Strive — At Least a Little

A friend of mine and a terrific writer just landed a job with a miniatures gaming company as their head writer.  Up until now they have been using folks in the gaming community who fancied themselves writers, but hadn’t really put in the blood and sweat like my buddy.  My friend attended Viable Paradise and Taos Tool Box.  He’s written several novels and lots and lots of short stories.  He has a tool box that’s pretty well stocked with the tools of our peculiar trade.

And now he’s in charge of these other writers.  He’s insisting that the staff plot out the campaigns and the stories, and he’s been getting pushback.  He’s been telling me about the various objections he’s received, and he got one a few days ago that left me a bit breathless and gobsmacked.  It goes like this.

“We’re writing for gamers, and they have no taste, and wouldn’t know good writing from bad, and it will just confuse them if we have plot and character arcs and consistency so it’s not worth doing.”  In other words they’ll eat any crap we shovel out with a spoon and not know the difference.

My friend gently (actually I don’t know if it was gentle or not) anyway, he pointed out that maybe this writer ought to strive to write something that wasn’t crap for his own sense of pride and to honor the art.  Apparently it went right over the guy’s head.

A couple of reasons for this attitude occurred to me.  One is simple laziness.  It’s hard to plot and make sure the structure works, and this was an excuse not to put in the work.  The other is a sense of low expectations about the readership which is always death for a writer.  Readers will know if you are insincere or mocking them.  And why write if you despise readers this much?  It could also be a lack of trust in your own abilities.  If that’s the case then get some training, join a writer’s group, do something to improve.

There’s a corollary to this too.  There’s a growing trend in writing to never rewrite.  Send out your first draft and move on to the next project immediately because it’s all about pushing “product”.  Very few of us are the literary equivalent of Mozart who in the words of Salieri in the movie Amadeus, “…He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished….”  99.,9% of us can’t do that.  We have to rework, to ponder a phrase, make sure the character motivations are correct, to plot.  Yes, I treat my writing  as a job in that I make myself work each day and meet my deadlines, but that doesn’t mean I can’t strive to maybe, actually, create… well — art.

One of Daniel Abraham‘s Clarion instructors urged his students to strive for greatness.  I think that should be foremost in all our minds whether we’re doing work for hire, or gaming fiction, or media tie ins or our own deeply personal book.  Because if we don’t strive for greatness on everything we write then the chance to write that deeply personal novel that will illuminate the human condition and touch and move people on the deepest levels will always elude us.

8 Responses to Strive — At Least a Little

  • Hear, hear, Melinda! As a gamer who also has a brain (and surprisingly, many of us do), I applaud your friend and his efforts – and your sentiments.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      It was so stunningly insulting to gamers. Yeah, there’s a lot of flaming on the BioWare site, but also a lot of thoughtful posts too. If all you’re giving people is crap you can’t blame them if they don’t know better. It’s our job as writers to entertain, and make it good and strive for great.

  • mrwismer says:

    I am always on the hunt for modules that fit the Traveller game I run. And I’m pretty tolerant of what I will use — I can convert just about anything into a Traveller game for my players. But I find too often that most of the modules out there are crap — no plot, no character development, nothing interesting for my gamers. So I end up “making things up” as I go along. As a GM that can be time consuming and tedious. Would love to find more quality in the gaming world.

    And while I’m ranting about gaming — MAPS! GMs need maps!

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      We had the exact same thing happen in a Cthulu campaign years ago. John had bought this module and it was terrible. All we did was die of the flu before we ever faced a monster. The games John created were way, way better. And yes, I agree on the map front.

  • TEngland says:

    Interesting to read this at this point. I just finished participating in writing a narrative for a video game, not like the Halo types but the ones where you shoot enemy forces that are coming down the screen and you try to wipe them out. The term is (something) rail shooter games, like the old Centipede, except this is much more sophisticated. Anyhow, these games don’t have much of a plot, but the developer wanted some sort of story to explain what’s going on and what the what the stakes are — in other words, something to engage the player beyond just blowing up stuff (though that looks really cool in this game). So a friend of mine and I worked out a scenario. It’s basically, silly, but it’s something the gamer can read and (we hope) be amused by. Even so, I tried to give a voice to the narrator, a way of speaking. I came up with a plot which works even though it’s pasted over the game structure. (it’s better to start at the beginning when the game is first being assembled, but we didn’t have that luxury.) It will make no difference to the success or failure of the game whether the player reads any of the narration, but the idea is still to entertain, like you say. Nothing big, earth-shattering or particularly literary, just some fun for the person who buys the thing. But I still tried to put more into this thing than the person quoted by your friend above. I think the customer deserves that.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      That’s so cool you got to write a game, Terry, and you’re right, it’s a shame they brought you in so late in the process. If a writer is in from the beginning you get Dragon Age or Knights of the Old Republic, but the gaming industry on balance has yet to realize that they need actual writers.

  • Eric Senabre says:

    As a former journalist, I’m afraid I experienced something very similar : “We don’t have time for rewrite, and anyway, people won’t even notice.” This kind of attitude works… for a short period of time. When something’s badly done, the news spreads one day or another. Most of the french magazines that went to bankruptcy suffered from this “quality issue”. If you consider your readers are stupid, they might eventually notice it. It’s not a very clever move in the long term, from a strictly “commercial” point of view.
    And from the artistic point of view, it’s a non-sense. You can’t ask a professional not to do his work properly, and furthermore, art “doesn’t work” like that. I don’t think you can communicate anything to an audience if you’re not proud of the work you did, if haven’t sweat on it a little…

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      In gaming I don’t think there are writing “professionals” yet. It’s starting as companies realize that they need people who are actually trained to tell stories. When I was hired by EA and worked for those two days before the bosses cancelled the game; we were in a plotting session, and about five hours into it the programer who had “plotted” the story turned to the others and said, “Okay now I see why we need writers.” Because what he had created was a mess. No sense of structure. No character motivation or arc. Just actions designed to lead to another combat. The games that work best for me are the ones with a narrative and a cause worthy of the fight. I was totally engrossed in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but of course Mass Effect ultimately failed because the ending was so bad. And the ending was crafted by two non-writers.

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