Video Games Can Kill Your Writing

In my daily lunchtime-wasting internet crawl today, I stumbled across an interview with Robin Hobb, bestselling author of (among other series) the Assassin’s Apprentice Trilogy, which I own, signed by her, and of which I have read the first volume.

Although interviews asking writers how they find the time to write are a-dime-a-dozen, I haven’t really read one since it became a real issue for me. Since starting full-time work, and getting married and starting a family, basically. And it really hit home this time. With my life destined only to get even more full of non-writing activity, I’ve begun to realise that it would be all too easy to just stop writing, and never pick it back up again.

I have got four weeks off from work when the baby arrives. I’ve got a few big decisions to make in that time. Although for the moment, work is an inflexibly-necessary evil, I want/need to start to prioritise the rest of my time. I can’t just keep going with the flow unless I first take a look at what that means giving up, and decide that it’s okay.

When do you find time to write?

“Well, I’m a full time writer these days, so it’s a 6AM to 11PM job on the days I want it to be.

When I was younger and working outside the home and having kids, it was harder. Some things, such as gaming and watching idle television, simply had to go. I still had favorite TV shows, for example, but I couldn’t sit down and just channel surf all evening. Dinner over, dishes done, kids on homework, me on the word processor. When they were really small, a notebook (paper kind!) was my best friend. Sit on a bench at the playground or on the floor by the bathtub and write. Write on the bus, while waiting at the doctor’s office, while the kids were at the roller rink . . . you can get a lot of words that way. And when you type it all in at the end of the day, it’s a revision and elaboration process that multiplies those words.

I also had and have a messy house and a jungly yard. We all make choices about what is important in our lives. And once we know what is important, that is where we put our time.”


Have you by chance ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

“I think that early on I realized that gaming, online worlds and even the Internet connection presented a very real danger to me as a writer! Seriously. I can handle one obsession at a time, and writing is a career where the obsessive parts of it are actually very helpful to me. Online gaming presents a very strong lure to me. After a couple of very small trials, I realized that it would be an ‘all or nothing’ occupation for me. And I do mean an ‘occupation’ as in something that would occupy all my life and time. At that time, with work and a family and a small farm to take care of, I had precious little ‘free’ time. I knew I could give it to gaming, or to writing. I made a conscious decision that I had to play in my own world inside my own head. So, I still feel a lot of envy when I walk past my daughter’s desk and see all this cool stuff happening on her monitor. But I have to keep walking and sit at my own desk and start piling up the words on the screen instead. I don’t think I could game and still find the time to put out a big hardback every year.”

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

“Start today. Write. Finish what you start. Submit what you finish. Repeat. Don’t get caught up in the ‘someday I’m going to do that’ trap. Don’t blog and tell yourself that it puts you on the road to being a published fiction writer. It just makes you a blogger. Get your stories down on paper now. Don’t wait. The stories that you can and would write today are irreplaceable. The story you will write at 15 can’t wait until you are 30. It won’t be the same story. It will be gone. Don’t write a lot of stuff in other people’s worlds. You are not a cookie press pushing out dough into a pre-set shape. You’re a writer. If you don’t write your own characters and worlds now, today, no one ever will.” Robin Hobb interview

Says it all, doesn’t it?

I feel that now, more than ever before, I’m standing at a crossroads. I may have even taken a few steps down a certain path, away from my writing.

When I started this blog, I pretended it was writing. Something that helped me pretend that I hadn’t left my creative ambitions behind. For a while, it worked as a distraction, but it never filled the hollow void that abandoning my writing left me with.

Most days, I don’t feel up to mental sweating. After work, all I want to do is collapse in front of the TV or the Xbox. Both offer immediate, instant gratification, but it’s the kind that dissipates instantly the moment the screen is turned off. This certainly accounts for a great deal of my free time at the moment, certainly more than ideal.

And it’s become a routine. On the bus to/from work, I read. On my lunch break, I blog. When I get home, I hang out with Katie, cook dinner, walk the dog, watch TV and go to bed.

Because of the graphic-novel nature of the project I’ve got half-finished, The Lesser Evil, I can only really ‘write’ when I am at home and have access to the computer that houses all my software. If I went back to prose, I could replace the bus rides and lunchtime blog with a paper notebook and start writing again.

Things change

When I was little, I was so sure about what I was going to be when I grew up. And now here I am, all grown up, a husband, father, breadwinner… it seems impossible for career aspirations to get a look-in past all that.

And that’s okay. For now. A little while. But I’ve started to realise that I’ve taken my eye off what I thought was the grand prize.

Maybe I was wrong. I might not want it as much as I thought I did.

But I still believe that if I’m ever to have a career rather than a job, there’s only one place for me to go. And I’ve known that all my life.

When things settle down a bit, I might fix my eye on my career.

I’m not sure what the future is going to hold for my writing. There are so many variables, and I am naturally reluctant to sacrifice any of the comforts or opportunities that I want to be able to provide for Katie and the baby.

The answer might lie in stopping/slowing this blog, putting the Xbox into storage, maybe even leaving current creative projects by the wayside.

It could be that I never really needed to be a writer; maybe it was a stopgap solution that became redundant when I found my family. Maybe all the meaning my life needs can be found here. That’s what all the movies say…

Or it could be that a change in my career path will help me find the meaning I need for myself…

… but even now, as I always have, and even though the urge to write is not as strong as it once was, I still see it as my only path to being happy at work. Maybe there really has only been one path meant for me, and it’s the one I’ve known I wanted all along.

Sanitising the World: The ‘N-Word’

As the New Year broke, I found a news article that offered some insight into what this decade would have to offer. And guess what: it was more of the same. The latest example of misdirected political correctness is the republication of Joseph Conrad’s 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus as The N-word of the Narcissus.

I’m not kidding. This is true. There’s a news article about it and everything.

The new version is the first instalment of WordBridge Publishing’s classic texts series, featuring “texts with a message for moderns, made accessible to moderns”.

But some critics say updating a Conrad novel by replacing all mentions of the offensive term “nigger” with “n-word” is just as offensive as the word itself.

“It’s outrageous,” Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a New York-based civil rights organisation, said.

“Are they going to go to Mark Twain as well and take out all of those references?

“It’s censorship and to blacken over a word does not mean that you can blacken over the history.”



I wonder if they chose a lesser known book to judge reaction before going after a bigger fish like Mark Twain?

They changed the language to avoid offending people. Well guess what, people: history sometimes is offensive. It should be offensive. A time period should be every bit as dark and horrible (as well as wholesome and pure) in our minds as it was to the people who lived in it. If the era was a racist one, then we shouldn’t pretend it wasn’t.

But maybe that’s the thing. So many people don’t seem able to tolerate ambivalence. For them, the notion that history is enlightening, heartening and horrific is irreconcilable in their minds. And when greeting card companies are trying to return us to the nostalgic 1950s – when family was all that mattered, and before rampant consumerism and advertising conquered the world – we are not really being encouraged to think of history as multi-faceted.

But the fact remains: if you’re going to learn a sanitised version of history, you might as well not bother at all. If, for example, the 1950s were just a time of homemaking and family ideals, and not of war and bigotry and McCarthyism, what lessons can be learned? Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it forever; this is the most fundamental of truisms.

And, just to be completely melodramatic about this, when Big Brother starts controlling what you see and know of history, Big Brother controls the world. (And yes, I realise that this particular example is one publisher’s decision, independent of government intervention; I’m just saying that the same principles can be translated, and this could be the precedent)

Double Standards

It seems hard to believe that Joseph Conrad should be the first target of the new decade. Not when the word “hell” has found its way into G-rated TV, and anything seems to go at M and MA levels. Not when extraordinarily violent video games are finding their way into the hands of children without so much as an ID check. And not when enough free internet porn to choke the world is but a single mouse click away.

It seems to me that if you want to sanitise the media, you would be best to begin with the stuff that has the biggest, most impressionable audience, wouldn’t you? Rather than targeting a book that, let’s face it, has a primarily academic audience.

No one seemed to mind when the Simpsons suddenly slipped a few “craps” into their show, and then a few more… and the rest of TV followed suit.

A slippery slope?

They should totally remake It’s A Wonderful Life so that the family’s maid isn’t black, and so that the main villain isn’t in a wheelchair (because withered legs are not a great metaphor for his withered soul, it’s clearly just an attack on “persons of diminished physical capabilities”).

Dad’s Army made fun of old people, so we should pull those DVDs off the shelf and recall all those that have been sold.

In fact, ALL 1960s TV is sexist and exploitative by today’s standards – get it OFF THE AIR at once!

Parting Thoughts

I want my daughter to understand that the word “nigger” used to be a widely used perjorative term, but that it’s no longer socially acceptable. If she goes into life thinking that it has always been the “n-word” and that times pretty much never change, how is she going to be prepared for the changes her generation will face?

Big Brother wants to know the answer, too.

What I write and why #2: Reviews

Until very recently, it never crossed my mind that the purpose of writing was not necessarily to be published. Although every book on writing I had ever read stated that you must enjoy the process, they all (naturally) continued on to offer advice on getting published, so I guess I developed the assumption that the two processes go hand-in-hand.

For me, getting published was not about making money… or at least, not as much about that as it was about other things.

Writing to be read

When I was in year 9, I wrote a sci-fi novella for a high school writing competition, and got my English teacher to read it over. His enthusiasm for my writing was so intoxicating that it didn’t matter that my entry got nowhere in the competition.

Another example: When I was in college, I took a semester of design, in which we were given a free-form project. I’m not sure where the inspiration came from, but I decided it would be fun to design a cover for my book, and get it printed off.

Holding that book in my hand at the end of the project was an awesome thrill, and it didn’t even matter that I nearly failed the assignment because I did none of the other required work. Since then, almost every new draft of The Lesser Evil (then known as The Padakan Plot) has been printed and bound, often with a different cover design.

But even getting a hardcopy of my book wasn’t the drawcard for me. I offered copies to the people around me, gratis, for their appraisal. It was often a bit disheartening when the books went straight onto people’s shelves and were never heard from again, but I understand: I’m not good at obligation reading either.

When I met Katie, she introduced me to her cousin Brian, who has creative ambitions of his own (and the talent to back them up). He demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm for my writing and insisted on purchasing a copy of the current draft of The Lesser Evil (then called The Padakan Past). I framed that money as my first sale, but a bigger thrill came when he read the book and offered feedback.

Why?

So, yes, it’s true. I am writing to be noticed, to be read, to be reviewed. Maybe even to get famous (though I am aware that this can be a double-edged sword).

Why? I’ve been doing some thinking about this recently, and I’ve decided that this is my eternal quest for validation (or, in the words of Rocky, “to stand toe-to-toe and say ‘I am'”).

I think this is the case, because since meeting Katie, my writing drive has diminished somewhat, and more so since we got married and more so again since she got pregnant.

My writing has always been the way I defined myself. I never had any trouble with the sentence “I am a writer.” In some ways, I guess that it has been a shield, protecting me from some harsh truths about myself, but also blocking my forward view.

I still want to write, and be read, so I don’t think I’m ‘cured’ yet. Maybe I’m not supposed to be. But while I’m off on this tangent, I will mention that I think I’ve hit a healthier balance between writing and life than I have ever had in the past.

Everyone does it

Lots of people write to get noticed. Some people even start … blogs …

Also, with Twitter, Facebook status updates and public photo galleries on Flickr, etc, etc, countless online people are trying to reach an audience broader than that they could reach with face-to-face conversation. To share something else, to feel validated.

Academaesthetics

Academaesthetics will help me get across what I am trying to say. It is a perfect case in point, as it is my only published work. When it was published, I sent a brief note of thanks to Neil Cohn, a comics theorist in the USA who helped me put together some of my theories. He mentioned it on his site, and this mention was mentioned on the news weblog of The Comics Journal. Someone read that link, and then mentioned it on their blog here, and further responses were generated from that. It eventually came back full circle, with someone asking Neil Cohn if he had heard of Academaesthetics. Very cool.



The short period in 2007 that Academaesthetics went viral was incredibly exciting. To see word-of-mouth reaching around the world, to include an audience whose members I hadn’t met, gave me an amazing warm tingle of pride that I didn’t anticipate, and can’t even properly describe. Seeing it mentioned in an academic article was likewise very exciting, and gave me the feeling of legitimacy that I was looking for.

The occasional word of praise for my work sent into the virtual ether was a tremendous feeling as well. Interestingly, these words from strangers trumped by far the (obligatory) face-to-face compliments I received for this work, and even those objective ones from the university staff.

“Academaesthetics is pure pleasure.” Wow.

Failure

Failure to be noticed has always been on my mind. It’s always been a possibility that I would never be published, I would never be read, and/or I would never be a pro writer. So it has occurred to me, more than once, that my writing may not actually be the path to the validation I seek.

This is why I do feel for Alec Baldwin as, after trying for over thirty years, he clearly never got the recognition that he craved.

However, as this issue has been on my mind for a while, I have been able to ponder it quite extensively. When I read this article about Alec Baldwin, I couldn’t help but think he might have had the wrong idea.

I regard Academaesthetics as a success. It wasn’t seen by a million people, and it didn’t generate rave reviews or a cent of revenue, and the (limited) word-of-mouth died down after about two weeks. But I enjoyed the hell out of the process of writing it, drawing it, and seeing it published. I learned an amazing amount about myself, about comics, about writing, and about my potential in these fields.

The word “failure” seems to be a big one to throw in the face of even this much, let alone a career as prosperous and prodigious as Baldwin’s.

While I hope that Academaesthetics is not the pinnacle of my career, I see it as a big step forward. Even if I never publish again, I consider this to be success enough for me, for the reasons I have highlighted above. I know what it’s like to be read by people I don’t know; I got that warm fuzzy feeling once, which is more than many people get.

Maybe Alec reached a point where he wasn’t stepping forward; only moving laterally, or backwards. If that’s the case, and he didn’t get as far as he wanted/needed, I really do feel sorry for him.

I hope he finds what he’s looking for somewhere.

Parting thoughts

This all said, writing is as much about process as anything else. I feel that writing is one of the things that helps me develop as a person. It helps me learn about myself, about life in general, and encourages me to dissect my thoughts on certain issues in ways that thinking alone cannot quite manage.

While it is (extremely) nice to find that strangers are enjoying your work, it can’t be everything, or you might turn around one day and declare your decades-long career a failure.

I intend to continue writing, and would do so even if I knew that none of it would ever be published.

What I write and why #1: Science-fiction

A work in progress: a short dissertation on the personal appeal that science fiction and comic books have to me, and why they currently represent the best mode for my stories. Expect references to Worlds Apart: The Narratology of Science Fiction, the academic journal TEXT (in which I have been published), and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, among others.

The following thoughts have been collected by me over many years, and they have helped me to become a better reader and writer. I hope they have the same positive impact upon you … and I also hope that you choose not to view this page as the desperate self-serving defence of my own work that it clearly is.

SCIENCE FICTION

The decision I took to write these stories in the genre of science fiction was taken before I had the critical faculties to evaluate the pros and cons of such an idea. In some ways, it seems strange that such an intuitive impulse should turn out feeling so right. Sci-fi may not be the right environment for all my work, but I’ll now try to unpack the reasons I think it works for The Lesser Evil.

Characters are people too

When I’ve tried to base fiction stories in my hometown, I’ve never been comfortable with the result; it feels heavy with my own voice, filtered by my eyes, and the characters seem as though they are wearing masks that may at any time fall off to reveal that they are, in truth, just people in my life. This writing ‘too close to home’ is accompanied by both paranoia and embarrassment, even if the characters and events have nothing to do (or so I think) with the people and events around me. When looking over what I’ve written, there’s always that thought: ‘So-and-so will think I’m writing about them,’ or ‘I know someone who will take offence at this.’ (Bowman, 2009)

Never the stereotyped society-shunning artiste, my life has always been tied to other people. The family with whom I lived as a child, the spouse with whom I am currently living, and friends and colleagues whom I secretly hoped would one day become fans. And so I found myself gripped by the same paranoia outlined by Christopher Bowman in the above quote.

Even if I don’t think that Ross’ parents are based on mine, who’s to say that it will be read that way? And who am I to say, anyway; it took me years to even realise my own place in the story. It just might be that this story is about the people to whom my life has been tied.

You get taught one thing above all others when studying writing: “Write what you know.” It’s the only way that the story will feel real.

These concerns may seem ridiculous, but they are very real when you find yourself preoccupied with altering your characters and places just to disguise them and remove any chance they might be recognized. With these preoccupations, it’s almost impossible just to write a story that takes place anywhere near me, geographically or socially. But without experience, there is not much hope of producing a story that feels real. (Bowman, 2009)

I turned to science fiction, anticipating that its distance from contemporary reality would offer enough of a buffer between my life and those of my characters that fewer comparisons would be made.

As a teenager who wanted to write, I was keenly aware that anyone who read my work would be making comparisons between the characters in my stories, and those in my life. Equally aware that in all the truly memorable books I had ever read, not too many of the supporting characters ever come off completely favourably, I was reluctant to write anything that ran the risk of hurting someone I knew.

So I started writing derivative stories, tales that effectively cloned the science-fiction adventure stories I loved. They were the only things I knew that weren’t part of my interpersonal experiences. Just a few problems, one legal, two personal: I’m sure that they breached several copyright laws; I didn’t feel connected to them the way I wanted to; and they were crap.



When I began putting this brief explanation together, I came across Christopher Bowman’s article in the April 2009 imprint of Text, who outlines similar concerns. His solution was to develop a new narrative voice, an ideolect that is not his own. He finds this to be a “vehicle of enablement” and finds that it acts as a reflection that allows him to “turn around and see […] in a new light.”

What Bowman finds in a new narrative voice, I have found, to some extent, in a science-fiction setting. This largely came from over a decade of practice, but I now feel I am somewhat comfortable with the genre.

I have come to accept that there’s no way out. Although I find that science fiction does offer some relief from comparisons between my life and that of the characters in The Lesser Evil, I have realised that the story began to truly shine (in my own heart, at least) once I embraced it as my story (Though I will add the following disclaimer for the sake of posterity: it was not my intention for any one of my characters to represent any real people in my life, except for myself).

The point is that sci-fi is (for now, at least) my vehicle of enablement, the combination of exotic and familiar (as Stephen Donaldson puts it in his intro to The Real Story) that makes for a compelling story.

The exotic and the familiar

It might seem that the exotic element is the science-fiction universe in which The Lesser Evil is set, and the familiar is the inner turmoil of the characters with whom I identify so closely.

But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that in a lot of ways, you already know this story, and this world. It’s Star Wars. It’s Dune. It’s The Gap. In short, it’s nothing new under the sun(s).

To emphasise this point, I chose to utilise a technique I first noticed in one of John Grant’s Legends of Lone Wolf books: to name the chapters using part of a familiar phrase or cliche.

The logic is simple: if a story must contain the familiar and the exotic, then if you see the world as exotic, the characters are always going to be secondary reactants, often cardboard cutouts (think Star Trek or Stargate – NB: As much as I enjoy these franchises, they thrive on social ideas rather than compelling character interaction).

What I’m getting at is that in science fiction, there is often an automatic assumption that the setting is the exotic element of the story. This is not only an insufficient reading of The Lesser Evil; it is also for most science fiction. So by creating a familiar – even derivative – social setting, I am attempting to encourage the reader to see the familiar in the worlds of The Lesser Evil.

Of course, this is too simplistic to be workable. There are elements of familar and exotic in everything we see and do. We are familiar with the way a pen marks a page, but perhaps not so much with the mechanisms that operate the spring, or that push the ink to the tip, or the millions of chemical and physical interactions of the countless electrons in the pen that occur every moment, regardless of whether it is being used or not.

This is my ultimate hope for readers of The Lesser Evil: to recognise elements of the familiar and the exotic everywhere. So even if the minds of my characters are exotic, I do want them to feel familiar as well. Even if my settings are familiar (and/or derivative), I want there to be some unique unusual touch to them.

A Mirror to the World

Following on from the previous ideas, this quote from Worlds Apart: The Narratology of Science Fiction explains the benefits of the familiar/exotic mix I’ve been attempting to describe:

… standards of comparison between the two worlds can therefore be established. But at the same time that world is structured by its novum, a distancing element which forces the reader to look at the basic narrative world from the estranged perspective of a new optic. Ernst Bloch has said that the “real function of estrangement is – and must be – the provision of a shocking and distancing mirror above the all too familiar reality.” (Malmgren, p11)

Ballard, too, claims that his explorations of “outer space” are really investigations into “inner space” (cited by Malmgren, p134). And of course, anyone familiar with the genre recognises its potential to make us see everyday objects or interactions in a brand new light.

This is, of course, the purpose of “encounter” science fiction, generally involving alien life forms, but which has also been successfully done with man-made automatons.

We think of ourselves as the Knights of Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. (Solaris, cited by Malmgren, p48)

Science fiction is clearly not a reflection of reality. Faster-than-light travel, time travel, alien civilisations, slow-moving-laser beam weapons, etc etc, do not exist in contemporary reality, and the current belief is that many of these might actually be impossible. However, science fiction does provide a mirror of sorts – a kind of distorted looking-glass, if you will – a reflection on reality. The Lesser Evil is, in true science fiction style, a reflection on my life experiences and values, rather than a reflection of them.

Writers who write about their writing

Here are some thoughts that suggest that writers are not, as people tend to believe, the best people to talk about their work.

In fact, after reading this, you might come to believe that they are the worst possible choice.

1. I’m not qualified to talk about my book

In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard notes that:

[Paul]Valery posited that despite appearances, an author is in no position to explain his own work. The work is the product of a creative process that occurs in the writer but transcends him, and it is unfair to reduce it to that act of creation. To understand a text, therefore, there is little point in gathering information about the author, since in the final analysis he serves it only as a temporary shelter. (Bayard, p 16)

I have discovered that this is, to at least some extent true, as the conscious effort of creation is tremendously supplemented by a myriad of subconscious influences that I cannot even identify, let alone qualify or quantify. While, for example, The Lesser Evil is not by any means a deeply subtle text, I can but presume that similar principles are at work here.

2. My book becomes your book

Bayard goes on to describe

an experience familiar to all writers, in which they realise that what is said about their books does not correspond to what they believe they have written. Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it. There is nothing astonishing in this disjuncture; since their inner books differ by definition, the one the reader has superimposed on the book is unlikely to seem familiar to the writer. (Bayard, p97-8)

There’s a lot to say on this.

The first and most obvious conclusion that one can grasp from this statement is that by talking about their work, an author is pre-loading their text with extra meaning, colouring the reader’s experience in a certain way, coming closer to ensuring that the reader has the experience the author intended.

Even for the author, I don’t believe that this situation is ideal. Having never actually had an audience for my work, I can’t say from experience how it feels to have someone read something into your work that you didn’t realise was there … but it sounds very exciting, not something to be feared or avoided.

Of course, I can imagine circumstances where a universal reading experience would be the ideal, especially in the realm of non-fiction, and also in fictional texts where the author is championing a cause or point of view.

The second conclusion I draw from this has to do with the author’s level of control. Anyone who writes a book is a control freak … on the page, if not in the real world as well. It seems to me that letting go of that book, sending it out into the world to make something of itself would not be too different from releasing a carefully-moulded child in the same way.

Parting thoughts:

The reluctance of an author to relinquish the right of reading to the reader can, in my opinion, damage his/her book’s impact upon its audience. Take everything I say about my work with a grain of salt.

This post is a necessary disclaimer for all future writing about my writing. You’ve been warned.