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.