On writing and gaming

Or is that gaming and writing?

Many people know that I’m an avid gamer in addition to writing young adult novels. I get a fair number of questions about how I balance the two because as many writers have discovered it’s hard enough to balance writing and a day job and a social life and staying healthy (all of which are also parts of my life) — and then to try adding gaming to that mix.

So I’m going to answer that and specifically the question from Allison Moon who asked this week if I have, “… tips for how to write hella books while also getting absorbed into a fantastical gaming world you want to live in?” (Special thanks for asking that in the week I’m thinking I need to blog more so that I can subtly remind people that Just Girls is out soon and you might want a copy. You can also find out more about Allison and her latest project here.)

The tips below are what I’ve worked out for myself — your process may be different so please engage in wanton experimentation and don’t give up until you find what works for you. You’ll know when you’ve found what works for you because you’ll feel happy and be productive.

Step 1 in this process is to learn to write hella books. Yes, I’m not even kidding.

This step is about is learning what motivates you to write. There’s this great list the book “Write is a Verb” by Bill O’Hanlon that says there are four fundamental writing motivations: Blissed, Dissed, Pissed and Blessed. However, I always remember that last one as Kissed, so let’s say there are five:

  • Blissed — You’re totally high on your ideas, on writing itself, on the beauty of language, on the feel of the story, or maybe all of those.
  • Dissed — Someone said you couldn’t? Well screw them, you’re going to write.
  • Pissed — What? There are modern people who think we don’t need feminism? I’m so mad I’m totally writing a book to show them that we do!
  • Blessed — Someone says your writing is good and you’re totally jazzed? Someone loves your ideas or your characters or anything that lights you up. Awesome!
  • Kissed — I’ll bet that hot person would pay more attention to you if you finished that book you’re working on. This is also what motivates a lot of fanfiction as you fall for a character or characters and want to spend more time with them by writing about them.

I’ve found that list super useful, particularly knowing that my top energy is Pissed followed by Kissed. This means that if I need to get myself to stop gaming and start writing one way is to have a little dialogue that goes like this: “Hey, I know that Orc culture feels like home and this battleground is super compelling, but remember how some people think it’s still okay to harass your trans women friends? Remember how some people think we don’t need feminism anymore? And you know how some people think all gamers are total slackers? Yeah, let’s go write! Orc smash!”

If your top motivation is different, set up to use that one. Do you need a partner or friend to call you in two hours and tell you that they bet you’ll never finish that novel? Or do you need them to tell you how amazing your ideas are and how they cant’ wait to read your book? Maybe you need to give yourself a stern talk about how that cute girl/guy/person isn’t going to give you the time of day if you don’t finish your story or how that sexy character is really missing spending time with you. Whatever works.

Find your motivation and abuse the heck out of it. Game designers are already doing this to you by working the science of human motivation into games so you need to get under that and be better at manipulating yourself than they are.

Okay, so now we have a basic grasp of how to motivate ourselves to write. Now the only problem is that this amazing game is producing mad dopamine in our brains and we want nothing else.

Here are some options I’ve tried that have worked for me:

1. Plan your writing before a game launch and then plan time for gaming.

I did this for Diablo 3 — wrote for two-and-a-half months and then took about three weeks to spend all my waking, non-marketing job moments playing Diablo 3. That first week I even stopped working out and didn’t guilt myself about it. I’m doing this again for the November 2014 WoW expansion and Dragon Age: Inquisition launch. My calendar will actually tell me to play games for about three weeks. This lets me have guilt-free all-waking-hours gaming and it feels like a nice, inexpensive vacation.

2. Use gaming to clear your mind before or after writing.

If you’re doing gaming right, you’re in the flow state. We love the flow state — it’s the perfect amount of stimulation for human brains. You should feel it not only when you’re gaming but also when you’re writing. So first off when you’re gaming pay attention to how flow feels: you’re completely engaged, you’re excited, you’re happy to be doing what you’re doing, etc. Also notice how this clears your mind. When you’re 100% focused on the game, you don’t have room for an inner critic or for those other voices that seem to collect in my head and maybe in yours too — you know those voices that go on about what you should be doing right now about whether you’re too this or too that and so on.

Get into a game world and shut up those voices. Play for two, three, four hours and then get up and move around a bit — now appreciate how quiet your head is and invite your project in. Just your project, nobody else. Think about it like you’re logging out of the game and into your novel, story, project, etc. You may find that you’re much more focused on your project than you were before you went and played a game.

3. Use gaming to learn how writing should feel.

I mentioned the flow state above and ideally we want writing to put us in flow as much as possible. Once we get rid of critical voices in our head, there are two other reasons we might not be in flow when writing. Flow is a fairly delicate state that you only get to when your work/play is hard enough to completely engage you, but not too hard. If you’re not in flow, the writing you’re trying to do is either too hard or too easy (i.e. boring).

So ask yourself: What would make this project as fun as the game I was just playing?

Maybe the project feels too hard and you need to break it down into smaller pieces, or work on one of your skills, or get some help so that it feels doable again. Or maybe it’s too easy or boring. You have it too planned out and you’re not into it. Maybe you need to mix it up or take more of a risk. You can also add a challenge to make it more like a game (a more measurable challenge) — set yourself a time limit or a number of words you’re trying to write in an hour.

It’s also important to note that in gaming we learn that failure is no big deal, that it’s part of the learning process. Let’s take that into writing too. Get rid of that stupid model we all learned in school where if you fail you’re both screwed and in trouble. Come at your writing like you’re learning a new level in a game and no matter how many times you die, you get to keep learning and eventually you know you’re going to win.

4. Use gaming to work out issues with your writing.

Following on from the point above, if your writing feels boring or hard, look at what’s attracting you in the game. Do you feel powerful in the game and weak in your writing? What do you need to do to feel powerful in your writing? Do you need to spend more time planning or less? Do you need to play with some writing exercises to free up your creativity?

Also look at the ideas you love in the game. Is there a story twist that delighted you or a character you love? Bring an element of that into the project you’re writing. I’ve even written bits of fanfic with gaming characters just to get into the flow of writing and then switched over to my current novel project once I have momentum.

5. Pay attention to how you actually feel.

If you check in with your body from time to time, you’ll notice that you get tired and even a little bored every 90-120 minutes when gaming. Its easier to stop at this point than to force yourself to stop in the middle of that time.

Also take natural breaks as an opportunity to check in with yourself and see if you actually want to stop gaming. Yes, peeing is an ideal time for this. So is getting up to refill your tea/coffee/pop/adult beverage. My check in usually goes like this: “Hey, you know, that game’s still going to be there tonight and tomorrow, what else did I want to do today? Let’s take 20-30 minutes and do that and then we can play some more.” Usually that 20-30 minutes turns into a few hours as I get caught up in my project or remember other things I wanted to do.

6. Write yourself compelling notes about your project.

Unless my brain is really crowded with unhelpful voices, I tend to write in the mornings. It’s not unusual to find me writing on a Saturday morning, then doing any chores or errands and gaming in the evening. I’ve learned that when I finish my spate of writing, I need to make a detailed note to myself about what’s next. Something like this: “Hey next Ella is going to try to come out to Tucker but then Lindy’s going to show up and you’re going to have to foreshadow that some bad stuff is coming down the pike.”

I like foreshadowing so I know when I see that note that I’m going to be thinking about how I’ll have fun writing that scene.

That’s also on the short side, most of my writing notes run 2-6 sentences and this allows me to hit the page running when I get back to the project. I also make post-it notes to myself all over my desk, so when I check in at my computer in the morning I might see exciting notes that make me want to write more than log into a game. Right now I have five such notes on my desk including, “Neither gender is easy. Having to do gender is hard.” Ooh, I totally want to write more about that!

You can put notes anywhere that works for you and you can use images and doodles, anything that reminds you of the next compelling, amazing, badass thing you were going to do with your project.


Keep switching things up until you find what works for you. If some of these tips work, great! I’d love to hear from you about what worked and why. If you find other tips, please share them.


Am I gaming right now or writing? Maybe I'm doing both!

Am I gaming right now or writing? Maybe I’m doing both!