Thursday, February 2, 2012

If It Isn't Working, Try Playing

People start out writing for different reasons, but in my experience, many people are just experimenting at first. They want to see if they can do it; they've always liked books; they have an idea. So they write. They’re just playing.

But every writer starts to grow up at some point. This is a business. We’re professionals. We can't afford to play. Does it have a hook? Is it marketable? Is it mainstream? Will it sell? The professional writer needs to consider such things.

I wonder though, if in our effort to transform into professional, publishable authors, we get a few things backwards. If playing is perhaps just as essential as being marketable.

Let me back up for a moment, here, and try to define "playing." Because anyone can say, "Oh yes, I play. Look! I'll put an adverb in. I REALLY like to play. See? Gosh, that was fun. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go edit it out."

That's not what I mean by playing. I don't mean indulging oneself every so often. I'm talking that absolutely ridiculous plot you’ve had floating around in your head for ages—you know, the one with the octopus apocalypse? The one nobody but you would enjoy? Writing it would be a complete waste, and of course you’ll never bother. But it’s just fun to think about.

Have you ever had one of those ideas? I did. It surfaced about three years ago, when I revolutionized my writing process to reduce self-induced pressure. I decided to simplify. Take a break. In the past, I always pressured myself to start the next project, but this time, I vowed to wait and let things play out naturally.

A month passed.

A second month passed.

I got a little antsy. Still, no serious ideas came to me. I toyed but none stuck. True to my vow, I let them go and continued waiting.

A third month passed.

I couldn’t bear not writing anymore. I was bored, and I was hungry, and I wanted story. I opened a word doc. In sheer desperation I wrote the beginning to one of my favorite daydreams--a mysterious flying girl who falls to earth.

It wasn’t high premise. It wasn’t serious at all. But it was fun. I was happy as a kid mucking around in a mud puddle. Like the Dread Pirate Roberts to Westley in Princess Bride, I finished each writing session thinking, “Made good progress today. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Might kill it in the morning.”

I never did kill it, though. The more I wrote, the better it got, and I finally had to admit MIRRORPASS was a real novel. And now it turns out MIRRORPASS is one of the most serious novels I’ve ever written. Of course I managed to conveniently forget I could ever be that unprofessional. Until now.

With this new year, I find myself faced with the dilemma once again: choose a serious project, or a fun project?

Was MIRRORPASS a one-time fluke, I wonder, or did I stumble upon something crucial, something true?

Here’s how I see it.

Playing frees you from all expectations.

When you’re “just playing,” you don’t expect the idea to go anywhere. Nobody ever needs to see it but you. It sets you free to explore. And though we often forget this, exploring is the whole point of a first draft.

It’s just for fun—which is why it IS fun.

Be honest. Sometimes, writing a novel because you want to get published sucks the actual fun out of writing. Writing is fun again when you write with the purpose of enjoying yourself. This is the story you'd tell yourself late at night, the story you want to read curled up by a fireplace when it snows outside. It doesn't matter if it's a Harry Potter ripoff or not, as long as you enjoy it.

Playing is full of possibility.

Some things, like evil scientists, are so clich├ęd that you just don’t write about them. But I happen to love evil scientists. MIRROPASS was like my fantasy novel, and I could do whatever I wanted with it, so I included evil scientists. And government chases. And crazy escapes. And special abilities. I felt free to do that because I knew this was my novel to have fun with.

A powerful end result.

The combination of these elements--the privacy, the freedom, the indulgence in possibility, the purity of writing what you enjoy and enjoying what you write--combine to create something explosive. Suddenly, this idea is serious. It is high concept. It is marketable.

How did that happen? If you look closely, “playing” is recommended by more than one rule of writing.

  • Write what you know
  • Write what you’re passionate about
  • Write crappy first drafts
  • If you don’t enjoy the story, readers won’t, either
  • Turn off the internal editor
  • BIC. (Don’t over-think it.)

I hear these rules all the time, and I’m sure you do, too. But I think we lose sight of what’s really being said here; that we need to stop worrying about being serious writers, and we need to just play. Enjoy ourselves. Just play.

Because when you play, you don't care about crappy first drafts; you write what you think about most often, and what you enjoy, what you're passionate it about; you don't care about the internal editor, and you're not overthinking.

You're having fun.

Just playing.

Who's to say, where it will take you?

All right gang, pitch in. Do you ever write that unmarketable idea just for fun? WAS it fun? Did you end up trunking it, or taking it seriously by the end? And even if you did trunk it, do you think it was worth it?

What do you all think about playing?

Truly and always,
Creative A


1000th.monkey said...

As a pantser, I pretty much consider everything I write to be 'playing' (according to your definition).

And I love it :)

April Plummer said...

I love your posts. And I have to say you've got me all curious as to what this idea is you played with. I don't think I've ever had something like that...well...that's not true. I do have something like that. Don't know what'll come of it, if anything, but it continues to linger. We'll see. Thanks for the reminder that it's good to play!

Anonymous said...

You're spot on, April. Write for yourself for those who write for a market just tend to read as though they've written for a market - no real soul. It does, though, depend on your market segment - what readers are after from their reading. Churning out the story sausages can be seriously profitable if the reader only demands sausages but I then wonder how satisfying a job it is for the author.

I'd rather be a poor writer enjoying myself than a successful but jaded author - however glittery the badge of professional may appear.

Clive Johnson

Creative A said...

Monkey-- that's interesting. I guess pansting does lend itself well to playing. But does that make "playing" and being "organized" at odds? Interesting thought. Either way, hurrah for you, doing what you love, loving what you do!


Creative A said...

Ah, April! Thank you. I could give you a hug :) The idea I talked about turned out to be MIRRORPASS--was that unclear? I've got a MIRRORPASS summary on my WIP page.

As for your idea, that's the great thing about doesn't matter what comes of it, really, so long as you enjoyed the process of getting it down. And an added benefit is that when we enjoy getting it down, something often becomes of it. Win win.


Creative A said...

Hey Clive,

Well said. That's basically how I feel, too. I do believe there's a balance--if you enjoy writing about the adventures of paperclips for a thousand pages, well, you can't expect that to sell. But the market shouldn't dictate the writer either. So a writer should consider their market--and then write what the enjoy, with market considerations in mind. That's how I see it, anyway.

Thanks for commenting!

Erin Latimer said...

Nice post! For me playing vs. professional depends on the story. The novel that I'm currently writing started out as playing. No plot, just a bunch of characters that I loved. I wrote whatever I wanted to happen. I wrote 40,000 words like that and then left it for six months. When I came back I had a real plot, and I had to scrap all that I had written and start over. I don't regret starting like that, because without the "playing" I wouldn't have the characters or the writing ability that I have now.

As for my other novel, it's a steampunk murder mystery vaguely based on Queen Victoria, with a lot of political drama involved. So, lots of research and planning required. If I just "played" there would be no way to get a coherent story out of it. It might be fun but in that sense I'd feel it was pretty useless.

Having said that, "playing" is such an important part of writing and I often forget to do it. I get trapped in the "is it marketable?" worry which never helps. Wherever possible I definitely start out by playing :)

Erin Latimer said...

Just read 1000th.monkey's post after I commented and realised I probably sounded like "playing" and "pantsing" are the same thing. That's not exactly what I meant, but they do quite often go hand-in-hand :) Not having a plot totally frees you! haha.

Creative A said...

Hey Erin! No worries--I totally agree, playing and pantsing go hand in hand, but they're not really the same thing.

And yeah, I also agree that there's a time and a place for playing; not every project will work like that.
But I think playing covers "creative license," too.

You could bend the rules/traditions of steampunk and Queen Victoria histories. Like, maybe unicorns are taboo in steampunk, but you think it would be cool. You could exercise some creative license and just try it.

So what I'm trying to say is, you can be serious about a project, and still play. It's just that being serious often makes us feel like we're not allowed to play.

Did that make sense? Hah.


amber colleen said...

I generally write everything for fun. I want to get published and I'm gonna work towards that end, but writing and editing is fun for me, so all of it's like playing. :)

Creative A said...

Oh good for you, Amber! That's the attitude I'm trying to get back to.

LM Preston said...

Glad you got back in the game. Of course you couldn't leave it if you wanted to, but a break is good. Let's face it, for most writers you have to love it to do it. Think about what you would get paid for it per hour. Scratch that, just enjoy the adventure of writing again.

Creative A said...

Well thank you, Preston! I most certainly will. While I never technically took a break, it has been a while since I drafted, so I'm really enjoying it :)


Guinevere said...

Good advice! I've always been surprised when I just let myself go and write something ridiculous and write badly and just have FUN... I usually end up really liking the end product.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Amazingly, late in 2011 I wrote an octopus apocalypse story. Or at least, a story with a potential octopus apocalypse in it.

Great ideas in this post.

Google Analytics