Continuing the NaNo-season this week, is retro video game reviewer, and my brother, Rik, who has kindly put together these wise words on the world of video game journalism. For a long wander in some nostalgia (and maybe, some actual video game reviews), head over to A Force For Good. Jo
Numbers Speak Louder Than Words
It’s NaNoWriMo 2010, apparently, which means that instead of Jo, you’ve got me. “Do anything you want,” she said, “but it has to be about writing.”
So, here goes. What do I know about writing? Well, not enough to participate in NaNoWriMo myself, clearly. I briefly considered it this year, before dismissing the idea as ludicrous on the grounds that I’ve only read about ten books in my whole life, and I decided to heed the words of that most prolific of novelists, Stephen King, who advised in his book, On Writing:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
In other words, if you’re going to write fiction, you need to have read quite a bit first. At least I think that’s what he meant – I never did finish that book, I just remembered that bit and looked up the quote on the internet.
Like many others, I did once attempt to write a novel, some sci-fi space opera nonsense influenced (inevitably) by Star Wars which, had it gone well, could have turned out like Battlestar Galactica (the new one) but, obviously, didn’t. Instead, it was abandoned about two pages in, roughly around the time I came to write some dialogue, which was so horrifyingly bad that to recall it even now makes me want to throw up all over myself as punishment for having brought it into the world.
Perhaps I should have read more books. Instead, I’ve spent a great deal of time reading something else – namely, computer games magazines, and lots of them. Ever since my Dad started bringing me home a copy of Amstrad Action from John Menzies, I’ve probably spent more time reading about games than playing them. I know about games I’ve never played, I can remember review scores from 15 years ago, and I’ve extrapolated personalities for games journalists I’ll never meet based only on what they wrote about some game or other in exchange for money.
The last point was particularly relevant during the mid-late 1990s, during which time I enthusiastically purchased, read and re-read issues of the late, great PC Zone magazine. The writers were talented and funny – and I wanted to be one of them. To a teenage boy, it seemed like it would be such a lark, the life of a Zone journalist: hanging around in an office, being paid to play and write about games all day, before going to the pub with Charlie Brooker, Mr Cursor and all the rest.
It was a dream I pursued relentlessly – bombarding the Zone offices with a single tentative enquiry in 2001, before submitting a reader review (unpublished and unacknowledged) the following year. I think in the end they just got sick of hearing from me, and before I knew it, eight more years had passed and the magazine had folded. At least I’ll always know I couldn’t have tried any harder.
Actually, I’m not sure I could have hacked it, especially not under the unforgiving spotlight of the modern internet age, where readers can give you a bloody good slagging only minutes after publication. It’s not like the old days, where journalists could sit in their ivory tower and throw readers’ correspondence in the bin. Indeed, in the twilight years of his Zone career, the venerable Brooker decided to provoke readers via his column Sick Notes, which mainly involved him taking the piss out of the illiterate element of the readership, until he received such a stinging and well-argued letter that he abandoned the whole idea, publishing the letter alongside several other uncomplimentary messages in the last ever column, while protesting that it had all been a big misunderstanding and he was a nice chap really.
And gamers can be a funny sort. When it comes to reviews of the latest titles, they tend to be obsessed with the number at the end rather than the words that precede them, which must make the person who wrote those words wonder why they didn’t just type the number in a really big font and then go for an eight-hour lunch break. And if the number isn’t what a particular reader was expecting, then you can expect him or her to then go picking through the article to try and highlight inconsistencies, quote phrases out of context, and generally spout bile: “On Page 2 you go on about how it’s an enjoyable game, but then you only give it a SEVEN? You’re a fucking MORON!”
Etc. You’d think reviewing games was a science. And woe betide anyone who deviates from the accepted review template in an attempt to, you know, entertain the reader. Over at Eurogamer, there’s a writer called Ellie Gibson who produces some pretty funny stuff, but any joy you might take from reading it soon dissipates when you read some of the comments underneath, attacking her integrity on the basis that she hasn’t taken it seriously enough. There’s also, sad to say, an added intensity to this criticism that no male reviewer ever seems to attract. [Sigh]
As an amateur retro-reviewer, though, you don’t really have to worry about such things. There’s a counter on our site that tells us people are visiting and reading, but they don’t tend to get in touch. (Illustrative example of the nature of our interactions with the readership: the first site-related e-mail I ever got was a hastily-typed enquiry from a Portuguese chap about an old football game we’d reviewed. I spent some time composing a lengthy and enthusiastic response, only to find seconds later that my message had bounced back. Bastard!)
We’re nearly at the prescribed word limit [actually, you're over it - Jo] and it looks like I haven’t really offered much in the way of perspective or advice, as a ‘writer’. So, as an unstoppable games-reviewing machine with over twelve published articles under his belt, I submit to you the following advice, based on my own experience:
- A couple of beers always helps to get some words down, unless you’re tired, in which case you need an energy drink to stay awake. I prefer Sainsbury’s Blue Bolt – don’t bother with Red Bull, because, let’s face it, it’s expensive, and you’re not buying it for the taste anyway.
- Beer followed by Blue Bolt can make for a productive evening. But you won’t sleep and you’ll damage your insides.
- In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, it’s best to get something down and then fiddle about with it later. I used to edit as I went along, but that usually meant slow progress, and a lot of messing about and time-wasting on the internet.
- Speaking of which, writing on a computer that isn’t connected to the internet can be a Godsend.
- Finally – and this is important – always end well. In other words, not like this.
P.S: You’re welcome.