(Expect not so temporary diversions for the foreseeable future)
I’ve been working on a new piece of fiction, as you’re probably painful aware, for the past few weeks and I think the first draft is very nearly complete. As of last night the story was just shy of 10,000 words and it will break that barrier tonight.
As I reached the lead up to the denouement, I started to worry what I’d work on next. The novelette, though I don’t plan to try to publish it, will need at least 2 thorough edits before it’s really finished, but I may put that on the burner to keep writing. I have a writing buffet with lots of partial ideas but nothing I could really jump right into. Everything there either needs to be folded into a larger frame or requires a good deal of research which would likely result in the realization that it was a terrible idea to begin with.
After 5 weeks of writing daily, first here and then on the novelette, I don’t want to break my stride. Writing every day is already more enjoyable and I’m on the verge of it becoming normal. I’m worried about diving into research and losing the mental progress.
Well, I was. Today, I felt a germ. The little guy is precarious, but s/he’s there and waiting to be killed off as a possible infection or allowed to multiple into a series. That’s right. A flippin’ series. I’ve been hoping to stumble upon an idea for a series that would be as fun to research and write as it might be to read and today, for the first time, I think I might have the germ that could become just that.
I’ll leave it there for now but I’ll leave this one hint: I’m going to finally start reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels and they might just qualify as research.
my initial reaction: “oh, was she still alive?”
my tumblrsphere reaction:
yeah, horrible person. but the time to get all up in it about her being a horrible person was while she was busy being a horrible person.
sure, go ahead and party now. but… didja do all you could to stop the horrible…
Ditto all of this. Also, I was 4 when she left office.
After my rather long post on play and writing and all of that, I’ve not had much of an urge to post to the blog. It’s probably in part a simmering, as that thread consumed my mind for an entire week, but it also has to do with a new found certainty in the fiction piece I’m working on.
I had initially expected to write a few short stories. The reason for this is two-fold. First, I hoped—and perhaps still do—to write and edit a few short stories to keep in retainer for possible web publication. Regardless of reception, I figured this might make my effort seem more real. Second, I wanted to ease back into fiction writing with a quicker turn around between inception and “final” product. I wanted to be able to hold—figuratively, as I am working on my fiction digitally for the first time—a contained item in a relatively short period so I would have something to point to and say, “see, I did that.”
I realized that neither of these points is really all that important to me. With the exception of easing myself in with a shorter narrative, I don’t feel I need to write short fiction first. I know from the accounts of other authors that despite the conventional wisdom, publishing short stories is neither a necessary prior condition nor a guarantee that novels will follow. I don’t think I really need my fiction to feel real by virtue of existing online, at least not yet. I think the reason I came to realize this is because as I wrote and developed my first story, I felt proud of it. I felt this piece represented a good first stab at sf that I might edit and attempt to publish not to prove that I’d written an sf short story but rather on the merit of the work. If not this one, then possibly the next or very probably the third.
Besides, this first piece hasn’t stayed a short story. Based on the word count definitions established by the SFWA (the awarding body behind the Nebula, Bradbury, and Norton awards) it will fall into the category of a novelette, being at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words. As of last night, the first draft has a ways to go and is currently 6136 words (actual word count, not publication line count) and I have averaged ~438 words per day. Just the morning, a full week after I knew where the story would—probably—go, I realized its root in my own experience. I look forward not only to finishing this story, but even to editing it, something I used to dread. I also con wait to start the more formal process of planning a novel and culling from my writing buffer for details.
The last time I wrote fiction, I was a pile of self-doubt, loathing, and animas. This time, I couldn’t be more thrilled with my direction.
It’s a rather long read but makes a well-supported argument from why the conditions of the publishing industry, from it’s very inception, indicate that the foretold death of literature is now—as it has always been—false.
—Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Shadow Line
“If ‘literally’ is really here to stay, at the very least, people could be encouraged to correctly misuse the word.”
It should be noted that play is not essential to survival. It can even seem counterproductive to an organism safety is we consider how violent play between two puppies looks from our perspective. When they are quite young, dogs have a full set of disposable, razor-sharp teeth which they use to nip at anything that will play with them. When two are brought together, reciprocity dictates that they will each commit wholeheartedly to the game. They tumble, collide, nip, wrestle, and eventually bite unto one another’s necks without concern about the dangers of the surrounding environment. We often separate dogs when their play seems to escalate to be too rigorous or into a fight. We don’t often consider the correlation the dogs’ behavior has with high-impact sports or battles in a greater war. Instead, we worry about their well-being.
This play, however, is very much like what we do as young children. We are led by a compulsion to explore, emulate, and invent new ways to play with everything around us. While this is not necessary to our survival, per say, it is integral to our intelligence and mental complexity. Numerous studies have shown positive effects of play, such as socialization—without which we might isolate ourselves to the detriment of our health—and increased brain function—apparent from the much greater number of neurons in the brains of animals that are allowed to play versus those that are not. Indeed, the latter set of animals (those not permitted to play) show increased body fat, lethargy, and depression. Without play, we are less healthy, less intelligent, and far less happy.
This could present us with a number of questions. Why do we stop playing after adolescence? Well, we don’t. We simply move on the games or play with a completely new level of complexity, unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Why would we ever stifle play? Actually, I don’t want to touch this question with a ten foot pole. I can only imagine it would devolve into accusations of child abuse, so… If we continue to play more complicated games, why do some participate while others watch or experience that participation secondhand? Further, why does it seem that some don’t engage in anything that looks like play at all but still grow into adjusted, healthy, happy people?
I’m hardly covering new ground by suggesting that the scope of what ‘play’ means goes much farther than we typically think. Soccer is play, but so is Doom. It matters little that one is overtly physical while the other is physical only when one must throw a controller across the room. As I mentioned in the previous post, life itself fits the definition of a game, albeit one of which we have no manual and which thus disgusts us at times with its rigors and inconceivable—in truth—non-existent plot. The host of the Vsauce episode that set off this post points to our playing games, even ones of immense complexity, as an attempt to ensure fast, easy to achieve, and understandable rewards. This runs contrary to life as a game because with so many factors influencing your achievements, goals nearly always seem ephemeral, partially achieved, or impossible to describe. So we find solace in depictions of life which have been altered to as to adhere to a set of rules. This is true of Settlers of Catan just as it is true of Harry Potter.
What is the fundamental difference between readers, writers, and gamers? I won’t even attempt to try to codify that. It would be laughable, I’ve not done the research, and the answer would need a rather robust theory to comprehend. There are a few points that interest me enough to speculate, however. Writers must, a priori, be readers. To be a writer, on must be literate and possess some knowledge of extant written forms, genres, modes, tropes, etc. ad nauseum. The level or depth of knowledge one has of these things may vary greatly, but one must possess some amount. Long before a writer publishes, or at least has someone read their work, they are readers who know that their continued happiness hinges—at least in part—on their writing. They might be said to have a positive compulsion to attempt to understand or script some version of life through their own lens which they will then share with the world. It could be through a work written and sent on to another to read in isolation, in which case I would venture to say that each is engaging in a different kind of play, or it could be by fashioning a world for a table-top game, in which case all participants will engage as a game. Writing, and by extension reading, is always a game.
But why don’t all readers want to participate in the writing portion of the game? We are all, at some point, storytellers. We enjoy relating to others stories, true or untrue, regardless of how anyone perceives our ability to do so, including ourselves. Why does this not translate into writing (or scripting) in addition to reading? The same could be asked of gamers, who also engage with a narrative world with easily understood and achieved goals. Why is it that some people play video games and go on to create new ones while other only play? Why is it that some feel the need to engage in both creation and production while others do not?
The nearest I can come to an answer, or at least one that satisfies me, is that scriptwriters seek another level of control. They don’t simply want to experience the reward associated with achieving pre-formatted goals; they wish also to create goals for others. This is really half an answer, because it doesn’t touch on the next question: why do some wish to control and others to participate? That question is far too psychological for me and has likely already been attempted by many more qualified than I, so I have to find some contentment in the answer I am able to provide. For scriptwriters, part of the reward comes from packaging a new form of play for others to engage it. These scriptwriters might design physical sports, D&D scenarios, or novels. I am obviously most connected with the last of these, but all are equally fascinating and an attempt to understand one bring the observers closer to understanding something about all of them as well as what compels us, in the first place, to play.
Yesterday I finished reading J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come. It was his last novel and my first of his. The novel contains a really fascinating balance between the standard form of a mystery or conspiracy narrative and Ballard’s prosaic depiction of consumer culture and late capitalism’s pseudo-decadence. Rather than labor through a synopsis, here’s what Goodreads has:
A violent novel filled with insidious twists, Kingdom Come follows the exploits of Richard Pearson, a rebellious, unemployed advertising executive, whose father is gunned down by a deranged mental patient in a vast shopping mall outside Heathrow Airport. When the prime suspect is released without charge, Richard’s suspicions are aroused. Investigating the mystery, Richard uncovers at the Metro-Centre mall a neo-fascist world whose charismatic spokesperson is whipping up the masses into a state of unsustainable frenzy. Riots frequently terrorize the complex, immigrant communities are attacked by hooligans, and sports events mushroom into jingoistic political rallies. In this gripping, dystopian tour de force, J.G. Ballard holds up a mirror to suburban mind rot, revealing the darker forces at work beneath the gloss of consumerism and flag-waving patriotism.
That synopsis understates the sporting events—association football, basketball, tennis, etc., but surprising not cricket, which the narrator identifies as not being brutal enough—and hooliganism, but this is to be expected as they are little more than a cover for racial riots perpetrated by the fundamentally directionless and confused consumerist population of a highway town in a London suburb. The people are not to be seen as an exception or an outlier but rather as a a microcosm of an impending new cultural zeitgeist. It’s a terribly frightening prospect, not least because of how plausible it seems and how close it is poised on the horizon.
The novel brought to mind my relationship with organized sports. I am at most a casual sports fan. Growing up, I played with a few teams or leagues but never in consecutive leagues or years. I’m not sure if I kept finding that I didn’t like the games or if I was lazy or picked on too heavily, but I never came back after my initial year. This was true when I was 6 and I was the best—I’m told, although I was still quite awful—player on my basketball as well as when I was 13 and a rather average defensive player on a champion street hockey team. I usually preferred to play alone or at least without direct interference. I skated for years but I was always small and for a long time I was quite shy.
It’s a shame now, because I’ve grown into my body and I’m in better shape now than at any point in my life but I don’t know anyone interested in the physical games I enjoy. I still stick largely to games or physical activities I can do on my own but I would like to have someone with whom to play soccer or racquetball.
I got into soccer a few years ago but as I say, I’m only a casual fan. I am generally incapable or unwilling to follow the complexity of leagues in the US or abroad but I like to watch individual matches whenever I can. When a local developmental team was formed last year, I bought season tickets and didn’t miss a single game. Even so, after having watched for about two year, it was only during last summer that I was able to finally and regularly spot an off-sides violation. I really love to catch games whenever I can. There is a qualifier between the US and Mexico on Tuesday night that I have every intention of catching. Still, I’ve never understood how invested people can get over the long haul. My mother and my uncle are the most avid sport fans in my family and they religiously watch professional and college football, respectively. My mother screams obscenities at the television screen for even the most minor transgression again ‘her boys’ and my uncle has fantasy football magazines next to every toilet and easy chair in his house. They could both describe a waiver wire to someone who’s never even seen a football. For me, however, the allure lasts for a game, a competition, a qualifier, or a cup and then I pull back soccer until the next best time I can find.
There must be something in common with how I enjoy sports compared with how my mother and uncle do. It seems more likely to me that we are all getting from the match the same kind of BIRGing (Basking in Reflective Glory) or CORFing (Cutting Off of Reflected Failure) rather than distinctly different kinds of satisfaction. It must all be a matter of gradient. They put far more into watching sports than I do just as I put far more into what and how I read than they do.
Just as I was thinking of all of this, I watched a new episode of Vsauce about why we play games (the above mentioned acronyms are taken from this video) that made the problem even more complex. The video is fantastic and I highly recommend it, but seeing it isn’t necessary to understand where the information it contained took me. One first things the video tries to establish is an operational definition of a ‘game,’ and this screen grab sums up that definition pretty well:
That is to say that interactive play breaks in two parts, as do challenges and conflicts, so that a game can be defined as interactive, goal-oriented, and involving other agents who can interfere with and influence each other. The host then points out that life fits under this definition, which really goes a long way towards and understanding of why we play and why playing games can be so fulfilling while seeming to produce nothing tangible.
What is of even greater interest to me is how games, which are a scripted, more easily understood version of the greatest game—Life—correlate to narrative writing. On the basis of physicality, reading and writing can not really be called a game, or at least not without leaving great gaping holes in the concept. Reading and writing are only interactive on the level of thought and while this excludes the activities from being games, I’m not so sure that it also removes from the ‘play’ category. So what do reading and writing, or in one term narrative scripting, have in common not only with play but the impulse that makes us play?
I can’t say anything with certainty but I’ll post the second part of this article, including some of my ideas, later this week.