Saturday, July 11, 2015

What Pet Rescue Saga can teach you about writer's block

Writing is fun if you know how to deal meet your goals
Writing can be a lot of fun, but only if you learn
the strategies that will help you meet your goals.
I have a guilty pleasure, and its name is Pet Rescue Saga. I started playing this game on my Kindle several months ago, as a way to give my mind a break from constant writing, planning, and planning to write. I’ve never been one to get addicted to mindless games, but I’ve found this one is a a pleasant way to kill a few minutes while I let my mind spool down to an idle hum.

Seasoned writers will tell you that a little “down time” is necessary from time to time, to let your creative mind work through all the problems encountered while the rational mind was beavering away at your Work-in-Progress. I’ve found it very helpful, when I get stuck or bored or otherwise at an impasse, to take a long, leisurely walk, or get a good night’s sleep, or even play a little Pet Rescue. Often, afterward I find new ideas pop into my head about how to move ahead with my writing project. Not only does the game give me a pleasant break, however; it has also taught me some important things about the writing process.

Having a plan helps

When I first started playing Pet Rescue Saga, I paid little attention to what I was doing. This game is a variation of the tried-and-true “match three” sort, with a few extra twists thrown in. On the face of it, it’s pretty easy and mindless. A lot of people think of writing that way — you know what you want to say, so you just right it. Easy-peasy, right?

Not really. When I started with this “mindless” game, I played mindlessly, using the “poke-poke-poke” method. I gave little thought to the goal of any particular level, and didn’t bother to work out a strategy to meet that goal. Not surprisingly, I didn’t make a lot of progress playing this way, any more than I meet my writing goals by doodling on the keyboard. Doodling has its place — particularly when you’re just trying come up with ideas, but writing by the seat of your pants is not likely to get you very far in the long run. For that you need some kind of plan. You need a strategy for achieving your writing goal and for overcoming any obstacles that may get in your way.

Working around the blocks


There are ways to prevent and get around writer's block
You can run into a lot of obstacles if you write without a plan.
But there are strategies for getting around writer's block.
One of the key features in Pet Rescue Saga are the iron blocks that often get in the way. The goal of each level is to “rescue” the little pet avatars by getting them to the bottom of the screen. The iron blocks can make that impossible. They can’t be destroyed by matching, and they can gang up on you and bar any further progress. Writers, of course, know all about being “blocked” — that awful feeling that you know what you want to achieve but you just cannot seem to get there. Perhaps your mind goes blank as soon as your fingers touch the keyboard. Or maybe you reach a point in your writing where every word you write seems to take you off in the wrong direction, and you want to give up in frustration.

When that happens, take heart. Maybe what you need is just better planning and creativity to get around your blocks. Much as I can plan ahead and maneuver around blocks in Pet Rescue, when I'm writing and find myself stuck on a particular section, I often get unstuck if I switch to a different section. Or I might spend some time in my writing journal thinking through what’s hanging me up and why — often just by asking “what’s blocking me here?” I can uncover problems that I hadn’t been consciously aware of. Once they are discovered, it is a lot easier to work around them than it is if I just sit at the keyboard staring at the screen, determined to blast through my writer’s block by sheer determination. That strategy doesn’t work any better  when I’m writing than it does when I’m playing Pet Rescue Saga.

When you get stuck, regain your perspective by remembering what your overall goal is, and looking for new ways to get there.

Using obstacles to your advantage

In Pet Rescue Saga, as you advance you find that the game keeps presenting new kinds of obstacles. One particularly insidious one that cropped up about the time I passed level 100 was something I call “virus balls.” These are prickly-looking, bilious green things that multiply by transforming nearby blocks into more virus balls. When I first encountered them, I nearly despaired. Each turn there were twice as many virus balls, and that many less of the colored blocks I needed to match in order to create a path to freedom for the pets. How can you possibly win in a situation like that?

Turn apparent obstacles to your advantage
A little creativity can help you
turn obstacles into advantages.
Instead of giving up, though, I kept trying, and eventually I noticed something encouraging. The virus balls could be destroyed by matching, just as the regular colored blocks could. It took me a while to figure out how this knowledge could help me, but eventually I realized that sometimes it was easier to let them proliferate on one part of the screen, while I worked my rescue magic on another part. Then, when I had wall-to-wall virus balls, I could destroy them all with a single click, clearing the way for the pets to drop to the bottom of the screen and escape.

In this way, I took an apparent obstacle and made it work to my advantage. Believe it or not, writers can do something similar. When you run into apparently insuperable obstacles that keep proliferating and won’t go away no matter how you obsess about them, it might be better to focus on something else for a while. Sometimes just letting go of the obsession allows your creative mind to come up with solutions. In fact, often the “virus balls” that seem to be eating up your writing project may simply be roadblocks thrown up by your own subconscious mind, trying to steer you toward another part of the writing process that needs attention. In Pet Rescue, I sometimes found myself so intent on destroying the virus balls that I forgot that my real goal was to free the pets; once I re-focused on that goal, it became clear to me how the virus balls themselves could help me reach it.

Sometimes, a change is as good as a rest


If your present writing project gets stale, try taking a little side trip into something different.
If your present writing project gets stale,
try taking a little side trip into something different.
There’s a good reason games like Pet Rescue Saga, and its sibling, Candy Crush are so addictive — the game designers seem to have a good idea of how the mind works and what we need to keep us going. One of the things I like best are the little “alternate realities” built into the game. In Pet Rescue Saga, as the player progresses from level to level, his avatar travels along a path through an enchanting, fantastical landscape. Occasionally, though, in one corner of the screen, a little symbol appears which, when clicked, takes you off the path to a little island where you can follow a different path for a while (these island visits are only available for a couple of days, then they disappear). Visiting the island is always an optional side trip, but when the opportunity arises I always take it. I find it refreshing to take a break without actually quitting, and the island path is always short, pleasantly challenging, and loaded with extra rewards. I find that when I return to the main path I am more than ready to plow ahead on the long, winding road of the main game.

About two and a half years ago, I began my first big fiction-writing project, a science fiction novel that I hope will be the first of a long series. As much as I enjoyed writing that story, it was a long slow, slog, and the longer I worked at it, the farther away seemed the day when it will be ready for publication. Finally after three and a half full drafts, I wondered if I would ever finish that book, but I didn’t want to be a quitter. I needed something to refresh me and renew my enthusiasm for this mammoth project, so I decided to put it aside for a while and write some short stories, projects that I could finish in a relatively short period of time. I desperately wanted the satisfaction of seeing a project, even a small one, to completion.

So right now I’ve got the first draft of one short story finished (”literary”), another story plotted and planned (mystery), and as a result I find that I’m getting all sorts of exciting new ideas about my science fiction novel and series. It seems I have discovered for myself what the designers of Pet Rescue Saga already knew — that sometimes it’s better to take a side trip rather than abandon the journey altogether. If you find yourself wearying of a long, involved writing task, try doing what I did — work on something else for a while. Don’t quit writing, but put aside the project that’s gone stale and pick up something that will let you breathe new life and enthusiasm into your writing. You won’t be abandoning the long slog, you’ll just be taking a little time “on the island.”

It’s more fun with friends

Find a writing group, in person or online, for mutual support
and to keep your writing game fresh.
One of the reasons games like Pet Rescue Saga have become so popular is that, in this age of social media, they allow you to connect with your Facebook friends, compare your scores to theirs, and ask them for extra lives when you are stuck on a tough level. Of course, you’re not really with your friends — you are glued to your tablet or smart phone, just as they are to theirs, perhaps in another city or even another country. Still, just knowing that your friends are enjoying the same game makes it a little more fun.

Writing is, of its nature, a solitary business, but sometimes it can be too solitary. I find that, just like Pet Rescue Saga, my writing journey is more enjoyable, and I make more progress, when I get together with writer friends from time to time. I just joined an online writer’s workshop to connect with mystery writers, and this Tuesday, July 14, I’ll be attending the monthly meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group. All Catholic writers in the area are welcome. Here are the details of time and place. Maybe I'll see you there.

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Truth About Becoming a Writer

Quintilian quote
For thousands of years, writers who wished to be
great knew they had to revise, revise, revise.
In the two or half years or so since our Catholic writers group was first formed, I’ve seen a lot of would-be writers come and go. All of them had valuable experience and insights they wanted to share with the world through their writing. When I think of those who attended for a while and then drifted away, I wonder if they are still writing, even if they no longer attend our meetings. I hope so. But I suspect some became daunted when they began to realize that writing is a lot more difficult and complicated than they realized, or perhaps not as much fun as they imagined in their initial enthusiasm.

I can understand this. When I first jumped into writing a novel, I knew I had a lot to learn, but I was confident in my basic writing abilities and eager to get started. Now, more than two years later, I’m still learning. In addition to gaining skills in characterization and plotting, though, I have learned (or re-learned) some hard truths along the way about the writing craft, facts that each writer must deal with along the way if he or she is to persevere and succeed. Here are some of them.

Good writers are made, not born.

Brett Favre did not throw a touchdown pass the first time he picked up a football, Thomas Tallis did not make the angels sing the first time he hummed a tune, and Flannery O’Connor spent years revising her work to produce the weird, wonderful tales for which she is famous. They all may (or may not) have been loaded with natural talent, but even they had to devote years to developing their skills. They learned from others with more experience, and heeded expert advice in order to improve, and then they practiced, practiced, practiced. The rest of us must do the same. It requires a lot of humility to become a good writer.

Learning to do anything well takes time.

Probably the most useful thing any of us can learn is this: learning takes time, and it involves a lot of failure. Did Mozart walk away in disgust the first time he hit a clinker? Even Shakespeare was once a schoolboy, learning how to write a decent sentence. Every experienced writer will tell you that your first draft, no matter how carefully planned, is likely to be pretty awful, but that’s what revision is for. The first draft is like that lump of clay the potter throws down on his wheel — it has to be shaped and reshaped before it reaches the perfection the artist envisions. It takes a lot of perseverance to become a good writer.

It's not as easy as you think.

Learning anything new is uncomfortable at first. Learning to write is not as simple as learning to swim, it’s more like learning to build a bridge, or to dance the lead in Swan Lake. A lot of different skills have to be learned and practiced endlessly, a lot of basic principles need to be internalized through that practice. It’s hard at first, but gradually what seemed complicated and unnatural gets into your mind’s “muscle memory,” and you’ll be able to do effortlessly those things that, when you are starting out, must be done deliberately with great care and a lot of painful toil.

You should start small and build your skills, and your confidence.

Remember those projects you made in junior high art or shop class? The soap dish painfully modeled from clay, the wooden plaque you made for Mother’s Day? Your teacher knew that you needed to start with something small, so that you could enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that would spur you to take on bigger challenges. I’ll bet the greatest cabinet maker probably started out learning to plane wood and create a single dove-tailed joint. Many beginning writers would do well to start with small projects — a paragraph or two for the parish newsletter, a well-crafted blog post — before taking on more complicated ones. After two and a half years of working on my first novel, I realize that I probably should have started with a short story. So I’ve put the novel aside for a while, and I’m devoting my creative energies to producing a good short story suitable for publication.

Writing is a process, not an event.

I’ve written about this before on this blog, but I’ll mention it again now, because this is the biggest mistake inexperienced writers make — they quit before they are finished. I used to run into this attitude with my students: “I got it turned in on time, so I’m done.” But my job was to teach them not just to meet deadlines, but to write something worth being read, so I had to walk them through the whole writing process, which often took weeks: first comes invention, when you discover what it is you want to say, and how you want to say it, then drafting and revising, learning to see what is working and what isn’t, what needs to be trimmed out and where you need better details or more explanation, how your ideas can be better organized to make a clearer point, etc. And only after that has been done should you worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all those other nit-picky details  that put the final polish on the piece. If you try to skip parts of the process, it will show.

This is another reason I put my novel-in-progress aside for a while. I could see that I would need to write at least one more complete, fresh draft before I would be ready to revise and polish — the process seemed that it would never end, but I really, really wanted to finish. I need the feeling of finishing the process, but I knew I couldn't rush it — so I set the manuscript aside and started something new (much shorter), and have been using what I learned from novel-writing to draft and polish my short story. In this way, I hope that taking the time and care to produce one well-developed, carefully polished short story will help me make the next draft of the novel my last.

Sure, I could have done what too many people do these days: I could have set some arbitrary, self-imposed deadline for myself and scrambled to meet it, convincing myself that the book was done (in fact, I did that, when I submitted the third draft to a prize competition last year). I could have said my novel was “good enough,” and self-published it on Amazon. But I know it’s not yet ready for prime time. I’ve stepped away from it to be able to return to it with a fresh perspective, to be able to see it with the “fresh eyes” that are so crucial to recognizing any remaining deficiencies.

If you want help getting fresh eyes on  your own Work-In-Progress, or help and encouragement with any part of the writing process — or if you’ve already learned these “hard truths” about writing and can share your experience with others — you should think about joining a local writing  group, such as the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group. Why not join us at our next meeting, Tuesday, June 9? Here are the details of time and place.

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Meet Chuck Neubecker at our May 12 meeting

May 12, 2015 meeting of Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group
Congratulations to second-Tuesday stalwart, Chuck Neubecker, on having one of his stories published in the March-April issue of Gilbert Magazine, a publication of the American Chesterton Society. If you've ever attended one of our second-Tuesday meetings, chances are you've met Chuck. He's with us every month, and always with a new story. Chuck is a short-short afficionado, an amazing story-writing machine.

Come to our next meeting Tuesday, May 12, and meet Chuck and the rest of the gang. Bring some copies of your own latest writing project for critique, or just come to seek encouragement, brag on your writing progress, or connect with other area  Catholic writers.

Meetings are every second Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the Half-Price Books on Northwest Highway in Dallas. Find us in or near the community room in the northwest corner of the store. Feel free to bring your lunch or pick one up at the in-house Black Forest cafe.

Monday, April 13, 2015

April meeting tomorrow in Dallas

A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit. Richard Bach.
I don't know about you, but I spent Lent blogging -- and it felt good, because I've been so obsessed with writing my novel the past year or two that I had allowed my blog to languish. So, as an act of self-denial, I put the novel aside and put some of my other talents to work for awhile. And tomorrow it will feel good to get to another monthly meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers group. Usual time, usual place -- click here if you've forgotten where and when that is.

Meanwhile, speaking of blogging, check out this post on Anne R. Allen's blog, "Ten Reasons for Authors to Blog." I like reason number 9:

To get you out of the garret

As with any solitary activity, writing can bring on feelings of isolation. We have a human need to connect, and a blog is a way into the blogosphere and the wider social web. Discovering and reading other people's blogs, connecting with people you otherwise wouldn't have met, conversation around shared interests – these are all side-effects of blogging, and there are more.

Combined with social media outreach in the form of a Twitter or Facebook account, a blog places you within a community of readers and writers from which peer support, friendships and inspiration soon follow.
Of course, even if you don't blog, you still "have a human need to connect" with others and have "conversation  based on shared interests" -- so why not come to the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers meeting?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Next Meeting, Tuesday, 24 March: Room Change



Come and share your writing goals, progress report, or a selection of your writing for critique at the next meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group,Tuesday, 24 March, at the University of Dallas. We'll meet at the usual time (7:30 p.m.), but in a different room. This month we will meet in Rm 239 of Carpenter Hall (not 241).

Meet other writers, get some feedback on your writing, swap ideas and advice.We are here to help and encourage each other!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Next Meeting: Round-table discussion on Marketing

Alan Napleton, president of the Catholic Marketing Network, will be our guest at the March 10 meeting of the DFW Catholic Writers for a round-table discussion on marketing to a Catholic audience. All writers and public relations professionals are invited to bring their marketing questions and concerns.

This growing writers group  meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, alternating between Half-Price Books and University of Dallas. To meet Alan Napleton come to Half-Price Books on Northwest Highway near Central Expressway at  11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 10.
Bring your lunch or pick up something at the in-house cafe. Please join us!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

DFW Catholic Writers on the air and on the ground


Nancy Ward, founding member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group, will be interviewed on local Catholic radio station KATH 910 AM at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 10, 2015. If you miss the broadcast, you can listen to streaming audio of the interview online by following this link on Nancy's blog, Joy Alive in Our Hearts.

And here's a reminder for all you writers and would-be writers who have promised yourselves that 2015 will be the year that you finally get going (or keep on going) with your writing projects -- the DFW Catholic Writers Group has two meetings this month, and you are welcome to attend either or both.

The second-Tuesday lunchtime meeting at Half Price Books in Dallas will meet on Tuesday, January 13, and the fourth-Tuesday meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Dallas  on January 27. Click here for specifics on time and place. Come for conversation, critique, advice or encouragement. If  you have a writing sample you would like critiqued, please remember to bring 8-10 copies to share.

Hope to see you there!