As I’ve often said, I don’t like writing about writing as it’s not what people come to Electron Dance to read about. However, I know there are some writers here who might be interested in crossing swords on the wordcraft itself. So I had a stab at jotting down my thoughts about writing and some of the conundrums I wrestle with.
Only read on if you’re actually interested in a bunch of rambling notes unrelated to video games.
I never attended any sort of writing classes beyond English in secondary school so as a writer I am self-taught. On the whole, this isn’t a list of rules I obey religiously but a snapshot of current thinking. Nothing is fixed in place.
- Personal pieces. Writing The Ethics of Selling Children (TEoSC) changed everything. From then on, I decided to cut down on personal stories and concentrate on more “hard” subjects going forward. This doesn’t mean personal stories are out of the question and I posted a hybrid of personal story and analysis recently – The Long Road to Verona – which received a lot of love (a bittersweet reminder of the appeal of personal stories). I also wrote the super-meta piece The Labour of Love to clarify the reasons behind the August sabbatical. There is also a personal trilogy called Learning Curve in the pipeline.
- Vignette structure. When I wrote TEoSC, I became aware of the prevalence of vignette structure in personal writing: here’s a scene, here’s a scene and now – here’s a scene. The purpose is to imply theme without revealing your hand, to ask the reader to prise it out from these little puzzle pieces you’ve made. But if used too much then it becomes just that thing you do instead of blowing away readers with its power. I’ve made a point to avoid this style although it makes a rare return in The Beast next week because it felt appropriate. This takes me to my next point.
- Flow. Vignettes break up the writing into chunks, making the whole easier to write. You don’t have to worry about how to bridge from one topic to another, it’s like a hack for turning a stream of consciousness into something readable. You just throw these pieces together and voilà. Truth be told, it is harder to figure out how to string lots of disparate thoughts together into a coherent, unbroken whole. Thing is, using section headings also acts like a get-out clause for writing essays that flow. So as an exercise I drop sub-headings wherever possible whereas in the past they were practically mandatory. However, long essays are sometimes easier with headings as navigational aid (e.g. Faith of the Pilgrim) and help the reader feel like they’re making progress through a bigger piece.
- Equality. I’ve never been one for writing too much on topics of racism or sexism but sometimes I just get the urge, you know? The last time, I think, was Crossing the Floor and I’ve made a few mentions via the late and lamented Link Drag. When I drafted a rebuttal to Amanda Lange’s Lara Croft piece last year, the online environment had become a lot more… trigger-happy. I’m not interested in courting controversy so I decided to bin the rebuttal. TEoSC was often framed in terms of shutting out minority voices and, although no one charged me with that particular crime, I found the association acutely uncomfortable. Even writing this note makes me uncomfortable, concerned that this entire article will only be known for this one bullet point… Anyway, I’m not penning anything on these topics for the foreseeable future.
- Formality. I’ve been aiming for a middle ground which is accessible yet thought-provoking. I don’t want to write dumbed-down language but I don’t want to scare people off with language that looks, erm… academic. I’ve been trying to refine this as I’ve gone along and recently introduced a more formal referencing style e.g. “Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991)”. I want to move away from the chatty, friendly style of RPS I was originally trying to ape, but not so much that my wordvoice turns grey and decrepit. It’s tricky and I’m constantly tweaking, but go back to Electron Dance in 2010 and it’s clear there’s a difference in my voice.
- My vs The. In tandem with the previous point, I’ve been trying to minimise the use of “I” to be less about “my experience” and more about “the experience”. This is not easy especially as I’m a strong believer in the subjectivity of the game experience, so I fall off this wagon all the time. Work in progress?
- Diaries. The Aspiration was really successful and I want to write something in that vein again. I tried The Alien Cortex Must Die and that did poorly – but then I also “fictionalised” some of that, and I’m not sure I was happy with the end result even though Michael Brough and Pippin Barr enjoyed it. Diaries need the right game, like multiplayer or a roguelike. Or something sprawling. I’m considering a sort of Mass Effect diary. I do small diaries all the time, such as The Worst Way To Die or next week’s The Beast. Diaries, though, are “my” stories not “the” stories, which brings us back to the tug o’ war between the subjective personal and the objective analytical.
- Swearing. I’ve cut down on swearing because the effect wears off after too much use. I want you to sit up and pay attention when I finally write Jesus Fucking Christ of Awesome. Plus I worry that peppering something with profanity can undermine a serious message if I’m not careful.
- Linking. I think, on the whole, I’ve stopped linking to my own pages when referring to a game. I used to link to myself because I thought I offered more information than the developer’s own site: but it probably wasn’t what the reader expected. Now the Electron Dance link is more explicit whereas a hyperlink on just the game’s name will go to the developer’s page.
- Drink it neat. Do not use funky fonts when writing drafts. Cool looking fonts will convince you into believing the writing is impressive. I learnt this a long time ago when I started using Courier on manuscripts. Writing nude lets you see whether the words actually work.
- Ranting. When I segue into a rant, I feel like I’m abandoning argument and it’s easy to make “mistakes”. The Kickstarter piece Oversight wasn’t as well-researched as it should have been and I was forced into an addendum to “fix” the article. The big series I am working on is effectively an eight-week rant, so this rationality vs rant conflict makes me anxious. Still, I became better informed about Kickstarter as a result of Oversight… so it can be instructive to set up weak arguments just to see how they get knocked down. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in an Electron Dance “newsletter” which can act as a clearing house for embryonic thoughts. Last month’s article on Twine and subjectivity You Complete Me generated some interesting discussion and that, in turn, has birthed an essay I’m much more excited about.
- Danger words. I’ve dropped the word “art” because it’s a nonsense word: it rarely adds anything to the sort of articles I write and, at worst, comes across as needy, a plea for games to be recognised as more than just run-and-gun. I don’t like the term “indie” much either, due to the complex nuance of the word – and there’s no One True Definition – but it’s just too damned convenient sometimes. Other words you will struggle to find here are “immersive” (another cheap language hack) and “medium” (I now subscribe to Frank Lantz’s stance on the term but also check out Michaël Samyn’s essay on games as medium and a conversation between the two of them).
- Conceptual conflicts. I have this penchant for leading an article with one idea but then later flipping across to another in an attempt to craft a “aha! you had no idea!” moment. In The Accidental ARG, I described the failed Xmaspiration ARG and related it to developers wasting players’ time. In You Complete Me, I dissected what I disliked about Twine games but sidestepped into the question of subjectivity. The trouble is, readers might not like what they see on the book cover and not get anywhere near the interesting denouement. I’m thinking it may not be such a good idea mashing two topics together in this way without telegraphing the climax. Assuming readers will always read an article, regardless of the opening paragraphs, is probably unwise.
No idea if anyone is interested in this, I’ve just done it on a whim. Questions? Disagreements? Let rip in the comments.