If only Mario could smash a writer’s block

Wednesday, 31 May 2006 — 10:59pm | Literature, Video games

Several people have asked me about my novel, the first draft of which was supposed to be completed tonight, as per the regulations of the inaugural U of A Novel Writing Month. It didn’t happen. Congratulations are due to Jake Troughton, Dan Kaszor and Steve Smith, who hit the 50,000-word mark on schedule and matched the expected 14.3% survival rate exactly. Congratulations are not due to yours truly, whose most significant contribution of the month was defeating the three of them in a rousing game of RoboRally.

What have I learned?

I learned that writing fiction is an impossible career because of its persistent nondeterminism, not unlike software development. In both cases, it astounds me that anything ever gets done anywhere.

I learned that although November is a terrible month to commit to this sort of project, May is not a whole lot better, with its new jobs, new commitments, new married couples, and no new ideas. E3 (or was it Wii3?) was terribly interesting this year, and left me wondering not about how to develop the second act of a spurious plot involving space colonization projects and British secret agents, but how the Wii edition of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess will incorporate the free-roaming camera presumably handled by the yellow C-stick in the GameCube version, which was the primary reason I found The Wind Waker more playable than The Ocarina of Time, if not as robust.

I learned that dousing oneself in the pop narratology of Robert McKee is a great way to get started, but not a great way to get going. To finish something of this scale in a month, you need the mindset of a Donald Kaufman, and after the first week and a half I was locked into Charlie mode. (Speaking of which, for all the lampoonery of McKee’s Story in Jonze/Kaufman’s Adaptation, the principles in the book fit the film like a glove.)

I learned that you can write a novel with much greater expediency if you adopt the Kaavya Viswanathan Method, though if you try to make money off it, you will be punished. Synopsis: 19-year-old Harvard sophomore scores a six-figure advance, New York Times story and DreamWorks film deal for her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life – you know, a celebration of the kind of good-girl-goes-bad trope that made Grease such a reprehensible movie. She’s caught for plagiarism so incredibly egregious and professionally suicidal that one can hardly believe a well-to-do undergrad would do it all of her own free will; indeed, theories have sprung up in the poor girl’s defence, implicating a book-packaging company and an Ivy League admissions consultancy firm. (As usual, my favourite blog has the best coverage.)

I learned that between Viswanathan and Dan Brown, whose stock protagonist is a professor in a discipline that is both intellectually bankrupt and wholly nonexistent, Harvard University really knows how to take a hardcover punch square in the reputation.

I learned that the city I work in over a given summer will: a) beat Detroit in six, b) beat San Jose in six, and 3) advance to the Stanley Cup finals. So next summer, I’m going back to Calgary.

I learned that New Super Mario Bros. is an outstanding adventure. I’ve completed every level, but not every exit (and certainly not every set of three collectible coins per level, since the later ones are quite tricky). It’s in many ways comparable to Super Mario World, though the stages feel a lot smaller, perhaps due to the lack of flight. The level design, however, is well up to the gold standard of the series. If I had any complaints, it would be that the new enemies aren’t all that compelling, and they go unnamed in the end credits. And as in the original SMB, the Fire Flower is overpowered. The game also neglects to track your progress by the number of exits opened and total coins collected, and I’m sure not going to count them myself.

I learned that the great Koji Kondo himself played the overworld theme at the Chicago premiere of PLAY!, the touring game music symphony programme. The music is credited to his protégés Asuka Ota and Hajime Wakai. It didn’t take me long to discover what felt so odd about the oh-so-catchy main theme: it’s organized into 20-bar sections in 4/4 time, as opposed to the typical 16. I plan to sketch a leadsheet and record it sometime.

I learned that if I wrote a post of this length two or three times a day, I would produce well over 50,000 words in the span of a month.

Live and learn.

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