Howdy! I was planning on releasing the DevLog later this week but, as some of you may already know, last night Minotaur Hotel became Itch.io's 9th highest rated game. To celebrate and mark the occasion nanoff made this little piece of art and we are releasing the DevLog one early.
Remember this is the third part of our writing manual. Part I is here, and this is Part II.
And we arrive at the third part of our writing manual. Today we are talking about writing exercises to improve your skills. This will be most useful for people who wish to write a visual novel someday, but not now, and would like to do some improving meanwhile. That said there are still a few resources here for people who are already knee-deep in a project, although you will have to take some time to go through them.
Before we start I have to highlight something: these exercises worked well for me, so I extrapolate and assume they may be useful for others. That may not be true at all, however. Maybe it won't do you any good, or maybe it would help you more if it was a bit different. Much like what I said on the first part of the manual you should look at what I'm saying critically and tinker with things until they work for you.
Ok, let's start.
Creative Writing lessons and books
Should you do a creative writing course?
Sure, yeah, why not? I think it's good, no reason why you shouldn't — unless price is prohibitive. I'm not saying you should go to college for it though. There's plenty of information online for free or for accessible prices.
A while ago I compiled a list of resources for aspiring writers. Here it is.
- Recommended Readings:
- On Writing by Stephen King.
- Basic introductory reading, really good for its short length.
- How Fiction Works by James Wood. Advanced reading.
- Tough to crack but it's literally a treasure trove that will point you towards some of the most powerful writing techniques. If you are an intermediate writer this might be the single best reading to push you to the next level.
Also, read books — good ones, and many of them. If you are a writer who doesn't read then no one can do anything to help you. It's as simple as that. So read or die.
General principles for improving your writing
When a writer is just starting usually he or she has intuitive knowledge about a thing or two — maybe that characters should have flaws or that a story benefits from having conflict. So the writer tries and pumps out a handful of short stories, gets them criticised and is told a handful of ways to improve.
Chances are if that writer tries to apply all these pointers all at once they'll become overwhelmed and fail to advance. The same might be happening to you now, reader. Seeing too many new techniques is paralysing.
That's ok. Don't worry. I have panicked who knows how many times. Here's the solution: don't try to incorporate too many techniques at once. Pick one or two and write a short story as practice. Don't worry if the stories aren't too good, what matters is learning. The next time you write these tricks will be at the back of your mind and you'll apply them without thinking.
There are two more principles I would like you to keep in mind. They are very arcane, I know, but please pry open your brain for them.
- "Shut Up and Write" Principle: talking about something and actually doing the thing uses up the same dopamine pathways — aka, it sure feels good talking about writing. That high will keep you away from the act of writing, however. So here's my advice: stop talking about your story and fucking write it.
- "Just Fucking Do It" Principle: if you are afraid of writing because oh gosh this is so complicated... No, calm down, there's no reason to get twisted up. Deep down only one thing matters: just fucking do it. Sit down and write. Even if the story is bad, write. Or don't write at all and fucking quit.
- (A suggestion from Kangarube to the daunted: Commit to fifty words a day. That’s all you need to commit to. You can write more, certainly, if you feel it in you, but, just get going — one word in front of the other. Even if it feels like it’s all wrong, that is what later editing is for. And you cannot edit nothing, so: Try for fifty words a day. That’s it.)
So, with that in mind...
The first and best exercise to improve your writing
The single most important exercise in a writer's arsenal is writing short stories. Pick an idea — bold or safe, hard or easy, but always compact — and try to write a short story.
Don't get attached to that idea, that will make you afraid of failure. In truth most fiction ever written is fatally flawed, probably unpublishable, so get used to failure. It's an always present friend. You must learn to look at it in the eye and stare it down.
Write a short story, show it around, see if it sparks any interest and what issues are brought up — there are probably many. Take note of these mistakes and try again, better this time. Chances are failure will knock at the door, but it might be an inch smaller this time around.
Nowadays I see a number of beginner writers who want to jump into making a VN without any experience of short fiction. They're in a hurry, I don't know what for. If you are inexperienced and you absolutely must start your VN now, make it small — real small, certainly smaller than 50.000 words, probably closer to 10.000. But ideally start with short stories.
If you are already past this beginner stage, here are two more exercises you might benefit from.
The Nobel Run
The "Nobel Run" is an exercise I imposed on myself a few years back, when I was dedicating myself to improving my sense of style. While it failed to produce any worthwhile piece of writing, looking back I realize it was one of the defining moments of my writing self-development. It taught me a number of advanced techniques which I then went on to polish. If you have the time I highly recommend it.
The exercise is simple, but time-consuming.
- Check the list of Nobel laureates in Literature.
- Pick a number of them. No less than two, no more than six. Feel free to pick whichever ones interest you the most.
- Read one or more books from each author. If a book you picked isn't to your liking feel free to pick another from the same author, or from a different one.
- Pick a handful of elements you witnessed in these works — style, themes, plot structure, etc — and to the best of your skills try to replicate them in a short story.
- Seek discomfort. Try to expand your horizons.
The stories you'll write during this exercise will likely not be good. They may be too much style over substance. But you will learn much while doing them.
You don't have to necessarily pick Nobel prize winners. The reason why I suggested them as the rule is because, no matter what protests people might have to how the Nobel prize is picked, the list of laureates gives us a reliable way to find interesting, challenging authors and books. If you want to pick authors out of the Nobel list just remember this is an exercise about going out of your comfort zone. Don't go for easy books, and when it comes to writing your stories don't go for simple ideas.
If you are curious, when I did this exercise I picked books from José Saramago, Toni Morrison, Jorge Luís Borges and J.M Coetzee. For Saramago and Morrison I picked too many books to recall, for the Borges and Coetzee I picked two books each.
You don't have to finish the stories you write in this exercise, but in each one you must sufficiently explore the techniques you picked. After you pick what you want to explore — let's say, a sense of style — it might also be worthwhile to focus on that thing in particular to the detriment of everything else in the story. It's ok to make a boring plot if it means exploring what you set out to explore. Don't be afraid to make something unreadable to the common (or any) reader.
Alternatives to the Nobel Run by Kangarube
If you want to do this exercise fully but you'd rather not do with Nobel laureates it's fine, another alternative is just picking the "classics" of literature.
Other lists you could try to mine for suggestions of what one could read:
Greatest novels as selected by mostly novelists.
And also if anyone feels like venturing into narrative epic poetry:
A worldwide list of "national epics" from across the globe respected works considered to have historical, cultural, and artistic importance to land and people (some of which are actually prose-epics, so not all are poetry).
Another worldwide list of “folk” epics that is sorted more by original language, which contains some things that the previous list does not. Included here for thoroughness.
Lastly: If you don't want to read books, then that's horrible; you should change that. However, a still viable (albeit poorer) alternative when it comes to this exercise is picking writing techniques you found in this DevLog or in other writing manuals and trying to explore it.
The Crowd Run
If the Nobel Run will teach you a number of fancier techniques, to strive towards technical excellence, this next exercise is the opposite of it. It will teach you to be humble, to serve your audience, to perform that function well and cleanly.
- Find an audience you can tell a story to. Preferably people who don't know you too well — a forum, a Discord server, an image board.
- Hang around for a while. Understand what this audience wants in a story.
- If you can figure out what they don't know they want, even better.
- Give them exactly that.
- As you write, continually reassess the story's course and what techniques you are using to hone your writer's sense.
- If you have done the Nobel Run and/or are secure in using fancier techniques, try to insert them whenever it makes for a more engaging story — but never do it if it will make your story less engaging.
Here the point of the exercise is writing a story which will engage its audience as intensely as possible. Chances are you will go for simplicity and humility instead of fancy stuff. Strong characters, clear-cut plot, honest emotions. You may learn to not take yourself so seriously. You will also face the truth about what is your audience's average literacy — you may find that purple prose and all that complicated vocabulary you held on to so dearly can kill people's interest in just a few sentences.
Putting these two together
While doing the Crowd Run hopefully you will learn what I consider one of the most important writing lessons I've ever stumbled on: in truth, writing for others' enjoyment feels good. Connecting with others is invigorating, and knowing you brought a bit of emotion to someone's life is motivating. At the same time it's also creatively stifling — you'll find yourself looking back at some of the fun techniques you learned, wishing you could apply them.
Meanwhile, writing literary fiction — or trying to, as in truth most of us won't ever be good enough at it — can be quite the ungrateful slog. You will find, however, that the exercise of leaving your comfort zone, immersing yourself in all that hard literature and trying to master these elements surely taught you a plethora of tricks that you can use to captivate readers.
I believe that, when put together, these two exercises teach a writer to operate in both levels simultaneously — literary fiction and crowd-pleasing storytelling. I believe being able to operate like that brings a number of advantages to VN writers... But in order to understand why, we need to have a very honest conversation about the writing quality you'll find in video games and visual novels.
Visual novels and video games exist in a very uncomfortable place regarding their storytelling. VNs in the East are thoroughly influenced by anime, a medium which as enjoyable as it may be is riddled with bad writing tendencies. It is not high literature, and neither are video games in general for that matter. Even the best gaming stories are often muddled up by dozens of hours of plot-deprived gameplay. To be fair there are many games with very worthwhile stories — wasn't Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater campy fun with some interesting twists? But even our best games with their 30 to 40 hours of playtime struggle to pack as much high-quality, hand-crafted story as a moderately good novel-length literary fiction.
This extends to the audience, which is quite often not very demanding on the story department. That is not to say gamers don't have good taste — quite the contrary, I would say a surprising chunk of us do, but we are numbed and used to low expectations.
All of this applies perfectly to visual novels and its audience. This medium has a chronic problem of its writers not going too deep in trying to find high-quality influences and inspirations, and the readers are used to this sad reality.
This is the context of visual novel writing, and now I want you to look back on the Nobel & Crowd Run. What I hope these two exercises will accomplish is teaching writers to achieve some measure of mastery on both sides of the spectrum — refined writing inspired on literary fiction and engaging, consumable storytelling from genre fiction.
You can see this in action in Minotaur Hotel. While we try to make the story accessible for everyone we also add our literary flourishes, and unusual scenes here and there. Add in hard work and dedication to insert even tiny variations into the story, and it all wraps up nicely.
Straddling these two lines necessarily means there have been and will be times where we trip and fall. But in doing so we have learned a thing or two about our audience. While many of us may be numb and unengaged with the current state of writing in video games, this audience of gay VN readers has been nothing short of thoroughly supportive and welcoming of the level of effort we put in. The impression we have is that people have been itching for this for a while now, and when we do commit a blunder it's always pointed out with the utmost level of respect — we have not gotten a single piece of criticism so far which I wouldn't characterize as "constructive criticism."
Now, to close this topic... while reading this you may have thought that the Crowd Run sounds like the easiest one, but in my opinion that's wrong. The Nobel Run may be hard because you will have to read what may be a tough book, but ultimately it's entirely about trying your best. Meanwhile the Crowd Run really hinges on you having enough of a basic grasp on your audience to engage them in the first place. So, in case you do decide to try out these exercises, I would suggest you start with the Nobel Run (unless you are already a moderately experienced writer.)
Self-image and considerations about self-esteem
If we could travel three thousand years back in time and leave behind scrolls with moderately decent fiction by today's standards, it would not be too surprising if they became acceptable pieces of literature today. We are very forgiving of ancient writing when it comes to their flaws, whatever they may be. What today passes as merely acceptable could easily be taken as revolutionary in ancient times.
At the same time we cannot discredit any of the great writers. Pay your respects to Homer and Dante, accept we will never be as great as they were.
What a lousy situation we are in! Let's face it, we will never be among the hall of great writers in history. Not only because we write furry trash, oh no, we simply are not good enough. C'mon, there's no shame in saying that out loud: I will never be as good as Homer. With that out of the way we can talk a bit about how a writer can see himself nowadays.
Did you feel intimidated or despondent while reading this gigantic mess of a DevLog? I won't blame you if you did. There are so many things here, right? It can be overwhelming for a beginner... And there is so much more to learn, lessons I could not cram in here and also all the ones I'm unaware of. There is so much more to be despondent about!
Yes, perhaps we do have good reasons to panic, we miserable writers of the 21st century, us VN-writers most all seeing as we are immersed chest-deep in a genre begotten from the entrails of anime. We will never be among the great, we gave up on that when we set out to write visual novels.
But, tell me, was it ever about greatness? I very much doubt it. I can't speak for others but I enjoyed every minute of writing and editing all my unsuccessful short stories, because to me writing was always fun. Striving to write better was a pleasure like no other.
But there's a catch, you see. A honest, sincere attempt to write better will always take you to interesting places, but seeking greatness is likely to take you down to rotten swamps. There's nothing as insidiously harmful to a writer than trying to replicate someone else's greatness. That insincerity leaves a bad stench in the writing and eats away one's creativity.
Strive to write better, always. If you do it for its own sake, to hone a craft, you're on the right path to quality. If you do it in order to bring happiness and entertainment to the people around you then you are also on a great path. Be proud of bringing joy to others! And if you are doing it out of both reasons, better yet.
But abandon thoughts of greatness. Do it for your own enjoyment and for others'. And while you must accept that true greatness is beyond our grasp, that does not mean you must give up on your own dignity as a writer.
Here's what I want out of you. When you are faced with criticism of your writing, or with the reality of how much there is to go before you achieve the level of quality you want, always do it with your head raised high. It's not about being good, it's about improving. Every time you are faced with your flaws, mistakes and blunders, that's your way to getting higher.
There's a little couplet written by Kangarube, it's in Minotaur Hotel and shows up when the Speedrunner gives Asterion the medallion. While the situation in the game is a bit tongue-in-cheek, these lines are very fitting here.
Look not far up the mountain where you aim
But back toward each step you raptly made.
Seek improvement, never greatness. Hold on to that as tightly as you can. Then go and read the books I recommended, like How Fiction Works by James Wood, and drink from its knowledge eagerly. You may also want to read this essay, How (and How Not) to Do it: An Open Letter to the Next Generation of American Filmmakers, by Ray Carney, which will teach you a number of lessons about making honest art. From now on when someone points you the way forward, never be intimidated by how much further you must walk — be eager for the challenge. You'll be in the right mindset when you feel like a caged beast raring to get out and cause some damage. Stretch your legs, feel your hunger then go.
About seeking greatness, by Kangarube
The writers of the classics, too, didn't exactly think of greatness. They just thought of doing. They were just writing as honestly and as earnestly as they could. They were making works to express life as they saw it and nothing more; and expressing that as closely and lively and genuinely as possible is more than enough, as shown by what they actually achieved.
Shakespeare wrote to feel, to laugh, to live. Same with Dante, with Cervantes, with Homer, with Dickinson and Sappho and Enhedduana.
The importance of these works shines through their apparent age because they deal with things that are deeply human and concern with how they relate to each other (Shakespeare), have a primal drive to shout what means most to them (Homer), or a heart and spirit that strives to reach up to the most ineffable (Sappho, and the best of the Bible as well).
If there is any respect to be had for VNs, some research into such literature to bring back into the genre is worthwhile. In Shakespeare's day, theatre was a medium for everyone, something all classes had in common for entertainment, and could almost just be thrown out there with irreverent ease. In Sappho's age, her poems were sung and recited at weddings and parties for fun.
There is the possibility of beauty simply in the striving forward, apparently against whatever odds, if not completely ignoring the odds like the Fool on the tarot card. Homer wasn't great for trying to be The Greatest, he was great for doing.