Day 470 – The Games Writers Play

I’ve always been fascinated with how other writers write. I’ve found out along the way that it is not just me – almost every writer’s first question at a reading or Q&A session is, “How do you write?” I imagine that this gets to be as annoying as that perennial question from readers, “Where do you get your ideas?” (Can’t wait to have those annoying questions myself…)

Screenwriter John August ( via Tom Chandler ( answers that question in great detail. He talks about his approach to writing at various stages (the initial blocking out of ideas to actual writing), what hardware he uses, what software, what “productivity tools”, etc. Enough information to easily OD his fellow writer junkies.

When you think about it, it is curious that we are so fascinated by the process. On the surface, it seems like writers, the neurotic bundle of self-doubt that we are, want to make sure they are doing it “right”. They want to know the secret to being successful, the path to the Fountain of Published. And that is probably part of it.

But I think what writers are really asking is, “How do I stop myself from doing it wrong?” A subtle, but important difference.

They say that half the struggle for writers is simply sitting down in front of the keyboard. There are so many distractions – the Internet, that cliché load of laundry, Sports Centre or The View depending on your proclivities, emails, phone calls, lunch… What writers really want is the secret not just to publishing, but how to trick their hands into moving that pen across the paper. How to trick their minds into becoming word-spewing machines, churning out page after page like some creative Xerox machine that just keeps ka-chunging and ka-chunging. It doesn’t even have to be “Gold, Jerry!” – just work that they can edit and fix later.

Pure, honest work.

In short, we want to know how to win the games writers play to get themselves motivated and working. “This bit of software will help me get things done more efficiently!” or “I should really go out and buy that fine-point red Sharpie – that’s what the professionals use to edit!” or “So-and-so writes five pages per day, rain or shine, flu or fine! So I’m going to too…”

Eventually though, you find that Yoda-like bit of truth: “Write, or do not write. There is no try.”


Speaking of which, been stealing my own few bits of writing time lately. Still not as much as I would like – my Christmas deadline is officially out the window, barring some miraculous fold in the time-space continuum – but I’m happy with the work I am doing.


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7 Responses to Day 470 – The Games Writers Play

  1. Man, you novelists are a tough crowd.

    I really enjoy these “How I Write” posts. Sometimes they offer me a glimpse into the psyche of a writer (a glimpse which often suggests madness).

    And sometimes these posts help turn up a gem. When it became clear my word processor was hindering me more than helping when it came to writing and distributing online copy, one of these posts featured a writer who’d banged out a couple of technical books in Emacs (a crazy powerful text editor), which triggered my exploration of programmer’s text editors.

    Today, I’m not only a convert, I also enjoy minty fresh breath and am far more attractive to women.

    I think I learned about Celtx screenwriting software the same way (and happily given that I got a video gig a couple weeks later).

    Then there’s all the non-writing stuff working writers contend with (research, organization, communication, email, etc). Some of that still feels harder than it should be, and if someone stumbled on a tool for painlessly organizing research (or invoicing, or…)

    Given their no-cost fee structure, I can safely guess writers will get good value for their dollar by reading “How I Write” posts.

    • Graham Strong says:

      Hey Tom,

      Don’t get me wrong — there are some good things that come out of “How I Write” posts. I’m not arguing that. We’re both living proof that you can get solid, practical advice on tools, software, styles and approaches, etc.

      What I’m trying to address here is the fascination behind writers wanting to know about other writers’ habits. Some of it is the honest quest for knowledge, but I think mostly it is an obsessive need to get your own ducks in a row by trying to copy someone else’s. Ultimately though, going down to the store to buy that red Sharpie is just another procrastination tool. It feels like work. It’s not though — it is something that only makes you feel happy and professional, but in reality distracts you from what you should be doing instead: writing.

      Why do writers do this? Is this an affliction of other creatives too, like artists or photographers? Do they have to trick themselves into painting or taking pictures?

      There’s something at work there for writers anyway, that’s for sure.


      • What I’m trying to address here is the fascination behind writers wanting to know about other writers’ habits. Some of it is the honest quest for knowledge, but I think mostly it is an obsessive need to get your own ducks in a row by trying to copy someone else’s.

        In the programming world, the guy you don’t want to hire is the one who obsessively hones his toolkit to razor sharpness, but never gets any code written.

        I suspect a far higher percentage of writers fall into that category than programmers, so I agree with your point about tool-related procrastination.

        Still, I wanted to raise the flag for the writer tool geeks like myself, and also point out that when we develop as writers we tend to mimic our heroes, and that doing so on the tool level might not be the worst thing you could do.

        In the late 1980s I went through an Ogilvy phase before finding a home in the Minnesota style of copywriting in the 1990s (I’m mostly still there), and while I would have looked ridiculous, I probably could have been forgiven for sitting down at a typewriter smoking a pipe and wearing a sweater vest like (I imagined) Ogilvy did.

        I mean, you drink wine, but you are probably not drinking Merlot

        Actually, now you’ve given me an idea for a blog post…

        • Graham Strong says:

          Oh fer sure there is getting the new tools just for the sake of getting new tools! And using the same ones as your heroes, that’s doubly cool.

          Sometimes doing what we do is just a great and convenient excuse to get the latest, greatest thing…


  2. Graham Strong says:

    lol – nice… can the pipe be far behind? I always envision Mordecai Richler as the “quintessential” writer, typing away with his omnipresent cigar in an ashtray next to his typewriter. (I think he wore several sweater vests too…)

    As for the Merlot reference – I have to admit that I do like certain Merlots. I agree with Miles to the extent that they have been overdone, not to mention used to make watered-down schlock. That being said, I believe that a guy who has to steal from his mother to take a trip should be a little less picky about the wine put in front of him…


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