Have you ever been working on something, anything, and you get a brilliant flash of insight? Something hits you, out of the blue, and your mind starts racing. You’ve got ideas, plans, you know just how to implement everything . . .
. . . and it has nothing at all to do with what you’re working on. In fact, with this shiny new set of ideas, what you’re working on now seems dull and drab by comparison. You look at what’s in front of you and wonder how you’re ever going to get it done. Or worse, you wonder how you’re going to make the old, dull thing as good as the fireworks of inspiration going off in your head.
Or . . .
You’ve got a passion project going, but it’s something that’s not paying. Another paying gig comes along and you’ve got to put the first project on the shelf. You’ve got no idea if you’ll ever be able to come back to it. What’s a writer, designer—or heck, just a good, old-fashioned gamer—supposed to do?
That’s right, folks. Today we’re talking . . .
I’ve been working on this Camp Adventure series for a couple of months, now. It’s a project I love working on, and I think it’s a great idea. Problem is, yesterday I signed a contract to do some work-for-hire with a publisher and it’s going to dominate my writing time for the next eight months or so.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m ridiculously excited about the upcoming project. It’s for an IP that I created, ever, and it’s a great opportunity. Thing is, I’m still going to look longingly over at my Camp Adventure documents and wonder what’s going to happen to them. Here are some things I’ve learned about that, and I’m writing them for you and because I’m going to have to remind myself of these time and again.
1. It’s Okay to Let a Project Go
There’s a feeling that I have a lot, and it feels akin to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. That’s the idea that something has more value because you’ve invested time and effort (or money) into it. Sometime’s that’s a totally valid feeling. Others, it’s you working to hold on to something because you feel like your time spent on it was wasted otherwise.
(Incidentally, I think this is why people get so worked up when someone doesn’t validate their opinions about how great a game or game system is; it’s easy to be blind to a thing’s flaws because you’ve got so much invested in it. Anyway, I digress).
The reality is that there’s only so much time. You have to choose how to spend it, and you have to choose what’s important. Working on this paying project is more important to me than Camp Adventure. There’s some sadness to that statement, but it’s true. I have to accept that.
2. (Again) There’s Only So Much Time
My other impulse is to think that I can just do it all.
I’m effing amazing, right, so why wouldn’t I be able to handle anything I put my mind to.
[Italics indicates my brain going off on its own and not doing a great job of seeing things realistically]
I’ve fallen prey to this lie so many times I’ve lost count. There’s a fine line between being able to acknowledge your actual talents and assuming that you can handle absolutely anything. In my case, I assume that I’ll just be able to sit down, juggle projects, and write without any issues. Reality, in this case, is me sitting down to a computer and having the same problems that everyone else does when it comes to writing:
- I don’t know what to write
- I’m not good enough for this
- Wow, this is a load of BS
- Ooh! There’s a new game out today!
Writing is work, and hard work at that. I can’t assume that I’ll be able to just do it without stopping when I choose. I have to spend my hours in the day doing a lot of other things, including giving my mind a break. That means, no matter how optimistic (that’s a kind word, let’s go with that) I am about my ability to DO ALL THE THINGS, I have limitations—major ones in some cases.
That leads us to . . .
3. It Takes Effort and Training to Write
If I asked you to go run a marathon tomorrow, could you do it? Some of you no doubt could.
If I asked those that could what kind of training it took to be able to do that, they’d tell me about a running regimen, ramping up mileage, eating properly, hydrating, stretching, and a host of other things that they have to continually work on to be able to do that kind of work.
Writing a big project is a mental marathon. Very few people can sit down and write a coherent text without putting in a lot of effort. Articles like this I can write pretty well. But I only do them once or twice a month. It’s like a small sprint for me. If I have to carry these ideas across tens of thousands of words, back them up with research, source them, etc. it would take me a lot longer to write them and I’d probably do one every third month or so.
Being able to write a game is similar. You’re not just delivering setting. You’re delivering system and ways to engage with that system. You’re giving procedures for play. You’re evoking settings that you often can’t just describe the way, say, a novel could. There are snippets of that but it’s always more complicated than you think. As well, you’re writing for people who aren’t you, so you have to make it accessible.
It takes a lot of time and practice and help to be able to do that well. To that end (and to stay on topic), you have to take the time to work on those things, and that dovetails back into number 2. You can’t do that work all the time or your mind would wear out, same as a runner over-training.
Now, it’s always possible you’re capable of more than you think you are. I’ve succeeded at things I never thought I had a chance to succeed at. Eddie Izzard ran a marathon a day for 27 days straight. It’s possible you can achieve amazing things. Just be aware of how much you can take at any one time.
And, lastly . . .
4. Ooooh, Shiny!
This is my biggest problem because it feeds into the other three.
New ideas are addictive and easy.
When I get a new idea it’s like I described in the intro: my brain just lights up and everything seems so clear. I look at my current projects and wonder what I’m doing with myself. Why am I slogging away when I could be working on this new thing? The new thing is amazing! I know exactly how to approach it.
It’ll be easier.
Ideas, by and large, are easy. Cheap. They’re bright and shiny and fabulous because they don’t take any actual work. To have an idea unfold, I don’t have to sit down and look at real-world logistics or think about textual presentation or editing and revision or my audience or marketing and distribution or playing it with actual people or DOING ANY ACTUAL WORK AT ALL.
No mistake, there is some part of the creative process that requires you to just dream and dream big. It’s about 1% of the process, but we like to think it’s more. I, especially, like to think it’s more because it’s certainly easier than sitting down and actually doing the work of writing. To carry back to the marathon example, it’s like imagining and visualizing the 26.2 mile run, not really running it.
Know What Matters, What Doesn’t, and Do the Work
This is tricky stuff to do and it takes time and effort (yes, more of those two) to learn it. In my current situation, it’s pretty easy: I get to work on a new, paying project I’m excited about. Camp Adventure is going to sit on the shelf with dozens of other half-finished projects. Will I ever come back to it?
I don’t know.
A valuable lesson for me was to learn to let go, like I said above. I have to accept that anything, from my bright shining ideas, to projects I’ve poured hours into, might never get done. That has to be okay for me to be able to do this work. If it weren’t, I’d be paralyzed and I’d finish nothing at all.
So! Going forward, the Making a Thing articles are going to focus on the other things I’m making. I’m excited to share them with you and I hope that opening up my process will prove valuable. Summer camp for would-be adventurers will always be a cool idea. And I might get a chance to finish it . . . someday.