I’m going to be honest with you. Five days into this omicron-infused 2022, I haven’t gotten a lot of fiction writing done. Or any. Instead I’ve spent most of the time writing syllabi and assignments for my classes… or else procrastinating by playing Hades, the Greek mythology inspired video game that everyone else spent 2020 playing. In fact I might have played it so much that it’s seeping into my lesson plans.
A silly tweet. But, hell, why not try to turn this joke into an actual craft post? I have to write about something here and Hades might be a video game, but as far as video games go it’s pretty darn literary. It has excellent dialogue, complex characters, and well-structured plot arcs. Hell, it even won a Hugo and a Nebula award for writing.
So here’s how writing a draft is like doing a run in Hades.
First off, a quick explanation. Hades is “roguelite” style game in which you play the god Zagreus trying to fight his way through the underworld to the surface to find his mother. Each time you die, you start all over again crawling out of a pool of blood in the house of your dad, Hades. If you play the game, you expect to die countless times starting largely from scratch each time. What’s clever about the game is that each run is different based on the choices you make in terms of the weapon you start with, the “boons” from Greek gods, the chambers you enter, and so forth. The early choices you make affect the later choices.
This is a bit like writing in that the same story idea can be executed in countless different ways. Each choice you make will affect your late choices. Do you write in the 1st person or in an omniscient 3rd? Do you write in a fabulist style or a naturalist one? Minimalism or maximalism? Etc. Each choice ones some doors and closes others… or if it doesn’t close them, then it at least makes them harder to execute. (To push this Hades metaphor, if you focus all your boons on “cast” then it will be harder to win using “attack.”)
When I was younger, I somehow got the idea there was supposed to be a “right” way for you to tell a particular story. That a particular writer should keep revising and revising until some sort of Platonic, perfect version of their story emerged. (There was something about revising until you realized every punctuation mark was in the perfect place and you, the writer, could see nothing that could be changed that I think came from Hemingway?)
Well, that’s not how writing has ever worked for me. Not once. I’ve always found there are infinite ways to tell any story that percolates in my mind. A single story doesn’t insist on being, say, 500 words and structured as one paragraph vs. 2,000 words in fifty fragments. Either might work. Hell, both might! So might 10,000 words and somehow the story is now science fiction instead of magical realism and a million other options.
There’s no right way to tell a story, just different ways to play.
This is why I’m skeptical of the “vomit up a draft as quickly as possible and edit it later” school of writing. If it works for you, good! But for me, at least, the narrative choices I make are in part determined by what is already on the page. If I’m writing a story with a minimalist style, a fragment structure, and a distant third POV then the sentences and ideas that emerge on page 5 of the document will be different than what I write on page five of a maximalist story in a single monologue from a first person POV narrator…. even if both stories started out with the same core character and plot.
Of course, many writers find at some stage of the drafting process that they need to make major changes. Switch main characters. Change genres. Switch POV. Etc. It happens. But it typically takes a whole lot more work to make that change if you realize that at the end of a draft rather than near the beginning. And often it doesn’t ever truly work since all the choices you’ve made by the end of the story ripple out from the initial choices. You might have to more or less start the new draft from a blank page.
For me, I tend to find my stories are the strongest when I know my plan from the beginning. Or at least pretty near the beginning. It’s nice to let a little randomness happen. But I like to know the general outlines of what I want to achieve and what methods I want to achieve it. Broadly with plenty of room for new ideas to enter and things to change, but still. I want to have a plan. (And, yes, the same is true for a video game like Hades. You’ll be the most successful—and find the game the most enjoyable—if you set your plan out from the start. Are you just collecting gems? Focusing on cast spells? Etc.)
The point here is that there’s no “right” way to write a story or to play the game. There’s different choices that make different experiences. Your goal might be the same—finish a story, beat a boss—but there are countless paths to get there.
Okay, I’ve maybe stretched this metaphor as far as it can go. Except there’s one final similarity to playing Hades and writing a short story or any other creative work: when you finish it, you spawn right back at the start of either a blank page or a red pool. Then you have to do it all over again from the start.
And again and again and again.
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