How Writing is Like an RPG

Box art for the PC 'Collector's Edition'.

Box art for the PC ‘Collector’s Edition’. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a big fan of video games. One of the first things I did when I got my first Real Job (we don’t talk about how I regressed to what many people would consider a Not Real Job) was buy an Xbox 360 Elite. I maintain that this is one of the best purchases I ever made, because it has provided me with thousands of hours of play, exercise (yeah, Kinect!), and entertainment. My games of choice have always been games that have a strong story element, and that usually means RPGs. Sure, I’ll play the occasional shooter, but I prefer the Gears of War franchise and the Bioshock franchise to say, Call of Duty.

Plus, I suck at aiming virtual guns.

My games of choice are RPGs (that’s Role Playing Games, to those of you scratching your heads). I love the Dragon Age games because of their wit, their stories, and getting to hack up evil darkspawn with swords. One of the things RPGs have in common is that as you play through, you gain experience (XP), and at certain thresholds of experience, you can apply your XP to increasing your attributes and level up.

Last night, I was having a conversation with a writer friend of mine, and I said something that I thought could make a fun blog post. What I said was that reading Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering gave me about +5000 XP and leveled me up twice as a writer. I was half-joking, but there was a certain amount of honesty behind that statement.

So here you are, gentle viewers. After yesterday’s post about how writing can be taught, I thought I’d have some fun with the learning-to-write process and mention a few common moments where we level up as writers.

English: Hitch-hiker's gesture Русский: Жест а...

We’ll pretend this person’s praising you, not looking for a lift. English: Hitch-hiker’s gesture Русский: Жест автостопщика (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some Well-Meaning Person Tells You That You Rock: +300 XP

This often happens fairly early on. You might be a kid writing about the alien who got caught in quicksand outside your house. (Badass neighborhood.) Or you might be writing a personal essay, as I was the first time it happened. Regardless, someone comes along, reads something you’ve written, and BAM.

“Wow. You know, you’ve done a fabulous job with this. You’re a very talented young writer.”

The glow. The basking. It happens. And BING, you’ve leveled up. (It doesn’t take much XP to level up at that stage.)

Finish Line

Finish Line (Photo credit: jayneandd)

You Write Something…And Finish It: +500 XP

No, not all those essays and all that “What I Did This Summer” crap they make you do in school. I mean something for you. Something you want to write. Something that germinated in your little brain and sprouted into a wobbly sapling on paper. You take that idea from sprout to dangly fruit, and you take a big bite when it’s finished just to let the juice run down your chin. It’s one of the first hallmarks of writing: being able to finish what you start. For instance, I’ve written (as of this blog post) four and three halves books. Sound weird? Yeah. The first half a book was one I started as a sixteen-year-old high school student who ran out of classes to take. The second was an embarrassingly derivative portal fantasy, and the third was the final book in a trilogy I realized needed more work than I had the energy to give it were to ever be salable.

Finish what you begin. It might not make you level up, but it’ll give you lots of XP.

English: A brick wall in Giza, Egypt.

English: A brick wall in Giza, Egypt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Get Stonewalled By Betas: +300 XP

You know how your mom will just read anything you hand her and tell you it’s great? (Hi, Mom.) (Second parenthetical, I do actually trust my mom’s judgment.) Well, other people are more fickle.

Ever give a few people your manuscript and then have to strain even to hear crickets? You ask them about their progress, and they tell you that, oh, they meant to read it last weekend, but then Auntie Mildred popped into town with her new fighter pilot boyfriend, and did you know they’re going to buy a cabana and move to Tahiti? Before you know it, you’re talking about sand crabs and sunburns and Auntie Mildred’s strangely-shaped mole when you meant to get them talking about your manuscript.

It happens. It happens for a lot of reasons, but I don’t have the time to go into it here.

(Super-sneaky advanced writer ability: when you ask for betas, tell them at the begging point that they have to commit to a certain deadline. Then ask them specifically for certain feedback. Do you want a general impression of what they thought? Line edits? Plot critique? Set it up first. Getting stonewalled is a lot easier to avoid if you give betas expectations and point them in a direction from the get-go. Believe me, on the beta side, I appreciate these things.)

Echidna short beaked

I bet you weren’t expecting to see one of these. Echidna short beaked (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Write Something You Never Expected To: +750 XP

This could be as simple as trying a new length of fiction, like a novella or flash fiction. It could mean penning an article, or a personal essay. It could mean switching from writing romance to steampunk or historical. Branch out. Try something new.

You might hate it, but you also might get all tingly from it. And here’s a super-secret from Emmie: I know of no less than three or four fellow writers whose first sale was NOT the book that got them signed or the short story style they’d been slaving over for a decade. My friend Brian Shaw wrote a story about a zombie-fighting transvestite just for shits and giggles — and sold it. Another friend sold an erotica manuscript she’d never really thought of marketing and just wrote for fun — and it might lead to her selling the project she’d actually been querying with.

Those 750 XP points might not seem like a lot, but they could tip the balance for you.


no (Photo credit: the|G|™)

Get Shot Down: +1500 XP

You’re fresh-faced. Your eyes look like Puss in Boots being cute. They may even have big sparkles over the pupils, and I really hope that doesn’t mean you’re on drugs.

You hold out your beloved manuscript, which you’ve toiled over for months and maybe even cried on or bled on a couple times. The pages stick to your sweat-moistened palms, and you feel like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. “I’m just a writer, standing in front of an agent….”

You get the point.

Except that agent doesn’t look at you with floppy Hugh Grant hair, or run away only to come back and confess undying love.

Instead, you get this:

“Dear Author, thank you for your interest in XYZ Agency. Unfortunately, we do not feel that your project is the right fit for us at this time. We wish you luck in your search for an agent.” (I just made it up, but it bears eerie resemblance to many form rejections I’ve seen.)

This is also known as…NO. It hurts. Or at least stings. But it happens to everyone. Even the indie authors feel the pain of getting rejected. The occasional bad review (or a deluge of them) can’t feel good.

English: parked wrecking ball Deutsch: Abrissbirne

English: parked wrecking ball Deutsch: Abrissbirne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Craft Breakthrough: +5000 XP

Maybe it’s discovering the magical world of story structure. Maybe it’s making a conscious effort to avoid passive voice or unnecessary adverbs. Maybe it’s the realization that your first book had no actual climax or antagonist. No matter which way it happens, these craft breakthroughs are an almost immediate level up moment. They’re the moments you can pinpoint where something clicked in your head, and the words that came out afterward were ever-so-slightly less shitty. Or a whole lot less shitty.

Book Chaos

Book Chaos (Photo credit: Sharon Drummond)

Read: +50 XP

This is the writing RPG equivalent to picking up codex entries in Dragon Age. It might not seem like a lot of XP, but each book you read chalks a little bit more up in the You As a Writer column. And though you can try and breeze through the writing gig without reading in your genre (or at all), but you’ll find that those bits of XP add up to a lot by the time the epilogue rolls.

So that’s it for today! I might have to make a follow-up to this later.

What have been your level up moments in your writing progression? What’s given you XP?


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on January 14, 2013, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. As an RPG gamer myself (and fan of the Dragon Age games) I really appreciated this post. As a fan of spreadsheets as well, it’s all I can do not to go create a spreadsheet based on this so I can track my writer xp. 😉

  2. Absolutely! I’ve never been much of an RPG-er myself, but it definitely seems to fit the bill 🙂

  3. Hi Emmie! Your blog is one of my daily favorites, so I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. I think you’ve been down this road before, so don’t feel obligated to do anything about it if you don’t want. But I couldn’t go nominate other blogs and ignore your’s.

  4. Awesome blog! And so very true on so many levels!

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