Tag Archives: writing

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.

Cooking For Writers

So here I am, stuffing a bunch of jarred spaghetti sauce mixed with angel hair pasta into my maw, and I begin thinking: what exactly is the best food for writers?

This question has become more apparent for me now that I’m writing full-time, since I now have to interrupt my writing every day to fuel the petty bio-needs of lunchtime.  These regular interruptions have given me a lot of trial-and-error of what works and what doesn’t, and here’s what I’ve learned:

It Either Needs to Cook Fast, or Really Slow

Hard boiled eggs.  Toast and jam.  Salads.  Sandwiches.  Anything you can make in under ten minutes is great writer food.  These dishes minimize the amount of time you spend cooking, which can be important if, like many writers, you’ve got the attention span of a teething puppy.  Alternately, they also allow you to get going straight out of bed in the morning, which is crucial for upping your word count.

But there’s a lot to be said for slow cooking, too.  I’d have never survived writing Critical Intel while carrying a day job if it weren’t for my crock pot.  Crock pots are the perfect thing for a writer – it’s almost impossible to overcook anything, which is important since we have a tendency to wander off and become absorbed with the bot boiling or a pizza in the oven.  I ruined a lot of pots and set off many smoke alarms before figuring this out.  With crock pots you just chop up the meat and vegetables, crank it up and let them sit for a few hours while you work.

Soup Is The Devil

Don’t eat soup while working.  It requires two eyes and both hands.  Gets all over your manuscript pages.  Makes it almost impossible to read when you’re trying not to spill it.  I know it’s tempting to eat so-cheap-and-actually-quite-good soup at your desk, but unless you’re taking an actual break from writing for lunch it’s not worth it.  Go for something one-handed you can eat absent-mindedly like a sandwich, a salad or even stew.

Nutrition: Kind of Pretty Important, Actually

What you put in your body matters, full stop.  Nasty, fatty food makes you feel nasty and fatty, and it makes your brain run slow.  Don’t exist  on pork rinds and mac n’ cheese unless you want what comes out of your brain to grease up the page.  Hit the vegetables and lean meats.  Change up your cooking patterns.  I learned to stir fry recently, and I’ve been eating a lot more vegetables due to that revelation.  If you don’t like vegetables, try spritzing them with a squeeze bottle of lemon juice.  Anything to avoid too many carbs or fats that’ll make your mental clock tick slow.

Vary Your Routine

If I eat the same thing too many days in a row, I start getting restless and thinking Maybe I’ll just nip out for lunch, hit a restaurant, get some ramen.  That always seems like a good idea – hey, take the computer! get some work done at a coffee shop! – but often it means I waste time in transit, linger too long at the restaurant or get caught up in an added-on errand.  I avoid this by cultivating a decent culinary repertoire – not only having the ability to make something different when I feel like it, but making sure I have ingredients on hand that can make a variety of different dishes.  Today’s stir fry is tomorrow’s soup.

Cook In Advance

Cooking great cauldrons of food and eating them down all week can be a really good idea.  My wife and I are fans.  We’ll make chili or soup on the weekend and eat it one meal a day until it’s gone.  Chicken soup is a my personal favorite, since you can get one of those rotisserie chickens from the store, eat it for dinner, then throw whatever’s left in the pot.  BAM.  One meal becomes three or four – great for the budget-conscious scribe.  Plus, pour it over some steamed rice and it’s chunky enough to eat while working.

Anyone else have good suggestions for writer food?  Recipes?  Kitchen gear you can’t live without?  Let me know.

The Writer’s Travel Kit

Travel.  Adventure.  Putting your boots on foreign soil.

It’s something we all aspire to do, but for the writer travel can serve a unique need.  Inspiration, for example, or research for a new project.  Distance and breathing space is another worthy goal.  Or perhaps, like me, you just want to see the world and jam it into your notebook.

But in my new life as an expat writer, I’m finding that my travel kit has changed significantly – because it turns out writers need a few different tools than your average backpacker.

Since I’m packing for India and it’s on my mind, here’s my new kit for writing across the globe:

Carry The Right Bags

I’m a proponent of carry-on baggage –  large bags don’t do well in crowds or on trains, and I find it’s better to do laundry halfway than overpack.  Plus, if you’re a writer you’re probably not swimming in hard currency, and it’s nice to save on baggage fees and be able to stay in a smaller room.  Ideally, I only use my suitcase for clothes, relegating everything else to a large backpack, and a smaller day pack I keep stowed when it’s not in use.  My suitcase of choice is an old Zero Halliburton I inherited from my dad.  It’s small, stylish, crazy maneuverable and the aluminum shell could stop bullets.  Hell, they’re so cool James Goddamn Bond uses them and the DoD chose it to carry the Nuclear football.  If you don’t want to blow an entire paycheck on one, you can pick them up cheap on Ebay.

Travel Journal

Recently when my dad and grandmother passed away, I found myself wishing they’d kept journals. Both of them saw so many places and witnessed so much history, and all of it disappeared when they passed away.  Determined that the same won’t happen to my experiences, I’ve become a dedicated journal writer on trips – both so I can remember where I’ve been, and so my (currently theoretical) kids can still benefit from my wandering days when I’m gone.  Besides that though, journaling gives me a depth of vision I wouldn’t have otherwise.  Patterns emerge, and you get to know both yourself and the place better – and of course, it’s a great place to pull details from when you’re writing.

Travel Notebook

“But wait,” I hear you say.  “Don’t you already have a notebook?”

“No,” I reply. “I already have a journal.”

“WTF semantics!” you say. “That’s the same thing.”

But no, it’s not.  My journal is where I download my experiences at the end of the day, my notebook’s what travels in my pocket.  If my journal is the big, double-barreled Get Off My Lawn elephant gun, my travel notebook is a concealed pistol.  Let’s be honest here: you don’t want to carry your travel journal around, it’s too much risk.  You could lose it, it could get stolen with your bag or drenched in a sudden downpour.  Your memories from three trips, gone in a blink.  So carry a second, portable notebook that’s for jotting notes you use to craft your journal entries in the evening.


I know that there’s a big movement right now to, “OMG, get off the internet and find yourself!”  But listen, speaking as a former security analyst, there’s some places you don’t want to disconnect.  Last month I took a 17 day trip to Thailand and Cambodia, both of which are in the middle of major political instability.  In Thailand we were connected to local media in real-time via Twitter and managed to keep abreast of events and avoid the protests (except one march that passed our hotel).  But in Cambodia I made a bad decision: I didn’t get a tourist SIM, reasoning that our hotel would keep us informed, and it would be good for me to get away from social media.

Big mistake.  When we asked, the hotel desk said everything was fine.  When the army beat striking garment workers and the police opened fire on protesters with AK-47s, the hotel hid the morning paper.  After I pressed the concierge for information, he incorrectly informed me where the major protest site was, and as a result my wife and I wandered into a full-on government crackdown, complete with armored riot cops and military police carrying loaded assault rifles.

Keep your phone working and monitor local news – both for safety and intellectual curiosity.

A Phrase Card

Visitors can have a bad habit of visiting a place but ignoring its people, and as a writer people should always be your primary concern.  Language, of course, often stands in the way of getting to know others when you’re abroad, but a little can go a long way.  When I was in Thailand, I created a file on my iPhone listing basic Thai phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” and “how much is it?” and started referring to it regularly.  It’s amazing the difference that it made in my interactions – vendors smiled at me more, people took extra time to help me, taxis offered fairer prices and the hawkers lost interest in me.  In short, people were more genuine rather than maintaining the facade that holds sway in tourist areas.  This led to conversations that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

I’m carrying on this tradition in India by making a pocket-sized card with basic Hindi phrases.  It may not be the silver bullet that it proved in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s respectful nonetheless.

Laptop and Power Adapters

I’m of two minds about the laptop.  While I’d love to bring it along to write on a trip, in reality I always end up back-filling journal entries rather than working on fiction.  (Besides, I’ve learned from experience that I find writing on the road unpleasant.)  Add in the possibility that it might get lost or stolen, and a laptop comes off as a liability.  On the other hand, a laptop is crucial for researching tour bookings, restaurants or other local entertainment on the fly and connecting with family should something bad happen overseas.  Our standard procedure is to bring my wife’s laptop, and if I feel like writing I do it in the cloud, pulling stories I’ve uploaded to Google Drive or Dropbox.

A word of warning though: many countries have different plugs, voltages and frequencies.  Remember to do your research and bring adapters if necessary.

Ziploc Bags

Last month I took a speedboat down the Mekong from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  Five hours jammed into a fiberglass tube with no ventilation, zero escape exits and the worst squat toilet in Asia.  It was actually more pleasant to ride on top of the passenger compartment, but to get there you had to shimmy along a six-inch ledge holding onto a railing until you came to the rebar ladder.

Did I mention this boat was going 60 miles per hour?  As I hung there, feeling the wake spraying my legs and watching stilt villages whip by, I was suddenly very glad that I’d secured my iPhone and notebook in Ziploc bags.  There are less dramatic reasons to do that of course – rain and splashes for example – but a good Ziploc is especially important if you’re traveling by boat.  You could get a real dry bag if you want, but I find Ziplocs do fine as long as you’re not submerging them.


Rather than explaining all the local news events I reference in my travel journal, I just pick up some cheap scissors and clip articles from local papers.  That bigass pocket at the back of a Mokleskine has to be good for something, right?

Magellan Outdoors Wear

I’ve worn Magellan outfits on two archaeological digs and in four countries.  They’re tough, light and have mesh netting so you don’t have to worry about your underthings going swampy in the heat.  The pants also can convert into shorts within sixty seconds and they have so many pockets for notebooks and pens it borders on absurdity (many with zippers and dry pouches).  And because they’re basically swimsuit material, in a pinch you can wash them in a bathtub and let them air-dry overnight.

Local Literature

Writers like to read – stereotypical but true.  And when traveling, I find it enlightening to bring along a book about the country.  In Thailand it was a collection of short stories called Bangkok Noir.  In Cambodia I picked up several history books about the Angkor period.  When I was in London seven years ago, I burned time on trains reading Henry Fielding.  For India, I’ve loaded my Kindle up with Rudyard Kipling, and will pick up a book from a local author when I’m there.  Not only does reading this give you a better sense of place, it also keeps your own writing fresh since it’s likely written from a different cultural perspective than you’re used to.

A Camera

Obvious, right?  Not everything can be captured in words, sometimes you have to see something amazing so you can reference it in a story later, or keep it just so you can Facebook your friends and say, Holy turdmuffin guys, look at this – there are five kids riding this damn moped and two of them are asleep.


That’s about it for my gear.  How about you guys?  Anyone got a cool gadget that helps them write on the road or keep a travel journal?  Any tips or tricks I missed?  FILL THE COMMENTS WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.

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.






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.

8 Things That Are Not Writing