Shall We Play a Game?

Shall We Play a Game?

For the last few days, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to “gamify” my novel writing process. To give each day’s writing session a strategic goal. A certain number of pages, or words, or time spent. During October and November 2010, my goal was 850 new words a day–every day–and this period of sustained productivity was deeply satisfying. In a short period of time, I drafted an extremely rough 175 pages of my novel.

My progress lately, however, has been more difficult to measure, to quantify. Every day, I edit and shape the those pages I generated in the fall. Every day, I feel as though I’ve gained a little a little more insight into my character, into the book’s themes, and how the book will be shaped. But strangely, these achievements towards quality feel less satisfying to me than when I was focused strictly on quantity. So I decided to go back and reflect on this post, written during that period of high productivity.

Confession: For twenty years, my writing practice had no structure. I wrote when inspired and I would keep writing until I wasn’t inspired. If I didn’t have a big block of time, I wouldn’t write. I waited until I did have a big block of time–which happened…oh…never. For a long time, I acted (without really realizing it) as if writing was something I did “for school.”

And then I started meeting working writers. By “working writers,” please note that I’m not saying anything about literary quality or relative success, only that they were “working,” or writing regularly, regardless of whether they were publishing well, or even at all. Asked privately (over a beer, in a conference) to talk about their writing process, most working writers would confess that they were regular and ordinary in their habits, like Flaubert. Working writers, it seemed to me, had one thing in common: they had figured out a way to tap into the motivational aspects of their character. If there are any “secret” to having a writing life, this is certainly one of them.

Perhaps the reason NaNoWriMo has found such a following is that it encourages writers to turn an abstract big thing into a series of small concrete things. Words. Pages. Accumulating incrementally over time. Like racking up points in a video game.

Perhaps this is why NaNoWriMo is so popular with Generation Y: because it turns writing a novel into a game. A huge, dynamic multi-player game in which you accumulate words and pages instead of points.

Perhaps creative writing teachers should teach not just the craft of writing–which is basically the evaluation of what students have already written–but also the act of writing itself.

Perhaps writing a novel is a game–one you play against yourself, mostly. The only way to win is to get a first draft, and you do it bird by bird, page by page, racking up words until you have finished the draft.

Perhaps what has always separated “real writers” from “wanna-be writers” was that real writers figured out some way to get the writing done. More than likely, this involved creating some kind of internal rewards system or “gamification” to tap into the motivational part of their brains. And then they crafted, yes, and they used their talents and intellects, yes, but first, they had to write a draft.

Perhaps one of the reasons why we have more “real” writers in our culture, more books, is that we have more ways to create (or to pay someone else to create) the necessary reinforcement, and thus, more people who embark upon and finish books.

That’s a lot of perhaps-ing, I know. But I have a novel to write. Strike that. I have a three pages to write so that I can reward myself tonight with the PBS premiere of the revamped Upstairs, Downstairs.



  1. Eric Braun says:

    I was hoping you were going to provide us with some way to gamify the revising process! Like you, I had little trouble motivating myself to draft, because I turned the internal editor off and blasted out text. Every day that I could produce words felt like a success, and I had a lot of fun with it. But now I have this manuscript, and it suddenly feels like a big investment. This novel represents almost three years of my writing life, and if I screw it up now, I have nothing to show for those three years; consequently, I get stopped up.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Maybe someone else can chime in on this, too. I’ve seen a lot of writers post a FB status update after every writing session that says something like, “21,346 words edited,” or “I now have 45 good pages,” or something like that. When I was in NYC, I went to an exhibit on The Diary at the Morgan Library, and I saw Steinbeck’s daily writing ledger. When he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, he’d jump start each writing day by setting goals, articulating what he wanted to accomplish that day–not just in terms of accumulation of words, but rather shoring up a particular scene or illuminating a character, etc. At the end of the writing session, he logged in with the ledger. This struck me as almost exactly the same impulse as the writer who posts on her blog or Twitter or Facebook about their progress with a novel. Here’s a link to the ledger:

  2. Lowry Pei says:

    I agree that we need to think about teaching the act of writing itself. One way to look at teaching in the classroom is that when we and our students go there, we undertake to structure their time for the duration of the class. Well, we might also think of ourselves as trying to structure the time outside the classroom that they spend doing the thing we’re teaching. Can we actually do that, or are people too various for that goal to make sense? And what does “structure” mean? This post suggests that “structure” can mean: change the way the act of writing is framed in the writer’s imagination.
    Allow me to just jam here for a bit. In my pedagogy class the other day, one of my students went into a long and interesting spiel about how, though he hears everything we’re saying about writing process and it makes sense, he doesn’t actually do it. (His #1 goal is to write fiction.) He sits and cogitates for a long time, and when the thing he wants to write feels ready, he sits down and agonizes (his word) until he has written the whole thing. Then if he feels it’s not good enough, he deletes it and starts again. I don’t know if I can change Dave’s way of imagining his act of writing, but I do know he imagines writing very differently from the way I do. He is playing that game with himself (and a demanding one it is), while I’m playing a game that’s more like “put in your seat time.” To me it’s not about counting words, it’s more about spending enough time sitting with the characters and their world and their lives, really focusing, not getting distracted. I realize I have a whole way of imagining what’s happening when I’m writing fiction which is, in itself, a product of my imagination. As I like to say, the first thing the imagination must create is itself. Doesn’t every writer do this? Now it seems to me that as a writing teacher I’m offering my students — implicitly or explicitly — my vision or version of what the act of writing is, and they are able to pick up on it and use it to varying degrees. Maybe if my version doesn’t click for them, they’ll come across another teacher who gives them one that does.
    This is making me think I should do more to tell my students how I imagine the act of writing. Not just imply it, paint them a picture.
    For me, having to write a dissertation laid the groundwork for all subsequent writing. It forced me to learn that if you write a page a day, in a year you’ll have written a book-length manuscript. It was training, habit formation, like NaNoWriMo. One of the most powerful things we can do as teachers is foster the formation of habits. Maybe it didn’t hurt that my dissertation was on Anthony Trollope, who wrote in a famously routine, workmanlike way, taking pride in his word count which he meticulously totted up. In his autobiography he compares himself to a shoemaker, deliberately investing the act of writing with zero glamor. I wouldn’t benefit by imagining myself as making shoes, but it sure worked for old Anthony — he wrote 47 novels.
    Maybe we all have to imagine our act of writing in our own way, ultimately. But this doesn’t mean that we as teachers cannot offer ways of doing the imagining, basically saying “Play along, imagine it this way, try it on if only for now.”
    To try to reply to the first comment — my revision game, at this point, is something like :”Cool! Now I can make this better. This’ll be fun.” Maybe it isn’t all fun, but one thing that definitely is fun is finding and taking out extra words, phrases, and sentences. It’s so easy to get rid of them once I realize they’re unnecessary.
    Revision is, as a student of mine once said, an attitude toward writing, and it’s hard to take hold of an attitude and make it be different. The attitude of “What if I screw it up?” is not particularly helpful to one’s revision process, but telling someone to change it doesn’t work. What does, exactly? I think this is why we need to be around other writers, why a writing class can really help: changes like this come about through relationships, through social interactions.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Structuring time outside the class. I’ve been thinking of this a lot because I’m developing an online version of one of my classes, and it seems imperative that I suggest to my students ways for them to structure their writing time. My last in-class “writeshop” class went over pretty well–and I think it was because the students were grateful for 1,) structured class time, and 2.) word count deadlines that didn’t assess quality. They got a lot of writing done and felt good about themselves for having done so.

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