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Inside Writer's Games: The First Games



Happy Anniversary!


The inaugural iteration of Games was a bit of a debacle: the product of wild exuberance, inexperience, and intense lack of planning. It’s a wonder we made it out alive, considering all the obstacles we faced. Based on that first week alone, it’s even more shocking we repeated this personal punishment the following year. Cindy and I both hoped it would get better and that we would be able to help writers grow. With time for actual planning before the second portion, we were so grateful to find a world of possibility there. Spoiler alert though, this post may show you a side of Writer’s Games you don’t want to see. While the Writer’s Games has grown and changed (a LOT) since 2014, it’s never been easy and at times we doubted whether we had the emotional stamina to keep going.

 

Cindy and I were members of a writing group on Facebook. Those of you who have been here since the beginning know which one we mean and know some of the shenanigans that regularly happen in that corner of Facebook. For those of you who don’t, well, consider yourself lucky. When we were there, it truly was the wild west of the internet writing community. In February of 2014, one of the other members posted a loose idea to hold a competition with seven different challenges in seven days. In mid-May, the list of upcoming challenges went public. They called the competition “NaNoGames” and explained a series of “writing Olympics” with a new team challenge every day for bragging rights. This announcement was posted with the start of NaNoGames scheduled just a week away on the 24th, and it asked for volunteer judges.


Cindy and I volunteered, though we hadn’t met yet.


On May 18, I was welcomed to the team in a private message! Between May 18 and 22, several posts circulated throughout the main group with invites to join different teams, conflicting competition information, general confusion, and polls about potential prizes but I hadn’t heard anything further about judging. The competition was supposed to start on the 24th and I was panicked, fearful I’d miss my chance to help writers. I worried maybe it was canceled since I hadn’t heard back and no one knew anything. I didn’t know what to do.


With all of the confusion and general disorganization, the organizer forgot I was on the judging team.


While alarm bells were sounding in my head at the time, I still wanted so badly to be helpful. I persisted. May 22, at night, with less than 48 hours to go, I was added to a group chat with eight other volunteer judges. This is when I met Cindy! Then came more big alarm bells and an absolute shock to everyone: the public confusion was the extent of the planning for the Games. At this point, it made sense why I’d been forgotten, why there was no group chat, why no one seemed to have any concrete information. No one had a clue what was going on. With the benefit of hindsight and years of experience, it’s easy to look back and say that optimism and a dream do not make a successful competition but in 2014, they were all we had.

 

In developing the NaNoGames, a few key points had been missed: how long it takes to confer with a group and create a story, how to announce a challenge in a large group without it getting buried, where and how to accept submissions, what to look for in judging, how long judging takes, how to record or tabulate scores to see who wins, that judges need to communicate, or a set of rules in general. With just 48 hours till launch and no idea what to expect, three of us put aside our utter disbelief at the lack of foresight, banded together, and knocked that shit out. Other judges weighed in when they could and the really big things, like timing and how to score, always included a majority group discussion and vote.


Little did we know how important the number 48 would be for us during the first Games. Bound by the existing (though conflicting) public information that the competition would last between seven and 14 days including seven Events and all judgement, we pushed for as much time as possible on both sides. Knowing we had four confirmed teams, we landed on 48 hours to write and 46 hours to judge. This was the furthest we could push the existing limitations and it gave us a two-hour window between Events for celebration and general “relief”. This choice doubled the length of time from two weeks to four; it directly conflicted with the opening ceremonies announcement posted that day and led to even more confusion. Taken by itself, the general confusion was easy to answer. The internet, however, loves a good troll and they don’t need to hide under bridges to cause chaos: all it takes is a keyboard these days.


One person in particular made it their personal mission to derail the entire competition. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this person lash out and it wouldn’t be the last. It started as heckling but when that was ignored, they jumped on every post we had and spammed it to death, burying legitimate questions and verbally attacking anyone who dared comment. We received several complaints about the disrespect, issued several warnings, and made multiple public and private requests of this person to be respectful. They openly laughed in response. When they went after a judge—a moderator of the main group and who worked with Cindy and me developing the competition—the remaining active judges had enough. NaNoGames started on time on May 25 but we spent the whole first week repeatedly warning an adult behaving like a moody preteen. By the end of the first week, we’d survived two full Events and issued the first of two bans in our nine-year history.


Later, I learned several others were also confirmed as judges but due to the extreme lack of organization, they were never added to the judging chat. All but one handled the unfortunate situation with dignity. As for the first Games, things were much calmer and a lot more fun after that first week.


By June 2, as we announced the start of Event 3, we started planning the Individual portion. We were down to six judges because the pace, half as fast as the original announcement, was still too intense. The original idea was to use the same seven Events for both the Teams and Individual portions but that didn’t make sense to most of us, especially considering the Sprint and Team Story Events. We opted for six new challenges and a repeat of the First Chapter Event instead. Cindy and I pushed hard for a more consistent, reliable schedule that writers could depend on in the Individual portion. We wanted less chaos and knew more time to judge would allow for more participants. We lost a fourth judge before the final Event, again because of timing. On its face, this competition seems straightforward to judge but the time constraints and the sheer volume of words to read, understand, and score means we’ve lost a lot of great judges over the years. It’s really, deceptively hard.


We planned for just over a week of rest before the Individual portion started in July and we welcomed two additional judges. Registration—something else we decided should be essential—opened around mid-June, along with Teams Event 6, and exceeded expectations. Emotionally checked-out by week three, the originator of NaNoGames vanished around a week into the Individual portion, seven weeks after we met, and disappeared into the void. Our 2014 Individual portion was so calm and drama-free and FUN, it showed us what was possible with a competition like this. Had the rest of our Events that year been like the first week, we wouldn't have continued.


I am so very grateful we continued. Despite the rocky start and the curveballs that still come our way, the Writer’s Games has impacted more writers than I ever imagined. Timing is everything; without seeing the original post or pursuing the opportunity, I probably wouldn’t have met Cindy, who feels so much like a sister to me, I forget we’re not related. We wouldn’t have gone on this wild journey to launch and grow The Writer’s Workout together.

 

In 2015, we added an extra day of writing time to the schedule, turning the former 48 into the 72-hour time limit we use today. This was also the first year we published an anthology of the winning entries—72 Hours of Insanity—and we hit a few bumps on that road too. I couldn’t even calculate the cover size correctly until vol. 7. Now we’ve published 346 pieces in 11 volumes, just for this competition.


We added an internship in 2016, allowing us to support even more participants per portion in our free competition. It's not without its struggles either but the amazing people we've met through this program far outweigh the issues. We’ve hosted more than 250 interns to date.


In later years, the Teams portions continued to bring tension with bickering and infighting, showing us how fiercely competitive writers can be in a group. Hostility toward other writers is never what we want and we actively discourage it. Writing is hard enough. Sadly, we witnessed and received a multitude of complaints about social bitterness, mockery, and aggression between teams. In an effort to facilitate a calmer environment where we can focus on helping as many writers as possible, we chose to put the Teams portion on hold indefinitely in 2018. I still believe the idea can work in theory; we’re trying to find ways to make a team environment safe and accessible so everyone gains something positive from the experience and that writers begin as equals.


Meanwhile, the Individual portions continue to grow every year. It’s breathtaking watching writers from around the world come together to enjoy the creative process. The 125 Events we’ve run during The Writer’s Games have inspired tens of millions of words in thousands of stories over 17 portions so far. We volunteer to be here because your work—your words—mean the world to us. We can’t wait to see what you create.

 

We love and treasure your support.


If you want to get involved with our organization as a volunteer, we're always accepting applications at cindy.mcwilliams@writersworkout.net. If financial assistance is more your speed, please check out our Donations page where we detail everything we offer.


While we're not hosting interns in 2023, we fully anticipate resuming normal Games operations soon. Our program accepts active readers over 18 located anywhere, college affiliation not required. Look for more information on our internship program later this year.


In lieu of running another portion this year, we're releasing more "Inside the Writer's Games" posts throughout 2023 as we celebrate a decade of this competition and our community.


This post would not be possible without Cindy's level-headed review and suggestions.

I was an absolute mess writing this.

 

About the author: Theresa Green is the co-founder of The Writer's Workout, a crime fiction writer, and a freelance developmental editor.

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