Posts Tagged ‘ writing process

Pat on the Head, Kick in the Ass

If you cruise on over to The Escapist this week you’ll find that my latest piece, “The Player and the Pusher-Man“, has been reprinted in the “Best of” issue this week. I’m pretty certain this is because The Escapist editorial staff absolutely cannot get enough of my work, and when they don’t have anything new to publish, they like to roll around like Scrooge McDuck in piles of drafts I’ve submitted in the past. I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact they were all at E3 last week and probably too busy to put together an issue. It’s all about me.

It’s flattering to have a piece singled out as one of the best, but it’s also strange when the piece selected is one for which I have complicated feelings. You always find things you could have improved, that’s the nature of writing and having deadlines that force you to relinquish control. That’s every piece I’ve ever written. But with this one, I never quite got within hailing distance of the article I originally envisioned, and I know why that is.

When reread this piece, I see the many, many interviews that didn’t come through, and know that I should have been more aggressive with getting some of my subjects to commit to a time and place to chat. When I read my section on ZT Online and the rise of the free-to-play business model, I get frustrated because I spent so much space rehashing observations that Soren Johnson had already made, and with greater insight. When I find that I have a brilliant behavioral economist explaining Skinner’s conditioning experiments, I know that I failed to cover all my bases during background research, and I didn’t develop my story quickly enough to delve into more advanced subjects before I ran out of space.

On the other hand, there were some great experiences writing this piece. Soren Johnson confirmed my assessment of him as one of the nicest guys in the games industry… and maybe on Earth. He raised some very good points in our conversations and pointed me to some excellent resources that I might not otherwise have found, in addition to putting me in touch with some of his contacts.

One of those contacts was Jon Blow, who spent a lot of time discussing rewards systems and what designers should be trying to provide to players. It was one of those interviews where you just want to paste the entire thing into your article, because every other exchange has something provocative and perceptive. I also appreciated that Jon was so forthcoming, despite the fact that he seemed like someone who is used to getting calls from reporters who are looking for a bomb-throwing quote, and patient with me when I had trouble finding the right phrasing for a question.

So it’s not that I’m particularly unhappy with this article, but I saw a lot of things during the writing process that sent me into a period of rather harsh self-criticism. Now that it’s been republished, it’s time to stop fixating on what went wrong. The big challenge now is addressing some of the shortcomings I’ve spotted in my work habits.

You can read it here. Comments and criticism are welcome, even more so than usual.

Just a Restless Feeling

It’s about 7:45 and I’m finishing up coffee and breakfast in a cafe near my apartment in east Cambridge. I’ve been awake since 4:30. It has been raining all morning, and outside these windows it is a parade of dark umbrellas and shockingly bright ponchos. I am glad to be in here with my coffee and scone.

I used to arrive at school every morning at this time, and being up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning did not seem like much of a feat. For the past couple years, waking up anytime before 8 seemed like a miraculous event, one deserving of some kind of commendation medal. “For Excellence in Getting Out of Bed Prior to Lunch, the Committee Awards on This Day…”

Now my day starts well before dawn, because I have reluctantly acknowledged that I am unable to do any work that is the least bit intellectually taxing after lunch.

I don’t know what happens. Whatever I have for lunch, however much or little I have of it, I become an uncreative, distracted procrastinator the moment the dishes are cleared away. I can still do chores, play games, or even do some light editing work, but I cannot write or conduct much research.

It was killing me how I would deceive myself. I would front-load the day a bit, but I’d always promise myself that I could make up for lost time in the afternoon or early evening. Didn’t make my word-count? I’d get there before dinner. At the very least I’d put together a good outline.

So time and again I’d find myself, at 10 at night, staring at a legal pad with “OUTLINE” written across the top. Underneath, I’d have: “Main argument: WTF happened to video game manuals? This is bullshit.”

And underneath that: “Supporting argument 1: Manuals were cool.”

The rest of the page would be blank. This would represent 12 or 13 hours of “work” in which I pointlessly browsed the web, wrote and deleted several introductory paragraphs, and refused to let myself do anything else because I had not accomplished my day’s goals yet.

If there is one thing of which I am sure, it is that I am consistent in my inconsistency.  A few years ago I could only work in coffee shops, one in particular. If I couldn’t make it down College Avenue to one of the cafes, my entire day would end up going to waste. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped being able to get work done there and started to do all my work in my office. Then that stopped working, and I split work between my living room and libraries.

When I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t write a damn thing before 11 at night. My best papers were completed between midnight and dawn, except that suddenly I started missing deadlines because the night schedule stopped working. Suddenly I could only work between lunch and 10 P.M.

I hope my current schedule will last. It’s liberating to know that my workday has a set endpoint, and that it won’t drag itself out through my afternoon and night. I have had problems in the past with letting work sort of consume my life, simply because I never really scheduled breaks from it. I would be tremendously sick of an article I was writing before I’d even finished three paragraphs, because it was pestering me from the moment I turned on the shower in the morning to the moment I fell asleep.

Here’s the dilemma I can’t solve: some days I can’t get a damn thing done. I can tell, halfway through, that I’m not going to write anything usable or have any clever insights. Should that be a signal to walk away, or do I honor my commitment to work for a given number of hours, whether or not I accomplish anything. Because giving up can also become habitual, yet beating your head against a wall is undeniably pointless.

Except that I always wonder: when I have that flash of insight after days of struggling with a piece, is that just a sign that I’m having a good day and things have finally come together, or is it the product of a subconscious cognitive process that’s happening while I struggle through unproductive workdays?

I write all this because it’s on my mind. My approach to the workday gets the job done, but I still feel  like I end up wasting a lot of time. I’m just not sure how to improve my efficiency.