How do you write when you’re at your lowest point?
I’ve no doubt set some alarm bells ringing in the heads of my readers. Don’t worry— I’m not at my lowest point yet. Yes, I am wheelchair-bound for the next two months, and yes, I will likely undergo surgery in late December. Remember that summer writing schedule that allowed me to achieve wonders beforehand? It worked like a wheel for me. Now I don’t know what I’ll do without it. A morning of writing and exercise becomes an excessive dream when you’re saving up your strength just to go to class each day. A good percentage of you can relate to my condition, I hope. The point is, I still have the ability to write, which means that I’m not in the belly of the whale, just in the small intestine. Either way, it’s getting tight in here. The lack of physical activity, the difficulty in keeping a clean environment, and the pain that radiates from both of my knees resulted in major procrastination for all my big writing projects. I have to think smaller… so what do I write?
The broad strategy I’m going to suggest can be summed up as “record something that interests and surprises you.” It’s a strategy similar to Stephen King’s childhood practice of writing out the action that takes place in his comic books (I can’t confirm that anywhere on the web, so don’t go telling King about it, capisce? You didn’t hear it from me). In the past month, I practiced this by essentially running Dungeons and Dragons games by myself. I call it DM&DM: Dungeon Master and Dungeon Master.
It’s no secret on this blog that I’m a fan of tabletop RPGs, even if I haven’t found time to play with living humans in years. I still have my dice, my sourcebooks, my graph paper, and the free time it would take to play the game. Even if I didn’t have that, the Pathfinder site give me everything I need. So, when I found myself too tired to leave my room and too antsy to not express myself, I decided to put those resources to use.
Here’s how I played. I design a location—a town, a dungeon, a casino based around several Decks of Many Things, whatever. I pull out character stats for each starring player I plan to include. In addition to the required hit points and spell listings and whatnot, I give each character a placeholder name before jotting down, off the top of my head a defining strength, defining weakness, defining quirk, immediate goal, and relatable motivation. Usually, I’ll create two groups with opposing goals, such as obtaining a McGuffin before the other team. Once I’m all set up, I let the characters loose and play both sides, recording what happens as I go along.
Let’s pretend, in my latest creation, that a Paladin isn’t sure if she can trust the Fighter’s promise to not sell her paladin mount for a quick scam. I roll a d20 and add relevant modifiers to see how she reacts. Whether the Paladin ends up believing the Fighter’s impassioned pleas of “C’mon!” or not, the decision is out of my hands… and that’s the point. I just have to write down what happens. Sure, the story continues on in an arbitrary fashion, but the takeaway fact is the story continues on. If you’re so low down that you can’t imagine ever writing a novel again, then a few hours rolling dice and taking notes will prove that you’ve got a few pages left in you. Instead of agonizing over what decision works for each character and what factors contribute to what, I just roll up a number, calculate a few equations in my head, and write down the next step. And if something happens that surprises me, then that just gives me a chance to flesh out characters. “So the Paladin agrees to scam the goblins… there must’ve been something in her backstory that makes her really hate goblins.” Trust me, you’ll agonize plenty in your future as a novelist. Right now, you’re recovering from your woes like a goblin nursing the Holy Smite wound on his forehead.
Since you’re writing this D&D… ok, there’s no other word for it, this D&D masturbation at what must be a low point in your life, there will be times where you just write “Character A stabs Character 2” for a line. It’s ok… when you’re masturbating, no one cares how long you last. Right now, you’re just building a foundation that will later lead to greater structures. The important part of this exercise is to make story decisions that interest you. You can learn a lot about writing just by cataloging events and noticing where you get bored.
Such a thing happened to me a few weeks ago while playing my first game of DM&DM, where the only winning move is to not get bored. My adventuring party had escaped the first few traps in the maze by luck alone, and the rogue’s apparent incompetence had sparked intense bickering with the other humanoids in her company. Just when it seemed like the adventurers would draw swords on each other, forever dooming them to losing the treasure to rivals and wandering the labyrinth for eternity… I put down the notebook and didn’t pick it up for a few days. I had lost interest in the story, but I hadn’t lost interest in telling stories altogether. After letting the plot cook in the back of my brain for a few days, I then saw the truth in metaphorical blazing letters: I don’t give a shit about what happens to these characters. On the one hand, this revelation justifies all the— you guessed it— agonizing I do when it comes to each character I create. But since I’m still in recovery mode, I could now go back to my DM&DM notebook and add the “goal” and “motivation” sections to each character. Now I could continue the story with a clearer sense of direction (well, a clearer sense than the lost adventurers could have in such a dim maze, where the only people with good intentions were also the only ones in the maze who couldn’t see in the dark…).
Yeah, yeah, having relatable characters is Writing 101. I knew that. In my head, that is. In my other stories, I wanted to challenge it— I thought that likeability was overrated. And I still think so. But now I’ve proven to myself, firsthand, that without someone who touches the heart alongside tickling the brain, the story’s not worth telling. Not worth me telling it, at any rate.
When you record a game of DM&DM, you may find your scribblings unusable, but there are other ways to find gold in your pile of dirt. For one: backstory! Even if you don’t use your scrawls in your next short story, then maybe you can write your masterwork on the son of X, or about the townsperson who discovered the antimatter rifle that Bard Guy dropped. When you are ready to put more thought into your work, you’ll find that you’ve already accomplished one of the harder parts. Your transcriptions can also result in you imagining a new way for conflicts to end. Not every fantasy epic ends with the fierce duel to the death, and even fewer end with the orc chieftain transformed into a kitten that nurses his archrival dwarf many years later, when both are at death’s door. Yet stranger things have happened in Dungeons and Dragons.
“Nick, I won’t end up practicing good craft!” You see that? That mentality is what’s keeping you from writing at your lowest point to begin with. First, there must be words. Have any of you tennis players ever played your best game against a wall? Of course not, because the point’s not to win, the point is to move. Once you’re healthy again, physically and mentally, then you can diagram schemes and research squids. If you’re at the point where you can’t think, then you should just record, even if you never look back at what you record again. No one will ever see the DM&DM game I played, and that’s how I like it. Use this slow-down time to examine the basics and accomplish a simple goal at a non-rushed pace. Or, in other words, if you keep failing your skill checks, see if the DM will let you Take 20.