. Include any funny jokes or anecdotes. Who is Bill the Cat?"
That nicely illustrates the story of how I obtained my first professional gig. Sadly I left that position after I graduated from uni, as I then entered the workforce to follow a dream career as a network engineer.
It would be nearly 15 years before circumstances caused / forced me to seek out a new career, and thus I returned to writing as my full time career.
The rather handsome specimen you see above is none other than Bill the Cat - a character created by famed cartoonist and humor genius Berkeley Breathed some time in the early 1980s for his comic strip, Bloom County.
That image will be important later on in our story, so it'd be an idea to keep it in mind, right?
Before we continue I need to request your patience going forward - particularly if your primary interest is the answer to the question of how I obtained assignment to so many different beats over the course of nearly two decades.
Because if that is of interest I promise you that I will answer that question - and I will also vow that the path ahead, though long and rather twisted, really does relate to the answer to that question.
Which translates to my strong belief that it is a journey worth taking and worth devoting patience to. Well that and I plan on being as entertaining as I am informative as that should take some of the sting out of the delays ahead.
So yes, I really need you to be patient. Please?
If you're interested a career as a writer you may be interested to learn that every writer has a story about the first beat that they are legitimately assigned to cover -- and their first paid writing job (which are not always the same story mind you), you might find what follows to be a fascinating tale.
While those stories sometimes are similar, none of them are identical, and some of them - a rare few - range from horror stories to hilarious ones.
My personal story leans more towards the latter than the former -- though in the interest of full transparency I should point out that it has elements of both.
I only realized recently that an important point and event in my personal story -- the critical juncture in which my fascination for creating worlds and reporting facts through writing - occurred far earlier than I had remembered. And that spark was ignited during wholly unrelated events.
More important though is the simple fact that, had this history not unfolded as it did, had it not worked out the way that it did, I never would have been a writer -- and I am certain I would not have opted to choose writing as my second career after I was crippled.
I got started in writing long before I made a career out of it too. That's a significant point.
I was still at Uni when I started writing actually, and the path that took me to that first paid gig was a very strange one.
Every Story has a Milieu
My degree is in the sciences - specifically engineering - because at the time I was at Uni nobody had gotten around to creating strictly CS degrees, so if you wanted to study computers and programming, you had to pursue a degree in either maths or engineering.
I admit that while I did very well in maths and even in advanced maths, the major share of the credit for that was down to the teachers I had. I say that because the teachers I was so fortunate to have in secondary school made maths fun.
I can easily imagine how brutal that subject could be if you are saddled with teachers who either don't like the subject or are not good at making it interesting to learn - a description I suspect describes the vast majority of the world population of maths teachers.
My point here is that I got lucky in the teachers I had, and I was aware of that. I also knew that selecting maths as the focus of my post-secondary education would be a recipe for disaster.
Standard Maths Requirements
In Australia the educational requirements for the average student are basically what dictates the courses offered in every school starting with the secondary school system and moving on to include university.
In Oz those requirements are well established - and while I am telling you this from memory -- I admit that I could be wrong about this or maybe fuzzy on the details -- but I doubt it.
Secondary School is divided into two levels - Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and Higher School Certificate (HSC).
As long as a student completes the 10th grade and passes their SSC they basically obtain what in America is called a High School Diploma.
They can do this as young as 15, but the students that choose that path tend to be the sort destined for an apprenticeship program in some trade or another.
They are not destined for a post-secondary school education at uni is the point I am making here.
At the secondary school level the HSC requirements for maths are pretty basic: the designated functional maths and 2 units of General Mathematics that mostly cover pre-calculus concepts and basic algebra.
Depending on the educational goals of the specific student, as long as they have completed the prerequisite course work in maths prior to their 2 units of General Maths, it often ends right there.
For students who are destined for a degree program in the sciences at uni though, that is usually followed by 2 units of straight Mathematics consisting of Advanced Calculus, Trigonometry, and Algebra up tp and through locus and curves.
That is generally followed by 1 unit each of Maths Extension 1 and Maths Extension 2.
Extension 1 covers more advanced levels of calc and trig, with a mix of combinatorics, polynomials and the like, with the first Extension course being taken as complimentary to straight maths alongside it.
The second Extension course covers advanced calc and curve sketching, complex numbers, polynomials, conics with a lot of mechanics thrown in.
An additional unit is offered in New South Wales for what they ungraciously used to call "gifted" students (among which I happened to be included) that often took the form of self-directed study for two periods a day in the latter two grades or years.
The important bits for us to take away from all of that is that the very well established course requirements for engineering programs at uni basically embrace all of the above - which is to say those are ALSO the requirements for the engineering degree programs.
Compromise As Art?
No assumptions are made during the intake process at uni.
There is no requirement for incoming first year's who have participated in advanced maths courses to disclose that fact to their academic counselor or anyone else for that matter.
A first year is certainly welcome to mention to their counselor that they have, in fact, completed the Gifted Maths coursework (they don't call it that anymore because it makes regular students sound like morons) but they are not actually required to do so.
More important than that though is this: a student's academic counselor is not required to take into consideration OR disclose the fact that their student has completed that course of study in secondary school.
The assumption is that an academic counselor will disclose that information to the registrar and the liaison for a given department - like maths - when they register the term schedule for their student.
The point being made here is that a student is free to simply re-take those courses again to fulfill any maths requirements in their degree program should they choose to do so; the catch is that they have to know that option was open to them in the first place though -- and most don't.
The CS program I wanted to read required engineering, and all of the engineering programs required a certain number of maths courses.
When I sat down with my counselor to work out the initial plan, when I declared that maths was off the table -- right off -- she knew that there was a way to accomplish that but opted not to disclose it to me.
I won't bore you with details here, but suffice it to say that I was motivated to find a way around this issue.
The Catholic school I attended for secondary school was way and far above the national averages for both public and private secondary schools, particularly in two areas - Latin and maths.
Qua de causa optime versatus sum in subditis.
After a weekend locked alone in my bedroom reading the various rules and policy books from the school, a compromise was reached. But not the one you probably anticipated.
Yes, I discovered an "out" in those books - I could register for the maths courses I took in secondary school and thus address the maths requirements for the degree program. I suspect that is what my counselor expected I would do.
I still had no interest in actually taking the courses however, even if they were an easy pass.
Fortunately I discovered a second option I don't think even my academic counselor knew about.
I will touch on this briefly - but I want to point out that at the time I thought this a rather clever hack - but I was still young and inexperienced and lacked the wisdom to understand that where shortcuts are involved, there are ALWAYS consequences.
I brought the issue to my counselor and she did not like it. I explained that I could test out of the maths courses all legal and within the rules, so that was what I wanted to do.
The test-out option is a long established remedial ritual I'm pretty sure was created to permit students who have taken uni-level courses in secondary school to avoid being forced to re-take those same courses when they entered uni.
The policy is very clear on that - it was permitted to test out of maths requirements entirely - as long as a student could pass the special tests for those courses that is.
All that they needed to do was create their schedule for the term with the assistance (and approval) of their academic counselor, then pay the full tuition for each course chosen for that schedule.
In the week prior to start of term, they then sat for a special exam for the course, administered by a department head.
If they passed the exam with a sufficiently high score so as to demonstrate that they were fluent in the subject, that course was credited to their record as taken and passed, but with no actual grade being determined or applied.
It was listed with a pass/fail qualification - probably to make it easier later for anyone reading the student's transcripts to recognize that the student hadn't actually taken the course, but had tested out of it.
The alternate tittle for this article / chapter is something of a double entendre poking fun at the avarice of freelancers who seek to break into as many "beats" as they can taken from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail..(Sir Galahad the Chaste is being seduced by an entire castle full of young women)
Sir Lancelot: We were in the nick of time. You were in great peril.
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