Friday, November 12, 2010

If This Advice Doesn't Work, Stephen King's Misery is A Good Writing Guide (Days of Thunder and Deadly Towers)

I'll tell you the ultimate secret of writing - the single trick that separates a good and productive writer from a lousy one. Good writers write stuff, put effort into making it good, then publish it.

There's nothing more to it than that. Myopic ambition, megalomaniacal zeal, the belief that Art Matters, a brilliant idea, the love of it, all of these are incidental. If you want to write, you probably have all of them anyway. If you want to make art of any sort, you probably have all of them. They're not enough. The really tricky bit, the thing that people fall down on repeatedly, is actually writing the thing. And the secret to getting around that? Actually write the damn thing.

An old teacher posted a quote by Philip Pullman on Facebook today about how writers are the only profession who mythologize not wanting to work. Plumbers don't talk about their lack of inspiration and about the frustration of plumber's block. It was good advice, but I pointed out the flip side - part of that is that writing is one of a few professions to be credited by a major world religion as creating the universe. In the beginning was the word. That makes writers feel self-important. (Of course, "Let there be light" might lend itself to myopic electricians too.)

The fact of the matter is, you need both. But if you don't get entranced by the mystical act of creation part of writing, at least on some level, you never start. That's the easy one, because it selects people who want to write. The real trick is writing when you don't want to write - not letting the romance and mythology of creation delude you into believing writing has to be like that. Sometimes it's just bashing words out into a big blank screen because, much to your irritation, the words are unwilling to bash themselves out.

Here. Let me use an example. A piece of writing:
Days of Thunder is not a good game. I say this a lot. This is largely because most of what came out for the NES is not a good game. Not only are they usually not good games, they're usually not even interesting games. With alarming frequency, I fire up a game and discover that it plays almost indistinguishably from a dozen other games.
In Days of Thunder's case, it's a racing game. You drive your car around a track. I have already played four games exactly like it. This fifth one is distinct inasmuch as it has a visually different interface. It is indistinct in that it presents the exact same style of gameplay - go fast, dodge obstacles, keep on the track, rinse, wash, repeat. One rapidly runs out of things to say about this. There's not some new experience of the game that wasn't there a year ago when I wrote about Al Unser Jr Racing. It's the same damn game.
This poses less of a barrier than it might of. It was a problem I recognized with the blog format early on. So I started altering my style to accommodate it. That's why all the weird and pretentious stuff about mythology and gods came in - because I needed a framework in which a game that I've basically talked about four times already can somehow generate an entry.
One key piece of that framework is the morass of popular culture. This is because popular culture is wonderfully hi-fi. The balance of hi-fi and lo-fi is an interesting and important one in art and thought. Lo-fi culture includes books and history - things where one must fill in gaps and imagine. Lo-fi culture lends itself to books, dim incandescent lighting, candles, and tea. Hi-fi culture is overwhelming and big. Popular culture, which generates more events in 24 hours than it is actually possible to follow, is the epitome of the hi-fi - bright, loud, garish, and intoxicating. Generally speaking, I prefer wonton mixing of the two extremes - to make the scale of history a sensory overload, or to treat the crassly commercial with careful and awed reverence.
Days of Thunder lends itself well to that, being based on an utterly forgettable movie that is significant and well-remembered for exactly one reason, which is that Tom Cruise met Nicole Kidman on the set of it. Tom Cruise is an odd instance in popular culture. He is as iconic as it is possible for a pop star to be, and to some extent deservedly so, as he is, on his day, a damn fine actor.
Unfortunately, he has made one key decision that has undermined that, which is joining an abusive cult worshipping a space god. This has left other decisions that, in the hands of other stars, are just lovable cheek, as signs of complete insanity. For instance, when other celebrities divorce their wives and marry people wildly outside their socially acceptable dating range, they are more or less charming. When members of insane cults who believe that Xenu the Space Conquerer is chained up under the Pyrenees do it, it's creepy.
Actually, the real problem is that Scientologists are inherently creepy. Always. Everything they do is really, really creepy. As Tom Cruise has become more and more associated with being a Scientologist, he has, by direct and causal extension, become more and more creepy. The boyish smile that once screamed "I'm a loveable rebel" now screams "I want to lick your engrams."
The result is that there is only one Tom Cruise story. And that's that he's screaming about frozen people in volcanos and swatting at Body Thetans like they're bugs in a bad acid trip. Tom Cruise is thus a rare phenomenon. A part of hi-fi, fast-paced popular culture that exists in glorious lo-fi.
This was, as I suggested, not always true. Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was sane, married to Nicole Kidman, and, although a Scientologist, capable of going out in public without seeming like he's overly concerned about the Marcab Confederacy (whose capital is one of the tail stars of the Big Dipper). Part of this is Nicole Kidman, who has experienced her own flavor of precipitous career decline, having basically managed to avoid being in a hit, or, indeed, a critical darling in about eight years. (This may be related to the fact that Nicole Kidman is now 80% plastic. Despite this, she provided something like a moderating influence on Mr. Cruise, just as he provided her the opportunity to be the classic Hollywood leading lady she apparently wanted to be instead of the supporting/character actor she is.
Days of Thunder recalls this time before the collapse, when Cruise and Kidman were part of one of the great Hollywood Power Couples, instead of a fading plastic actress who's largely regarded as box office poison, and a weirdo who's freaked out about the reincarnated trauma from the incident that implanted the Airplane Door Goals in humanity. It is difficult to view the game, crappy as it is (and it's quite crappy - extensive effort failed to produce any sense of how to actually drive around the track in any way resembling "quickly") as anything other than a charming nostalgia, a naive homage to a simpler era where a supercouple could be in a cute racecar movie instead of being Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who, although both fantastic actors, are frankly a deeply postmodern supercouple.
On one level, this is not the Days of Thunder that existed in my youth. We didn't know, in 1990, that Tom Cruise was deeply concerned about the Teegeeack people. We didn't know it was all going to go terribly wrong. But somehow, it works. Perhaps because the implosion of Cruise and Kidman is so ridiculous, its past is strangely unsullied by it. In any case, for one of the first times in the project, the nostalgia worked.
It's a pretty standard entry. I didn't really want to write it. I hit Days of Thunder and thought "Oh Christ, another lousy movie game, and a racing game to boot, this is going to be rough." I seized on the Tom Cruise angle out of desperation - I don't think there's a single other thing I can say about Days of Thunder that wouldn't just copy another entry.

The only thing that really entertained me writing the entry was working in the Scientology references, all of which, by the way, are actually real. Actually, I had to drop some Scientology references because, unbelievably, they were too weird for the Nintendo Project. The Obscene Dog Incident, for instance, which Wikipedia describes as a giant brass dog shortly after the creation of the universe that sucked people in via an electronic current and shot them out its own asshole. That is an actual Scientology belief, and I honestly couldn't bring myself to make an off-handed reference to it, because it's just too weird. (Though I quickly decided to work it in here instead)

It's not that the entry is a lie when it talks about the pleasure of the game's nostalgia. It's not, although it may not exactly be honest either. Its deception is more one of exaggerated passion. Those are certainly my thoughts about Days of Thunder, but they are not thoughts that clamored for expression. Rather, I knew I had to write about Days of Thunder. I found the most interesting angle I could. I still didn't love the idea. But here's where the titanically obvious and non-secret secret of blogging comes in - I wrote it anyway. Because the blog needed to be fed, and that was what I had to feed it with.

Sometimes blog entries are a blast. I've sat at the computer with a big shit-eating grin banging out some of them, laughing at the ridiculousness of it and enjoying every second of spinning it out. The rabbit entry? Ridiculously fun to write. Sexual awakening and Bubble Bobble? I don't know that I'd call it fun to write, but it was certainly something I felt strongly about as I was writing, and, at the risk of arrogance, knew was pretty good as it was coming out.

Those entries are why you write. But it's unsustainable. Sometimes entries don't feel that brilliant. This has little to nothing to do with entries being that brilliant - I have no idea which of my entries are actually my best. It's just that you can't always feel like you're spitting out great art. Sometimes you just sit down and write because, well, you're a writer. I decided that the Nintendo Project was going to exist, I learned how to write it, and now I'm responsible for it, and I have to go make it every once in a while, because I took on that responsibility. And some days I think nobody's actually reading this shit, but, well, that's not what matters. The fact that I decided to do this blog is what matters. It's like getting a pet. You don't get to starve the pet because you don't feel like feeding it. If you're a writer, and you're writing a blog or a book, you don't get to not write it because you don't feel like it. Sometimes you're lucky and you get to feel like it. Other times you write a thousand words about Days of Thunder for no reason other than that those are the next thousand words you have to write.

What's important is accepting that you're gonna write crap. You have to. You don't necessarily have to actually write it - I generally try to avoid it. But accept that it could happen. This is true of any creative enterprise. Take Deadly Towers. The thing Deadly Towers is probably best known for is that Seanbaby declared it the worst Nintendo game ever - a fact that is why it's a particularly good example here. He's not wrong. The game is absolutely awful. Everything he says about it is true.

What is particularly interesting is that the producer of the game e-mailed Seanbaby about the game. His defense is the charming "it wasn't THAT bad for the times...some of the others are WAY worse." Which is A, probably true - the bottom of the barrel of NES games is a pretty awful place, and picking a worst game is actually probably more subjective than picking a best one. And B, it speaks to what was probably the reality of the game. Nobody phoned it in or tried to make a shitty game. They just had their budget and their deadline, and sat down and made the game they could make. It didn't work. It sucked. At various points, probably everyone involved knew it sucked. But, notably, this was not used as a reason to simply stop being video game creators.

And as a result, Deadly Towers is better than any video game I've ever made, because I've never made one. Because if you don't have a novel published, Twilight is better than your best novel.

A student of mine today mentioned that he wanted to take up writing again. He also mentioned that he struggled with really bad depression. I told him that was actually some of the best training for writing you can have. I've had days where I didn't want to get out of bed. They sucked dick. I got out of bed anyway. Not because I wanted to. But because how I felt didn't matter. The fact that Krypto needed food, or my class needed teaching, or I had to pee mattered. If you've overcome depression and forced yourself to have a day, whether it was a good or bad one, you have learned one of the essential skills of writing - stopping caring about what you want and just doing it. Writing repeatedly on deadline is good training here as well. Learning to write because it's what you do. Got me a PhD that way, I did.

I'd add two other pieces of advice, not that I'm a big-shot novelist whose word is gospel. (But again, I did write a dissertation, I get a blog out regularly, and the novel is coming out nicely, thank you for asking) First, go a little bit mad. It helps. Some people go for drugs here. I wouldn't know, but I hear they sometimes work. But it doesn't really matter. Learn to see the world in a willfully strange way. My way of choice is usually ridiculously mythic, and it works. Your way may not be. Douglas Adams clearly saw the world as a source of dry, frustrating humor. Alan Moore, for all his insane mysticism, is clearly at his best describing emotional intensity. Learn to see something in the world that's weird. That's how you write about something.

I don't have to work to come up with insane and odd structures for Nintendo Project entries anymore. I've learned to pick a weird facet of a game, and just write about that facet until it looks like an entry. I literally started the Days of Thunder section with no idea beyond "I'm going to write about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, because this is a game that is, quite by accident, about their marriage." And actually, when I started this entry, which I knew was going to be about writing, and, more broadly, about productivity, I had no idea where Days of Thunder fit in - I knew how Deadly Towers did, but Days of Thunder was in the way and needed an entry. I started writing the bit I knew, then realized I needed an example - something I could write about how little I wanted to write about. Then came the idea of embedding one entry inside another, and having the other entry be a critical commentary on the one inside it. Where did I get that idea? Partly needing something to go after "Let me use an example." Probably partly because I spend a fair part of my day being a little bit insane, and in the last week part of that insanity was reading David Mitchell's excellent Cloud Atlas, which is all about nested structures. But mostly because I needed to put something there, and I'd learned by then how to put things that are the Nintendo Project into empty Blogger windows.

"Where do you get your ideas from" is the wrong question. Ideas are easy. Nobody ever asks "Man, you're interesting to talk to, where do you get ideas for things to say?" This is because it's a stupid question. You get your ideas from learning to look at the world and go "Oh, neat." Or "Why is this like that?" Or "What would happen if this happened?" Learn to ask those questions, and, perhaps more importantly, learn to care about the answers. If you can do that, you can write.

The other piece of advice I'll give is to be criticized. Not just ignored. Having your writing be ignored is the easiest thing in the world. No, what you have to do is seek out an actively hostile universe. You have to find someone who hates your writing, and who not only hates it, but is willing to articulate in merciless detail every single fault that it has. And then you have to shut up and take that criticism, go back to the piece of writing (or start a new piece of writing), and try to make it so they won't hate the new one. It's an awful experience. As brutally demoralizing as exists. I've been on both sides of it. But it's absolutely vital, because it's how you learn to write for an audience. It's how you learn to see writing as something that's going to be read.

But mostly? Writers are the people who write even when they don't want to.

Special bonus advice:

Q: How do I become a magician?

A: Go do magic.


  1. Great post.

    Though. I shall respectfully disagree with your (second) last piece of advice. Don't get me wrong. I think it's insanely vital to put your writing out there and to be criticized -- to find someone willing to take the time to cut up your prose, to point out every flaw and weakness they can see. It's also equally vital to learn how to take it and live with it. I don't agree, however, that you have to be able to go back and write it anew so that it pleases your critiquer . . . unless that person's your editor. Writing for an audience is one thing, but, as a writer, you have to trust that you are the only person who can write that particular article or story or whatever. Yes, taking criticism and being able to use that criticism is important, but you can't bow to every reader - you can't please everyone. Best to believe in what you've produced, but also accept that improvements can always be made.

  2. Actually writing is a big...big. pain in my ass.

  3. thanks for the advice!

    About Tom Cruise I think nowadays he has been performing the same character in every movie. I cannot tell the difference between his roles anymore they look the same to me now.

  4. Finally got around to reading this. I was looking forward to Deadly Towers, because it's one of the few games I own in cartridge form that I've never beaten, even with Game Genie. It's bad and I don't understand it. I tried reading an FAQ once, and even that was heartless. \:

    As for Scientology, I'd like to point out that the Google ad at the bottom of this page is currently:

    Yup. Look what you did.

  5. Genuinely inspiring. The longest written power anthem I've ever seen. Anyone who wants to write, but hasn't, should be forced to read this entry.