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 clichéd 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.
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,