Tag Archives: Work Ethic

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.

Critical Intel on Sabbatical

Just a short announcement today.

After talking it over with my colleagues and family, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from Critical Intel for the remainder of the year.  Putting the column on hiatus was my call and I can’t say enough good things about my editors at The Escapist and the support they’ve given me both professionally and personally.  According to the current plan, the column will return in January.

I love Critical Intel, and feel it’s a needed and appreciated voice in game journalism.  That love kept the column going for the last six months even as I got married and moved to Hong Kong.  During that period, my wife and I bounced across the country for two months.  I wrote columns in the passenger seat of a moving car, filed articles over airport wifi, and kept hitting deadlines as we re-built our life here.  But at the end of September my grandmother passed away, followed by my father three days later.

While I’ve continued writing CI since then, I realized last week that – for the time being at least – I can’t give the column the attention it needs.  Writing CI requires extensive research, solid analytical thinking, and attention to detail, and unfortunately grief has a way of screwing with all those things.  Turning out columns on deadline wasn’t the problem, it was the frustrating amount of energy I had to expend to create publishable work.  Faced with an inevitable drop in quality, I decided to close CI up for the winter.

But don’t think that Critical Intel is going away – this is a cat nap, not a dirt nap.   This sabbatical gives me a good opportunity to work in a deadline-free environment, allowing me to develop a back-catalogue of columns so I’m not so pressed for time next year and can spend more energy developing ideas that need extra care.  In other words, even though you’re not reading CI, I’m still writing it.  The sabbatical also gives me a little breathing space to get some fiction off the ground and sell my historical crime novel Lost Guns.  (Strangely, while grief paralyzed my left-brain, my right-brain seems to be manning the pumps double time.)  The lights are all on here in the workshop, and I’m fiddling with some stuff I can’t wait to show you.

So really, Critical Intel isn’t on hiatus at all, it’s just re-arming and re-fitting.  Thank you for your continued support, and I look forward to seeing all of you in January.


Hey Pro Writers: Stop Bagging on NaNoWriMo

I’ve seen a lot of hate over National Novel Writing Month lately, some of it coming from my pro writer friends.

This confuses me.

Not because I don’t understand their reasoning – yeah, NaNoWriMo can sometimes be a little annoying to the paycheck and/or royalties writer.  Suddenly everyone’s talking about the novel they probably won’t finish, swapping advice they won’t follow themselves, and we all just know that after November they’ll stop being writers until the next NaNo.

Okay, I get it.  We do this all year for pay and it’s a little tiresome to see our friends trumpet how they wrote for a whole month.  And it’s true that the whole “word count over quality” thing seems wrong – even insulting – to those of us who have to keep our writing top-notch to put food on the table.  To some writers, NaNo must feel like a little league  team touring the Yankees dugout, touching all the bats and asking annoying questions during the game.

But my point is: So What?

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.  My wife is a teacher.  Most of our friends are teachers too.  As a result, I hear a lot of teacher talk.  Like, a whole metric crapload of teacher talk.  Enough that my wife and I talk about needing to make friends that aren’t teachers, since the unrelenting school chatter drives me nuts.  And you know what all those teachers keep saying?  That kids have sucky written communication skills.

That’s right – most kids lag behind on writing, especially boys.  Since moving to Hong Kong, I’ve had no less than four teachers ask me to talk to their class.   Some want me to pass around my notebooks, showing students that the daily journaling and note-taking has a real world application.  Others want me to talk about video game journalism so the kids know that they can write about what excites them.  Mostly teachers just want me to get them to put pen to paper in some – really any – context.  As any writer knows, the only way to get better at writing is to do it more.

And that’s what raises my eyebrows when the pros sneer at NaNoWriMo.  Will most of these novels get published?  Hell no, most will end up as unfinished first drafts.  (And let’s be honest, pro writers do that too – I could build a fort out of my abandoned manuscripts.)  But that’s beside the point.  NaNoWriMo might not vault participants to stardom, but it does encourage people to write – and therefore learn – in a fun environment.  It’s voluntary education, a time when over 200,000 people choose to become a wordsmith rather than watching videos of cats falling off furniture.  And that’s pretty great.

Look, we’re entering a digital age where written text – whether in emails, blogs or tweets – is an important medium for communication.  Despite that, according to a recent study* only one in four American eighth and 12th graders displayed well-developed writing skills.

With that kind of achievement gap, why stomp all over a free event that encourages people to practice their craft?  What are we worried about, that someone might – I don’t know – take pride in their work and associate it with joy instead of schoolroom drudgery?  NaNo participants aren’t enemies to the English language.  Hell, the fact that they at least try to jot down 50,000 words a month proves that they care enough to give it a whirl.

And that’s just it – these people aren’t apathetic non-wordy types, NaNo participants generally write because they like to read.  After all, it only stands to reason that the people self-selecting themselves for this process have an interest in fiction and want to become more involved with it.  And hey, writers like to read, so maybe after playing in the word processor for a month, NaNo participants will get the urge to read more books.  Writing tends boost your appetite for reading, after all.

And really, my pro writer comrades – are more readers ever a bad thing?

So let’s take NaNo for what it is: A worldwide writing exercise where people have fun while improving their language skills.  Sure your Twitter account may get a little cluttered with NaNo Non-News, but hey, at least people are having fun, engaging with the craft and learning something – and I think that’s worth it.


*Note that the essays were first drafts – the kids didn’t have time to edit.  Also the Daily Mail let a typo slip by in the third paragraph, which is pretty hilarious in context.

10 Tricks to Balance Game Journalism With Your Day Job

Ever since I started writing a weekly column, I’ve gotten one question over and over from aspiring game journos:  How do I balance a full-time job and a weekly column?

Well now that I’ve left the full-time job I can reveal my secret.

I didn’t balance them.  Not nearly.  For the last six months I’ve been harried, under-slept and feeling three steps behind on everything.

There’s no such thing as Work/Life Balance.  Hell, I had a hard enough time with Work/Work Balance.

But despite all that, I survived.  Critical Intel has done well, gained an audience, and kept a high level of quality.  I got good reviews at my day job and was considered a don’t-know-what-we’ll-do-without-you asset when I left.  Despite burning every drop of midnight oil I had, I was at least functioning at a pretty high level.

So can I tell you how maintain Work/Live Balance?  Hahahahahaha no.  Yeah, nope.

What I can do, though, is tell you what makes putting out that much work  possible and a whole lot less painful.

1. Plan Your Content

Do you know what you’re writing about this week?  Sure!  No problem, right?  So ok – what about next week?  What about the week after that?  If you’re putting out content weekly, you need to develop a plan.  I never approach a deadline not knowing what to write about, because that’s suicide.  While it’s true that I’ve sometimes found myself a few days out not knowing which article’s going to go out that week, it’s always a question of which of these three articles am I going to write? rather than what am I going to write?  Ideally, I schedule content three weeks out.  I know what I’m writing this week, I have one or two possibilities I’m developing for next week, and a treasure trove of ideas I can use for week three.

2. Plan Your Week

For any article that requires an interview, I’m sending out emails two weeks out.  For anything that needs extensive research, I start reading sources and marking paragraphs at least a week before the deadline.  First draft starts several days beforehand, finishes the day before the deadline, and then a series of 3-4 edited drafts before it’s due.  And honestly, this is way too close to the wire for my liking, but I’m trying to be realistic about what actually happens when you’re carrying a full-time job and a weekly deadline.  Once you’ve hit that deadline give yourself a night off to recoup sleep and do it all again.

3. Get at Least A Week Ahead

If you don’t do anything else, do this.  I started Critical Intel with the first and second weeks of content already filed, kept an article in reserve as long as I could, and I was waaaaay saner.  Then Christmas happened and I basically lost a week – just couldn’t get anything written – and I was back to scrambling like a quarterback with no linemen.  Don’t do this.  When you’re starting a new weekly endeavor, be kind to yourself and have some extra articles in  your back pocket.  Less pressure, more chance to redraft and your writing will be better for it.  Think like a gunfighter – always have a backup in your waistband.

4. It’s Okay to Softball (Sometimes)

When I tell you the shit’s gonna hit the fan, buddy, I’m not kidding.  One week the shit will hit the fan, and it will get thrown everywhere and make everything shitty.  Also, presumably, your fan will stop working because it’s gears are caked with shit.  Maybe you’re fighting with your spouse and writing isn’t the uppermost thing on your mind.  Maybe your computer crashed.  Maybe it’s Christmas Eve and you’re spending time with family or, alternately, wandering drunk around Downtown Disney, reevaluating your life choices.  At times like this you can either use one of your backups, or you can write a softball article.  Now don’t misunderstand what I mean by “softball” – its not a bad article, or a rushed article.  It’s just an article that’s easy.  Something that’s been in the back of your mind, or draws on your own knowledge, something you don’t have to read forty pages of source material to write.  Strangely, in my experience these columns actually tend to become popular.  Desperate Housewives of Skyrim was one of these for me.  So was the recent The Perfect Non-Gamer Girl, which I wrote because my spare time was nothing but wedding errands.  Industry Secret Time: you know why there are so many top-ten lists at the end of the year?  Because game journos are tired and it’s Christmas and PR’s not returning emails.  Top ten lists are easy, that’s why content mills like Buzzfeed churn them out.  Have a few ideas in your notebook you can flee to in times of need.

5. Learn to Cook in a Crockpot

Or else learn to live off soup, sandwiches, and fast food.  If you’re writing as well as working, the writing is going to cut into your time, including mealtimes.  That often means shortening meals or, alternately, learning to cook dinners that require little attention.  I consider stews, roasts, curries, pulled pork, homemade soups, and the like writer food.  Chop some ingredients, dump them in a pot, and let it boil in the background while you write.  Also provides a good, mindless action if you need to think between paragraphs.

6. Insomnia is Not Your Friend, But it Can Be a Powerful Ally

Let’s me be straight about this one: you’re gonna lose some sleep.  You just will.  It’ll happen.  Best to come to terms with it.  I’m lucky to be one of those people who can drop off to sleep pretty quickly, so if I’m going to bed at 3:00 AM and waking up at 7:00 AM I’ve slept a half a night, but not everyone’s like this.  Frankly I could write a whole post on writing and insomnia and strategies to get enough sleep, but let’s just leave it like this: you’re going to end up pulling late nights, sometimes multiple times a week.  This will literally let you add more hours of work to your day, but if you push it too far you’ll have a breakdown or a car accident.  Be very, very careful about how much sleep you get.  Consider getting up early instead of staying up late, or starting your articles earlier in the week.

7. Limit Your TV and Videogame Time

Yeah, I know this one sounds counterintuitive, especially coming from a videogame journalist.  Here’s the thing though: you’ve got a limited amount of time in your day and can’t afford to burn daylight.  So instead of watching six TV shows a week, pick three.  Instead of playing the game you’re writing about and also ten hours of another game, maybe cut that extraneous game down to a couple hours.  Personally, I like to watch a TV episode while I’m eating dinner, since I can justify the time by multitasking.  Also, just bite the bullet and get TiVo or some form of digital cable, or else just work on Netflix and Hulu.  Watch TV when you have time, not when the TV tells you to.

8. Schedule Writing Time

My fiancée knows not to schedule anything on certain nights of the week.  Those nights are writing nights.  Figure out your own time and lock your environment down.  Shut off Twitter and Facebook.  Get out of the house if you have to – retreat to a library or cafe or a bar.  Whatever you do, set a time when you need to put your ass in a chair and just write.   This time could be every week, every day, or every couple of days.  It can be as long or short as you want.  Get up early.  Stay up late.  Knock out a page during your lunch hour each day,  on the C Train, or stay at your desk an extra hour after punching out – if someone calls you, tell them you’re still at work and will call back.  The last one really works well.

9. Make a Little Progress Every Day

Even if you’re not actually writing your article, just keep moving the ball forward.  Bookmark some research, do some reading, play a game.  Waiting for your girlfriend at a restaurant?  Take out your notebook or cell phone and jot down ideas for articles or interview questions.  Outline something you haven’t started on – it’ll take five minutes and save you an hour.  Correspond with PR or interviewees.  Above all write everything down.  To put out content every week you need to become a wellspring of ideas.

10. Be Kind To Yourself

You’re going to do better some weeks than others.  That’s just the nature of writing on a weekly basis and, frankly, writing period.  One week you’re going to put something out you’re crazy enthusiastic about and the next it might just be alright.  Serviceable but not soaring. Good stuff, insightful stuff, but not a world-beater.  Inevitably, you’ll put a lot of work into something you think is really fantastic that practically no one reads, the bastards.  You might write something people hate.  That’s just going to happen and you can’t get too twisted up about it.  Try harder next week.  The fact you met a deadline and have shown the world you can publish on a regular basis – and get paid – is a form of success in itself.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Falling short of excellence isn’t the same thing as being comfortably mediocre.  It probably isn’t even as bad as you think (probably).  Just keep reaching higher each week and you’ll improve.

One Month of Critical Intel

As you probably know, I’ve been hard at work recently on Critical Intel, my new weekly column at The Escapist.  It’s been a great month packed end-to-end with work that makes me really proud.  Frankly, having a dedicated space each week has made me understand what it’s like when dogs go to a leash-free park.  First they stand there staring at their owners, blinking, as if to say: “What?  I can go anywhere I want now?”  Then they’re off like a shot, tearing over the scenery as quickly as possible, making giant leaps and running circles.

I’ve always had enough ideas about games to write an article every week, the two things I didn’t have were the time and the dedicated venue.  Of the two, the venue was the most difficult part (I can make time) and I can’t thank the good people at Escapist enough for giving me my own little corner of the web.

So what, exactly, is Critical Intel?  Broadly, it’s a column that examines the overlap between videogames and the real world.  That covers a lot of territory – one week I might be talking about an historical event or legend featured in a game, another week I might be discussing military or medical uses of game technology, while I finish up the month with an in-depth look at the trouble games get into overseas.  It will be always intelligent, always well-researched, and often international.  My goal is to take you a level deeper.

Just to give you a sampler, of the three articles that have come out so far, the first was about game censorship in China, the second discussed how games misrepresent the Mexican Cartel War, and the third addressed whether Assassin’s Creed III‘s DLC pack passes muster historically.  The fourth, out this Thursday, is about something entirely different.

Writing an article every week – while holding a full-time job – has been a real challenge, but the warm response all of you have given Critical Intel makes all the long nights and sacrificed weekends worthwhile.  Thanks to everyone for sharing this new journey with me, and I’m looking forward to showing you interesting new stuff every week – bringing need-to-know information to the people who need to know everything.

Half-Finished Games and the Puritan Choir

I have a terrible habit: I tend not to finish games.

Between my 9 to 5, my freelancing, a role at another company, writing fiction, spending time with my girlfriend, and occasional dinner parties or movie screenings with friends, I don’t really have much time to game.

This dramatically affects both the kind of type of games I buy and the possibility that I’ll finish the longer games I do purchase.  Call of Duty games, for instance, reliably clock in at the eight to ten hour mark, meaning that I can beat one in a week or two without trouble.  An Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto, however, can lie half-finished on my shelf for a year or more.  While others bristle at a game being too short, I sigh with relief that it’s not going to cut into my writing time.  I avoid RPGs and MMOs of all sorts because they’re such a time drain, but I made an exception for the magnificent Skyrim, which was my Soma-like escape from MFA applications .

The last six months have been especially bad, with grad application season, PAX East prep, and novel edits chewing my personal time to bits.  I have a six inch-wide rack of games on my shelf that I haven’t finished.  For a long time, I just couldn’t—I had so much to do that even when I was being productive, taking time off led to a feeling of guilt I couldn’t shake.  You have things to do! said the voices.  Playing games isn’t helping you get into an MFA program.  And what about that novel, eh?  Didn’t you want to have it sent to that publisher by the end of the month?  I call the voices “The Puritan Choir,” since they’re a remnant of the WASP-y work ethic that’s the gift of growing up as a liberal Protestant.  Catholicism and Judaism might have guilt complexes on lockdown, but Martin Luther and John Calvin perfected the crippling terror of laziness and familial disappointment.

If I have any hope of actually making it in games journalism, I need to play more games—that’s just the long and short of it.  Even writing about the intersection between games and the real world, which is my primary focus, I find that I’m hobbled by the fact that my base of play experience is narrower than most freelancers.  To fix this, I’m making a concerted effort to work on my backlog as well as stretch myself by playing other genres.

It’s time to realize that playing games is just as much work as writing articles about them, and not feel guilty about the time invested.

Dear Puritan Choir: Shhhh, daddy’s working.