Category Archives: Writing Advice

Confession: I Write With My Pants On

“I’m a writer because I can go to work with no pants.”

Ha! No pants. Pantsless. Sans pantalon.

Cue laugh track. Classic.

We’ve all heard this one. The joke’s been around for ages but has gained popular cachet in the age of bloggers, tekkies and work-from-home culture. What used to strike us as figurative truth (that writers pick their own uniform) has taken a hairpin turn into literality: In all likelihood that co-worker you’re emailing or chatting with is, most probably, in their boxers right now.

The gag’s especially caught on with the new generation of tech-connected writers – the wordsmiths-cum-webmasters – who fuse the worlds of tech and fiction. Chuck Wendig’s the most notable when it comes to outright revelry about pants-burning, though I’ve heard it from others. Women writers tend to substitute the more modest “please don’t think about me in my underwear” term pajamas, but the joke functions the same way – being a writer means not having to dress for the job. Being your own boss. Asserting your independence.

But here’s the thing: I always wear pants while writing, and you might want to consider it too.

For hygiene’s sake at least. Especially if you have a cloth chair. I mean, c’mon, even nudist colonies ask you to put down a towel. Jesus, this place smells like a hippo enclosure.

But the main reason I wear pants – apart from minimizing my Scotch Guard budget – is that getting dressed reminds me I’m here, at my desk, to work.

Next week marks my first anniversary writing full-time. It’s been an astonishing experience, but like any new endeavor, the first year has been as much about learning as it was about marking accomplishments. And one of the biggest things I learned was that I very badly need a separation between my work life and my home life. You hear this all the time from writers who talk about writing space and designing your environment, but in my experience personal grooming plays a big part in that.

Maybe it’s because I started my working life at decidedly white-collar law firms and research companies. Maybe it’s because I come from a buttoned-up family. Whatever the case, I can’t just roll out of bed and hit the keyboard. If I do, my writing comes out unfocused and inattentive. Slouching in a rumpled T-shirt and pajama bottoms tells my brain, “weekend” even when it’s Tuesday and I’ve got a deadline.

But throw me in a shower, scrape me with a razor, and put me in a nice clean shirt and pants? I’m golden. That mental switch flips. I’m at work, it says, Time to write some words.

It’s a ritual, and we all do it. Some workers brew that first mug of coffee. Others listen to psych-up music on their commute. I’ve need to put on work clothes. Sure, sometimes they’re the most lax work clothes on the planet, but even if it’s a T-shirt and shorts they’re at least clean and new. It’s the act of putting them on that works magic, not the clothes themselves. The ritual’s the thing – I can’t just wake up and type words in the same way the Catholic Church can’t just pass out crackers and wine. The act loses its meaning when you don’t remember why you’re doing it.

This ain’t grape juice, it’s the Blood of Christ. This ain’t wacky-slacky-watch-latest-Moviebob-time, it’s work time.

When you embrace them, clothes can be a powerful tool in your writing life. I used to wear a big felt Stetson when I had a hard time focusing. I called it The Writing Hat. The rule was that if the hat was on, I had to be writing. No checking Facebook. No outlining. I was only allowed to put words on the screen. I’ve also used wardrobe changes as a re-focusing technique. Oh, you can’t seem to buckle down on that article this morning, eh? Out of the Tees and jorts, buddy, into the khakis and button-down. It’s grindstone time.

The truth is that clothes serve a psychological purpose. While they marginally control how others see us, they also regulate our self-image and mental state. Soldiers don uniforms to leave the civilian world and adopt military values. Brides wear dresses to help them feel more beautiful than they ever have before. Vestments remind priests that they represent a higher power. We all do it, in our own way, when we get dressed up for a night out. Sure, we want to look good, but it’s more important that we feel good.

Which is why I’m a pants-on writer. I may be an office of one, but yeah, I have a dress code. It glitches my brain into work mode, which is exactly what dress codes are supposed to do.

Will it work for you the same way? No idea. Maybe you’re more productive when you’re über-comfortable in your boxers. For me, comfort’s a progress-killer. An external spur keeps me on track.

Because being your own boss also means being your own employee – and seriously, you gotta watch that guy, because he will slack right the hell off if you give him the chance. Let him come to work sans pantalon and soon he’ll be taking two-hour lunch breaks and spend his afternoon looking at Tumblr photos of cats caught in venetian blinds.

And no one likes to be that boss, but sometimes you have to be. Sometimes you need to drop by and say: Seriously buddy, go home and put on some pants. Come back when you’re ready to work.

Next time, it’s a write-up.


WARNING: This Update Includes Oceans, Podcasts and Soviets

Got a few updates here, a few personal and one big recommendation.

First, old business:

I wrote a piece for Mission Blue about what world leaders accomplished at The Economist World Ocean Summit.  You might not’ve heard about that because, you know, celebrities are getting divorced and stuff, but last month several governments sent representatives to meet in a Davos-like conference on how to fix the enormous damage we’re doing to the ocean (aka the thing that keeps all of us alive).

I also published a Critical Intel on how Tom Clancy used tabletop wargames to research Red Storm Rising.  That’ll be interesting to you author-types or anyone who’s fascinated by the Cold War with Russia.

Heh, sorry, the last Cold War with Russia.

Now for new business:

If you’re someone who writes words in exchange for government currency – or want to be one – check out THE FREELANCE GAME, a new podcast about freelance game journalism.  Hosts Nathan Meunier and Andrew Hayward are both veterans of the ink-for-money trade and dispense advice in a tone I can only describe as “water cooler casual.” The show’s helpful without being dictatorial – it’s emphasized early that every freelancer follows their own path – and provides pleasant shop talk in a profession that can occasionally feel isolating.  Discussions tend toward the frank and humorous, without the bombastic personality jousts so common in gaming podcasts. I’ve listened to one episode so far but there are three out now (including one with IGN editor Mitch Dyer).  Check it out.


The Hidden Power of EPIC FAIL

I came across a couple pieces this week that synched up nicely, clarifying a point that’s been bouncing around my skull for awhile.

Item One: an episode of Extra Credits titled “Fail Faster,” about the power of doing and correcting rather than trying to build a perfect foundation.  EC’s actually a show about game design, but this episode’s broadly applicable to any creative endeavor.

Item Two: an editorial from New York Times Magazine called “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” detailing the author’s experience as a failed writer – and his ultimate realization that failure is a natural and powerful part of the creative process.

Though by no means a summary of the full article, here’s a great pull quote:

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Both of these hit on a point I’ve been revisiting lately: that while it’s important to outline and develop ideas, you can’t get bogged down in thinking about a story rather than writing it.  It’s a common trap writers fall into – even professional ones – and it’s often driven by the fear that we won’t do our story justice, that we’ll get it wrong and make mistakes.  That it won’t be as good as something else already out there.

Fun story: In the early drafts of Frozen, Elsa was a straight-up villain like Hans Christian Andersen’s original Snow Queen.

Yeah, not so great. The movie was fun, but didn’t have much heart. Then Robert Lopez and Krisen-Anderson Lopez wrote “Let it Go,” and the team thought, Hey, maybe Elsa’s a tragic figure.  So they had an interesting villain and a show-stopper, but something was still missing.  That is, until an early read-through of the script spat up so much chemistry between Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell that the team thought, Check it – what if these two are sisters and the story’s about family dynamics.

BOOM. Hit movie.

As Extra Credits says, every great game course-corrected for success.  To scatologize John Lasseter’s classy quote, every Pixar film was, at one point, a giant turd.

Popular wisdom states that you can’t polish a turd, but that phrase ignores something more important – poop makes excellent fertilizer.  In the same way, bad ideas aren’t worthless or hopeless if you take the time and patience to grow a good idea from their nutrients.

But to do that, you have to have some crap to work with.

So go forth and fail today.  Make crap – a giant mountain of it – then use that fertilizer to grow a tree, a field an entire orchard of tasty fruit.  All you need is time and patience.

And shoveling.  Crap requires a lot of shoveling.


Writer-Sense: Being Your Story’s Peter Parker

The Gut.  The Bullshit Detector.  The Internal Editor.  Everyone’s got a name for it.

I’m a geek who grew up on Spider-Man cartoons, so I like to call it my writer-sense.  As in, My writer-sense is going crazy!  

Your writer-sense is the dashboard indicator that tells you something’s wrong.  A plot point doesn’t work. A character needs to be cut.  Your book is too long, or your article doesn’t have enough supporting evidence.  The writer-sense is one of your most important skills, and you ignore it at your own peril.

But we do ignore it – a lot.  Out of laziness.  Out of over-fondness for our own writing.  Out of fear that changing this or that element will gut our story. But the most common reason I ignore my writer-sense is that I don’t totally trust it.  Writers – even “successful” ones, whatever that means – tend to walk around with a big lump of self-doubt caught in their throat.  Their writer-sense is like a malfunctioning gland, producing way too much self-suspicion than is necessary.  It stops serving as an Internal Affairs auditor keeping everyone honest, and becomes a micro-managing boss.

As a solution, writers generally tune their writer-sense out for the first draft.  Like a movie crew on a short schedule, they just keep shooting and if anything’s wrong – well, screw it, just fix it in post-production.  Character motivation not ringing true?  Fix it in post.  Gun in a desk drawer never mentioned before?  Fix it in post.  Burt Salamander’s ploy for infiltrating the Central Iguana Agency is stupid and contrived?  WHATEVER, JUST SHOOT THAT SCENE IT AND FIX IT IN POST.

None of this is really a problem, except when you get too used to tuning out that writer-sense, and this attitude carries into the second, third – or God help you – even the final draft.  Join any writer’s group and you’ll hear all the excuses for it: “My internal bullshit detector’s broken,” is a common one, as is  “I hate everything I write,” but the old down-home classic is always, “I never know when my writing’s good.”

Let me put this to rest: yes, you do know when your writing’s good.  Your writer-sense told you during editing, but you didn’t want to listen.  You left all that nasty stuff in there just in case it passed the sniff-test, either because you were too attached or couldn’t be bothered to do the work.  Don’t do that to your readers.  Don’t reveal all that gross, behind-the-curtain messiness.

You just had a beautiful story-baby, don’t show everyone the afterbirth and claim it’s part of your child.

I recently critiqued a friend’s novel.  It was quite good overall, but had some small issues with character dynamics and world-building.  Nothing drastic or major, just tweaks and spot rewrites.  When I emailed him my critique sheet, he replied that he was already aware of many issues I pointed out, but was glad I’d confirmed that they were a problem.  I can’t fault him for that, since it’s the same with me.  I know that when he finishes critiquing my novel, I’m already going to know half the things he’s going to say.

The middle sags.  Your secondary character’s motivation isn’t clear.  There are too many scenes where characters wax expositive.  The romantic sub-plot deserves a trip to the guillotine.  I know all these things, but I haven’t acted on them.  My writer-sense was going crazy, but I wanted a second opinion. In the meantime I’ve let these elements sit like prisoners on death row, hoping for a reprieve that’ll never come.  Better to act and be done with it – but I didn’t.

Because the truth is, rewriting can be a hard and painful process.  A second draft feels like re-setting bones.  To heal the story, you have to break it first, then put it back together with pins and plates.  If you don’t, the plot heals crooked and warped, and each successive draft covers the injury with scar tissue, making it more difficult to fix.

With this book, I didn’t trust my writer-sense.  I let fear take the wheel and tell me my writer-sense might be wrong, that I might cut something oh-so-valuable that I’d never recapture again.  That’s crap, by the way – if you’re smart about it and save your drafts, you can salvage anything that you find yourself missing too much.  But here’s the kicker: once it’s gone, you probably won’t miss it anyway.

Listen to your writer-sense.  Let it tell you something’s wrong.

Don’t make excuses.  Don’t hand your readers half-finished work. Fix your story today so it doesn’t limp through life.

Break your story’s legs so it stands tall and straight.

 

 

 

 

 


8 Things That Are Not Writing

1.     TALKING ABOUT WRITING IS NOT WRITING

2.     READING BLOGS ABOUT WRITING IS NOT WRITING

3.     DISCUSSING WRITING ON TWITTER IS NOT WRITING

4.     THINKING ABOUT YOUR ARTICLE/NOVEL/EPIC FANTASY MASTERPIECE IS NOT WRITING

5.     MAKING PLANS ABOUT HOW MUCH WRITING YOU’RE GOING TO DO THIS WEEK IS NOT WRITING

6.     DEFENDING THE LEGITIMACY OF YOUR GENRE OR MEDIUM IS NOT WRITING

7.     RESEARCH, WHILE NOBLE AND NECESSARY, IS NOT WRITING

8.     MAKING A LIST OF “THINGS THAT ARE NOT WRITING” IS NOT WRITING

WRITING IS WHEN YOU PUT NEW WORDS DOWN ON THE PAGE, NOT WHEN YOU THINK, TALK, OR BLOG ABOUT IT.

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE TEMPTED TO DO ANY OF THE ABOVE, ASK YOURSELF HOW MANY WORDS YOU’VE WRITTEN TODAY.

YOU COULD PROBABLY WRITE MORE.