Those who’ve seen my movie, The Nines, can infer that I had a bit of a World of Warcraft problem back in the day. “The day” being a period of about four months in which most of my waking hours were spent either playing the game or wanting to. The luxury and danger of being a screenwriter is an abundance of unstructured time. WoW can eat hours in a gulp.
Moderation just didn’t work. I had to give it up cold-turkey, canceling my account and throwing out the install disks. With my newfound time, I had a kid, wrote a couple of movies and directed one of my own.
I have few regrets about giving up Warcraft. But in retrospect, I did learn some valuable things from my time in Azeroth, lessons that have stuck with me. So I thought I’d share a few.
1. Kill injured monsters first
__When facing multiple bad guys, the temptation is to go after the one who’s hitting you hardest. This is often a mistake. That injured razorback, the one who is running away? He’ll be back in 15 seconds, likely with other baddies in tow. So take a few clicks to kill him now. Once he’s dead, you can focus completely on the guy who’s smacking you.__
The real world may not have druids and paladins, but it’s chock full of monsters. They’re called “term papers” and “errands” and “mysterious car problems.” At any given moment, there may be one monster that looms larger than all of the others, who clearly needs to be attacked. But before you do, look around for injured monsters — the half-finished tasks that probably need only a few more minutes to complete. If you don’t deal with them now, they’ll be a constant distraction, and may eventually come back stronger.
This “injured monster theory” is why I try to return every phone call the day I receive it, and respond to every email within 24 hours. If a warning light comes on in my car, I go to the mechanic that day. Whenever I find myself thinking, “I need to remember to…” then I know I’ve failed. I don’t need to remember. I need to do. I need to finish.
2. Grinding is part of the game…
__In WoW parlance, “grinding” is the process of killing a bunch of fairly easy monsters, one after the other, strictly to rack up loot and experience. There’s no adventure to it, no real challenge. It’s tedious and mindless, but it’s often the fastest way to level up, which is why everyone does it.__
Daily life is full of mindless tedium, but there’s an important distinction: grinding has a point. While the task may be dull and carpal tunnel-aggravating, there’s a clear goal. You’re doing X in order to get Y. You’re xeroxing scripts in the William Morris mailroom in order to get a job as an assistant. You’re proofreading your script for the seventh time in order to send it to your friend, who works for that producer. You have to be willing to do serious grunt work in order to move ahead.
3. …But grinding is not the game
__It’s easy to confuse what you’re doing with why you’re doing it. Just remember: you’re not paying $15 a month to kill the same set of spawning critters. Grinding is a means of achieving a specific goal, whereas the game itself is supposed to be entertaining. So once you level (or get enough deer skins to fabricate that armor), stop grinding and start exploring.__
I worked for a year as a reader at Tri-Star, writing coverage on 10 scripts or books a week. It was good money, $65 a shot, but it was wearying. Most of the scripts were terrible. Apart from offering lessons-to-avoid, there wasn’t any point in reading them other than the money. But I convinced myself I was “working in the industry,” so I kept reading them, one after the other, dutifully writing up my synopses and comments. Executives would congratulate me on my witty notes, and there was some suggestion that I could get a job in development. So I quit.
In place of reading, I got a mindless internship in physical production at Universal: filing, copying, researching clearances. I didn’t use my brain once. That left me with abundant energy when I got home from work, and with it I finished two scripts.
Both jobs were quintessential “day jobs.” In theory, writing coverage should have been the better job, because it was closer to screenwriting. And truthfully, I did learn some valuable things–for the first month or two. After that, it was a whole lotta more of the same. The second job was a better fit because there was no confusing it with my true ambitions.
4. Give away stuff to newbies
__You start the game with almost nothing: a weapon and the shirt on your back. Each new piece of gear you accumulate is tremendously exciting. Cloth armor seems luxurious. But as you level up, that early gear becomes increasingly irrelevant and basically worthless. It’s not worth the trip to the store to sell it. So don’t. Instead, run back to the newbie lands, find the first character of your class, and hand him all the stuff you don’t want. It will take two minutes of your time, but give the newbie a tremendous head start. (Not to mention building your karma.)__
This site, johnaugust.com, is really just me running back to the newbie lands and giving away what I can. There’s no financial incentive in it for me. I could certainly put my advice in a book and charge $15.95 for it. But I see it as the take-a-penny, leave-a-penny flow of information. On a daily basis, I find myself searching the web for answers on topics in which I’m a newbie (Flash programming, DC mythology, teaching toddlers to swim) and leaving thankful that someone out there took the time to write a tutorial on exactly what I needed. So in exchange, I write up what I know about screenwriting.
If everyone took the time to build a site about the areas of their expertise, the world would be significantly cooler.
5. Keep track of your quests
WoW is refreshingly open-ended–you could spend all your time skinning bears, if you felt like it. In order to provide a sense of structure, the game helpfully provides quests: multi-step missions, generally to collect, kill or deliver something. While the system does a solid job tracking these official endeavors (“13 out of 25 tusks”), most of the time what you’re really trying to do (“find a better shield”) is frustratingly amorphous. The trick is to identify these unofficial quests and break them down into distinct steps:
* browse the auctions to compare prices
* pick preferred shield
* sell off unneeded linen to raise needed cash
At any given point, you may have 10 of these pseudo-quests, and unless you take charge of them, you’re liable keep running around, cursing your stupid shield.
GTD enthusiasts would label these WoW quests “projects,” and each of the bullet points “next actions.” That’s geekery, but it’s an acknowledgment that most of life’s work consists of a bunch of little activities in the service of a larger goal. You don’t write a script; you write a scene. You don’t design a website; you tweak the CSS so the navigation looks better. No matter what the project is, you can’t finish until you get started, and you can’t get started until you figure out the steps.
6. Storage is costly
__Perhaps sensing that messy teenage boys are a key demographic, World of Warcraft won’t let you leave something on the ground. If you don’t pick up that fallen warhammer, it will vanish, never to return. So one quickly learns the importance of storage: belts, bags, backpacks and chests. Unfortunately, there’s never nearly enough space, and adding more becomes ridiculously expensive. (That’s by design, clearly. The developers want to minimize hoarding.) So always keep in mind the carrying costs. If you never use that second bow, get rid of it, and use those slots for something you need.__
Unlike World of Warcraft (or hard drives in the 90’s), digital storage is now cheap. Crazy cheap. I remember having to carefully comb through my hard drive, trying to figure out exactly what I could purge in order to install the newest version of Quark XPress. Today, I have 80 gigs available on my startup drive, and this was the first time I checked in over a year.
But while the cost of bit storage has plummeted, the cost of storing atoms is still huge. My neighbors just had a POD delivered, essentially a cargo container that gets trucked off. I’ve watched as they’ve filled it with furniture and boxes, all the time wondering, “Is all that stuff really worth keeping?” It’s like paying rent on things you already own.
Last year, we cleaned out our garage. Instead of a traditional yard sale, we did a virtual version. We took pictures of everything we were getting rid of, built a page in Backpack, and sent the link to all our friends. Whoever wanted something could email us and take it. They got a free desk, and we got a free garage.
7. Overthinking takes the fun out of it
__Remember, the game is supposed to be fun. Yes, you can spend hours pouring through the forums, finding exactly the right talent tree. Or you could wing it: explore some new lands and kill some big monsters. Obsessive planning won’t make the game more enjoyable. It will just make it more like work.__
I’m often asked about outlines and treatments, and whether they’re necessary before sitting down to write a script. They’re not. Like a map, they can help you figure out where you’re going, but when you follow them too closely, you’re apt to miss a lot of amazing scenery along the way.
On a bigger level, as you look back at any period of your life, you don’t remember what a solid plan you had. You remember what you did. You remember the adventures, the scrapes, the unanticipated detours that turned out to fascinating. So don’t plan your way out of an exciting life.
If you agree, feel free to digg it.