Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On How Writing is Like Deckbuilding and Submitting is Like Dark Souls

Gather round everyone, and hear why the thing I talk about all the time is like other things I like and talk about too much. Deckbuilding first, specifically for Magic: The Gathering. (I’m an old fan, and I fell off the wagon into magic online recently.) Building a deck means sifting through an enormous number of options to find a few that work together. You can just assemble things that don’t clash and are good on their own, but that’s not perfect. What you really want is an idea at the center, a neat hack to build around. Then you need cards that pull of your trick consistently. It’s no good having a perfect play that only comes up every third game.
Writing is a lot like that: there are countless setting elements, character quirks, plot twists and brain hacking tricks available every time you sit down at the keyboard, and, unlike Magic, your wallet doesn’t limit your choices. For certain, you always need something to build the rest of the story around, a spark for your fire. I’m writing fantasy, so I often start with a piece of the world I want to show, and then find the right characters and the right plot to make it interesting. Sometimes I just start with a feeling I want, and the rest of the story is about how to call it out of people. Consistency is key in writing just as in deck building. A successful story is one that works on as many readers as possible. It may not get the same reaction from everyone, but I want my stories to speak to something in the people who read them, not just a few, but a lot.

Testing is key for stories and decks, both. Everything can look good by itself, when you’re alone with your computer, but there’s no way to really know. You need opponents. You need readers. You need to be challenged. Once you run your baby up against a few people, you can see how close it really is to the idea you started with. Maybe you need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe you get what you’re looking for on occasion, but not often enough, so you take a few things out and replace them with others, and then you run it out again. The process of being challenged and refining is essential, for Magic or for writing.
Once you’ve written a story and tested it and honed into the best version of itself you have the tools to build, it’s time to submit, and that’s like dark souls. You start with nothing. You hack your way as far forward as you can. Then a skeleton comes up behind you and puts an axe through your skull and you’re right back where you started. In all seriousness, there is a real similarity. Submission means doing the same thing over and over again without much advantage from any particular previous attempt, but you do get incrementally better over time. Eventually, something clicks. You get lucky. You get the timing down. You make it to the next bonfire. Someone buys your story. Then you’re back to nothing heading into the next area/submissions queue. I think the most important parallel for this part of our simile is the right way to deal with failure. Just like a death in dark souls isn’t an immediate reason to change you tactics, a rejection isn’t a reason to change your story. You’ve already tested it. You just need to get the timing right, hit the right editor at the right place in their process. Just like I don’t change my dark souls tactics until it’s clear I’ve missed something important, I don’t revise a story I’ve deemed submission ready until I’ve gotten several rejections, hopefully some of them thoughtful, personal ones. I also don’t revise again until I can see the alternate path to outflank the spectral knight, or how I could make the story better than it is.

I think it’s time to test this idea out on all of you, and maybe play some Dark Souls while I wait to hear what you think.