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Play by play

There was a period there about two years ago when I started to see people using Kindles on nearly a day-to-day basis – on the bus, in the park, anywhere you might find time to read. E-readers were the new hotness, and it was cool that they were embraced (even in Australia, where they’re more expensive and slower to arrive) and that reading was on the uprise.

Then iPads came along, and they swept over the Kindles and Kobos and Nooks like a wave, and about 20% of the commuters on my afternoon train home have one. And they mostly don’t use them to read books, or magazines, or even the web; most of them use them to play games. Office workers playing Words With Friends, businessmen playing Ticket to Ride, shopgirls playing RTS games that I don’t know well enough to identify. Reading is out; games are in.

And that’s because games are awesome.

Yeah, see, you thought I was gonna come out critical of people not reading, but I fooled you with the rope-a-dope.

So good for my skin

Let me put my hand up and say that I love playing games, and pretty much not a day goes by that I don’t play some kind of game, whether it be a videogame on my PC/XBox, an app on my phone, a board game, a card game, an RPG or just something entirely in my head that involves secretly pretending to be a spy under orders to investigate out what everyone else on public transport is playing. Games keep me young; that’s why I look about 30 despite being 40 and have to get my hair thinned out every month. I played Batman: Arkham City all this weekend solely for the good of my health; that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

And why do we play games? Because we are, at heart, a species that loves to play – to do things that are fun and enjoyable solely because they are fun and enjoyable. From World of Warcraft to soccer to sex to dressing up as Harley Quinn even though you’re not going to a convention, humans are playful beings, at least at those times when we’re not fighting wars or denying homosexuals their fundamental human rights. We can play hard and play serious, but in the end it’s still play; the point when you care so much about winning and/or making money from it that it stops being fun is the point where it generally stops being play and turns into a job.

Which is how this loops back to writing. Because, for the most part, I don’t find writing fun, and I don’t feel playful when I write. Part of that is because I try to write Serious Stories About Serious Things; part of that is that I try to make money off it with the eventual aim of no longer editing maths textbooks every day until I want to stab a hypotenuse in the eye. And partly, probably mostly, it’s because writing is an effort, and that’s effort (and time) I could be spending playing games and having fun. Yes, I don’t have fun writing because I’ve defined writing beforehand as being the opposite of fun; I’m away of the self-fulfilling contradictions.

But there is room to have fun when you write, and lately many of the blogs I read and tweets I follow and articles I see about writing make it look like I’m not the only one who forgets that. It’s all so very serious and very focused, with posts about how to write and what to do, discussions on process, people feeling that they’ve let themselves down by not finishing NaNoWriMo… it’s all a bit bleak. So maybe we need to stop every now and then, step away from the Serious Story, and just fool around on the page for a while, like a freeform jazz session, except the instruments are words and none of the performers are wearing pants.

I know it’s a bit pot calling the kettle black, but I do give it a try now and then. Dave Versace, a regular commenter on this blog, wrote a review of Godheads in which he said that the stories ‘Metatext Otis’ and ‘The Salbine Incident’ were ‘essentially literary jokes’. That’s a very fair comment, especially for ‘Otis’, but from my end I didn’t write them as jokes, I wrote them for fun (and for class credit, but that’s a trifling detail). They were chances to play with ideas without worrying about story cohesion or voice or underlying theme; they were chances to shoot words off each other like I was rocking a pinball machine inside a dictionary. They do not accomplish much, but I smile when I remember the conceiving and writing of them, rather than the irked grimace that comes to my face when considering the more complex, more serious and generally more aggravating-to-write works I’m currently wrestling with.

So every now and then I write just for play, especially with silly flash fictions that are all bang and swagger and ridiculous hats. But fun isn’t just exercised through silly stories. Playfulness can also come out in voice and tone, in enthusiastic prose and tongue-in-cheek expressions, the kind of thing that often gets derided as self-aware cleverness. (As if it’s a bad thing to be clever and self-aware.) Look at the language of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the deft wryness of Middlesex, the circular storytelling of The Orphan’s Tales, the delighted genre awareness of All-Star Superman; these are serious works that aim to be worthy stories, but in reading them I can’t help but feel confident that the authors had a good time even while working hard. I so, so love books like that.

(And let’s not even get into the joys of ergodic fiction, where readers actively play with story components to make a finished narrative. Because that’s a whole other post, and I would love the chance to drone on about The Dictionary of the Khazars for 1000 words.)

I’m not trying to say that all writers should play D&D or study the storytelling structure of Angry Birds; there probably are arguments to made on those and similar statements, but this post ain’t it. Nor am I saying we should write more Happy Fun Light Entertainment novels that can be easily digested on the beach or the toilet, because we have plenty of those and to be honest I don’t much care for that kind of thing.

But I’m saying that maybe it’s good to have fun when you write sometimes. I certainly need to have more of that.

Maybe then I’d write more.

4 replies on “Play by play”

A sense of play in writing is vital. I’ve only learned that in the last week or so. The big thing for me has been surrendering a lifelong attachment to deep pre-plotting and using that energy to just write the thing.

I’m not very far into this new book, but so far it’s the best, richest, most joyful thing I’ve ever written. And there’s been about nine murders by page 3.

Great post. I love games, and I love to play games, but I tend to play them intermittently. Recently, though, I’ve found playing games very helpful for writing, not just because they’re fun, but they’re an exciting storytelling medium. There’s something about the level of immersion when you’re in the middle of playing a game that I think is very similar to being in the middle of reading a good book. In both cases, you’re in the middle of a scene, and dying to find out what happens next. In a game, there’s the very real possibility of success vs failure, and you’re not sure which way it’s going to go. Ideally, the scenes or chapters in a book, should probably be capturing this same kind of intensity. Obviously depending on the kind of book you’re writing.

So, yes, I find them very inspiring too!

I didn’t rush right in to yell “me too” inappropriately loudly because I’ve been struggling all week with my increasingly turgid, unlovable novel.

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here – it’s completely lacking my (default) sense of fun. I think, somewhere in the mix of trying to grind out wordcount to make my self-imposed end-of-year deadline and replotting as I go because I didn’t have as tight a grip on the plot as I thought, I’ve gone from enjoying writing it to resenting every frigging word.

So thanks. This has been a timely reminder that I’m supposed to be doing this for fun…

(I should amend the wording on that Godheads review, because on reflection it sounds kind of dismissive of ‘Otis’ and ‘Salbine’ – whereas in fact they’re two of my three favourites in the collection. Probably because they are fun, self-aware pieces).

This is the kind of thing I realised when all these grumpy serious people were attacking NaNoWriMo and the writers involved because it was silly and that’s not the way you’re meant to write a novel.

Which is kind of why I do it. I need to remind myself of this, and that’s why I’m doing the web serial too.

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