Thursday, February 3, 2011

Video and practice

There is no good reason for a grown man, within bowshot of sixty, to be a level 34 soldier in Borderlands.

Of course I have a good explanation: Our son Anson tore his Achilles tendon and has been bedridden for the past month. Anson is a graphic artist, rehabilitation tech, and middle-school basketball coach who is always on the move; being laid up is purgatory for him. He does not watch TV (except sports), and though he does read graphic novels and sometimes draws or writes, these are relatively passive activities his high-calorie temperament can't abide for long. So the bulk of his time is filled with video games. And spending time with him involves either watching him play or being tutored in how to play.

Anson is a patient instructor, and, because he's an artist and knows I'm a writer, he has no problem at all with me going off-mission to simply wander around the game's world to see everything that went into it.

Okay; just deleted about 800 words and started over.
Predictably, I'd wandered off signal and summarized the games Anson tried to get me interested in before he hit upon Borderlands and the reasons I disliked each of them before remembering I'm supposed to be writing about writing, not reviewing video games. (For those who care, the ones that didn't fit were Fallout III, Fable III, Gears of War, & two versions of Call of Duty.) Of course, I have to explain Borderlands a bit to set the stage for what I'm writing about writing, so bear with me.

Borderlands is a role-playing first-person shooter build around a classic – if not tired – sci-fi scenario: mercenaries surviving by their wits and guns as they search for a fabled treasure on a world populated by corporate soldiers and ex-slaves abandoned by a company that had stripped the world of all its natural resources. There are scavenger hunts, rescues, puzzles, and gunfights. Lots of gunfights. But where most games go for graphic realism, Borderlands is cartoonish, almost campy, in its violence and you never lose sight of the fact the whole premise is just a bit silly.

Each character starts out with inadequate weapons and few skills – part of the game is searching for better equipment and improving yourself through experience points earned by undertaking various missions. For most of the first day I depended on Anson for survival as I flailed wildly about with a revolver or submachinegun. Anson reversed the controls for me – long ago flying taught me back is up and forward is down – and reduced joystick sensitivity until I quit spinning like a top and crashing into things, but it was pretty clear I was the comedic sidekick of the team.

Anson is years ahead of me in video gaming. I knew that if I wanted our game time together to be more than sessions of him being patient with an old guy whose avatar kept walking off cliffs I'd have to do something to bring myself up to his standards. Or at least be less of an embarrassment.

So I set myself a schedule of playing Borderlands solo for one hour every day. Some days I would go on missions. Other days I would practice skills. Can't jump from building to building? Jump, fall, climb the stairs, jump, fall, climb the stairs for twenty minutes until I got the button-and-joystick sequence right. (And no, waving the controller around does not help you jump.) I'm still not where he is – Anson has beaten the game once and is on his second trip through – but by this time next week I'll be good enough that we can take on the expansion packs as a team.

Many years ago I learned – and occasionally have to relearn – that writing is like any other craft. Sometimes you have to sit and practice.
Not happy with your love scenes? Find published ones you like and read them through. Don’t deconstruct each one, but get a sense of what it is that author did that resonates with you. Then write love scenes.
Can't write dialog that flows? Find scenes that sound good to your reader's ear and read them. You do not need to count how many times the word "said" is used (though I'll bet it's as least twice as often as you thought it was) but do notice things like the rhythm, the mix of description and spoken words, the word choices and the sentence fragments. Then write conversations.
Don't like your fight scenes? You know the drill.

My motivation for devoting an hour each day mastering the (most basic) skills of a video game is to be able to play well enough to share an experience he enjoys with my son. To develop my career as a writer, I need to spend the time and put in the effort necessary to master my craft. Even if that means giving myself writing exercises I know will never be published.
It's been a long time since I've done so. I'm thinking it's time I got back to doing that – using part of each day's writing time for a writing exercise aimed at improving my skills. This is hard for a writer to do – we like to think of everything we write being worth money. But a concert pianist practices for hours every day, fully aware that she is not getting paid to do so. She practice to prepare herself so that when she does give a concert, what her audience hears is her very best.

What do you do to ensure your readers see only your best?


Charles Gramlich said...

I got pretty far into Doom and Red Dead redemption this past summer when I had time to play. But have virtually dropped them since. No time.

SY said...

Well I'm sure another reason you practiced so much was that you could actually beat your son..Come on.. you know its true..:)

KeVin K. said...

Beat him? Never happen. His reflexes are 32 years younger than mine. He's beaten Borderlands and is now playing Fallout New Vegas. But he has purchased the expansions for Borderlands and when I'm ready we're going to play them as a team. My goal is to be an asset.

Liane Spicer said...

Your son reminds me of my Richard; he punctured his Achilles tendon while cycling two years ago and the weeks of enforced inactivity were tough on him, to put it mildly.

I rarely do writing exercises; I consider writing stuff I intend to keep then rewriting, editing and tweaking ad nauseam practice enough. I do examine writing that impresses me to find out what makes it work, though.

KeVin K. said...

I don't spend hours on writing exercises, but I do practice.

An exercise I learned many years ago has been useful to me in writing descriptions; it was a three day process, but I use a quick version myself when I want to free up my thinking. We were first assigned to write a 1000-word description of real place linked to something bad that had happened in our lives; a place that made us depressed whenever we thought about it. The next day we were tasked with describing exactly the same setting from the viewpoint of someone who thought it was wonderful. I chose the room where my mother died, and for the happy memory I invented a hospice volunteer who thought death was a more liberating transition than birth. The difference between the two descriptions of the same room went way beyond adjectives. On the third day we were assigned a short (3000-word) story in that setting. Obviously this exercise is more powerful when the writer doesn't know what's coming next, but when I find my settings running flat, taking a few minutes and writing scene from opposite perspectives can open my eyes to texture and nuance I might not otherwise have considered.