on writing

Fri Mar-23rd-2012 // Filed under: Words

These days, I find that get asked about various aspects of writing surprisingly often, so I thought I’d write some of these things down in one place instead of repeatedly writing forum posts or e-mail about it. I don’t claim to be any kind of an authority as such, but I do write for a living, so I guess I must be doing something right. I’ll probably update this post if/when new things that seem relevant crop up.

Also, while I’m focusing on writing in this post because that’s my own field, I do think that most of this stuff definitely applies to just about every kind of creative work in principle.

Planning

“I’ve got this great idea, but I need to figure out what to do with it first.” This is something I hear a lot. I’ll get into ideas in a bit, but a lot of people seem to feel that they can’t start working on a thing until they know exactly what it is they’re going to do with it. That’s understandable, but I think the useful length of time spent on that kind of thinking tends to be a lot shorter than many people seem to think.

I’m not saying that planning is a bad thing. Of course it isn’t! But I think it’s common for people to fall into the procrastination trap where they keep “thinking about it” and “planning it,” but in reality they’re just screwing around without getting anything done. There comes a point where you should either shit or get off the pot, and it typically comes much sooner than we think.

At the heart of this whole thing is this idea that you need to know exactly what you’re going to be doing with a project before you can start actually working on it — you need to know what’s going to happen at every turn of the plot before you can start writing it, for example. How could you start writing the story before you know how it’s going to unfold? You need to work it all out!

The problem with this is, that’s not how the creative process usually works. That first draft? That’s you, working it out. Until you actually put pen to paper and lock some things down, you won’t know how well your ideas actually perform, or how they relate to each other, or what the whole really conveys to the reader, or if the pacing works, or any number of other things that you may not even have realized could be an issue before you have something you can evaluate.

Until you make actual decisions, all you’ve got is a weird miasma of unrealized potential, full of contradictory concepts that don’t actually fit together in any useful way. Chances are, you don’t even realize that, because you haven’t done any of the actual work trying to put them together in a way that forms a coherent and useful whole. You’ve just been dicking around, indulging yourself.

You’re not supposed to figure it out perfectly before you start working on it. You’re supposed to perfect it by working on it. First drafts need work; that’s the nature of the first draft. That’s okay; now you know where the problems are and what parts are doing what you want them to be doing, and you can start working them out. A good second draft is a beautiful thing.

And really in, the end? Insisting that you need to have it all nailed down before you can start working on it is just arrogant. You’re essentially saying that your first ideas are so good that you won’t come up with better ones later on. That’s rarely the case.

(I should stress that I’m emphatically not talking about planning a larger project that involves multiple people or multiple disciplines. That’s a completely different thing.)

Writer’s Block

Here’s another thing that crops up a lot — “I’ve got these great characters and plots and everything in my head, but when I try to write about it, nothing comes out.”

I don’t want to state flat out that writer’s block is not a real thing, but I will say that it’s an amazingly convenient excuse for avoiding work. “I got great stuff in me, but it’s just not coming out! Not my fault!”

Personally, I find that when I go to write something and nothing comes out, that’s not because I’m “blocked,” it’s because I don’t really know what I want to do, and the things I try don’t work. Typically, it means that the great idea I have just isn’t that great, and it’s time to kill that darling.

That’s not to say I never get into a state where I just can’t get anything done, but that’s got more to do with being unable to let go of bad ideas, or being too stressed out, or lacking focus, or lacking motivation, or any number of other reasons. It’s not some kind of a magical state that just overcomes me.

That said, sometimes you just need to take your time — this isn’t like painting a wall where you can just keep going at a steady pace for as long as your arm and back hold up and you don’t run out of paint or wall. Creative work is hard and tends to require focus and drive — but not being in a state to get something done is not the same thing as being blocked, and I think self-deception tends to play a pretty big part in that — there’s a certain romantic inevitability to writer’s block, and the best thing is, it’s not your own fault.

(In Alan Wake, Wake himself suffers from writer’s block that keeps him from writing his next book, a departure from his established main character and essentially guaranteed popularity. Being unable to write drives him to a self-destructive and self-indulgent cycle of substance abuse, wild parties and poor judgment. Gosh, cause and effect are so hard to figure out, aren’t they?)

Talent

I’m not a big believer in talent, to be honest. Some people clearly have it, but I really can’t tell if that’s because they were born with it or because they made the commitment to develop it. I’d bet that in most cases, it’s the latter. I tend to be of the opinion that most people can learn anything reasonably well if they really put their minds to it. I’m not a big believer in genes — I’ll freely admit that they have an impact, but in most cases, people who moan about their “lack of talent” are just taking advantage of a free pass. Sure, they’d love to work, but why bother when there’s no talent? Gosh, what an unfortunate turn of luck!

Which may be an unnecessarily harsh thing to say. And when you run across some young, super creative guy who’s producing absolutely amazing work like a seasoned professional, I know this may seem like bullshit, and maybe it is. I guess what I’m saying is that I believe the vast majority of people who are really good at something didn’t get that way because of some mysterious, innate talent, they got that way because they had a passion for something and were willing to put in the effort.

It’s a bit of a chicken/egg problem, I admit — did somebody start working hard in their field because they had a talent for it and it came naturally, or did they become talented because they put in that hard work? In the end, that’s missing the point — essentially everybody who’s good at something works hard at it. There may be exceptions to that, but what’s that got to do with you and me? Not a lot, I’d bet. True savants are few and far in between.

Inspiration

I don’t much believe in inspiration, either.

That’s not to say I don’t think it doesn’t exist — sure it does, and when it strikes, life is good. Very good. But you can’t build a career on inspiration — hell, you can’t get much of anything done if that’s what you’re banking on.

As the old joke goes, creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You want to finish, or even get started? Better roll up those sleeves and get to work, because unless you’re just an enthusiastic wannabe who’s content to get by on the occasional burst of energy, you’re gonna have to earn your goddamn keep. People who wander around in search of inspiration are typically far more enamored with the idea of being a writer than the actual act of writing.

Am I being a jerk? Possibly, but you hear that a lot — “I’m just waiting for inspiration!” That’s great, let me know when it strikes. In the meantime, I’ll be over here in the real world, dealing with real deadlines, trying to get shit done.

Ideas

Ideas are another thing more or less in the same vein. I’m not even talking about the old “where do you get your ideas?” thing, although that’s a part of it — but what I find annoying is this persistent misconception that in order to do good work, you need good ideas.

At work, we recently had a writer position open, and we got about 200 applications — an amazing number; we don’t usually get anywhere near that many people applying for a job. I don’t want to get into details here; that kind of thing is sort of confidential and the process is ongoing, but I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say that in addition to many wonderfully talented people, there was a considerable number of people who had no writing or game industry experience at all, but they felt they were very creative and had great ideas, and that this somehow qualified them for the position. (Typically, these applicants neglected to even include their resume or writing samples or anything with their application.) Many of these people probably weren’t very serious when they sent off their application, but you could tell that some of them were.

For some of them, that was probably a Dunning-Kruger effect moment — that in this particular field, they were essentially too incompetent to understand just how incompetent they were, or why, but I think there’s something more to this than just that. I think there’s this modern myth of “great ideas” that’s fairly pervasive — that if you just have that great insight, if you just can rattle off great ideas and have this wonderful and entirely non-specific creativity pouring out of every orifice, that by itself is enough to guarantee success.

I really don’t think so. On the whole, ideas are completely overrated. Creative people have no shortage of ideas; if anything, their problem is that they have too many of them, all the time. The challenge lies not in getting ideas, but in finding good ways of doing something with them. Sure, some ideas are better than others, but I don’t think anybody who’s even halfway serious about doing creative work is typically going to be seriously whining about not having ideas. I’m sure there’s the odd exception to this, but the vast majority of the time, the topics of lamentation tend to be more about lack of money, time, resources, opportunities or motivation — you know, real problems. Ideas? Ideas are cheap and plentiful.

And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely bad, boring, banal and downright stupid ideas, and some people just have enormously bad judgment when it comes to evaluating them. Good ideas are important. But they aren’t scarce.

When I think about this, I always think about Elmore Leonard, whose actual plots are often amazingly simple. His ideas, to be frank, often aren’t that interesting in themselves. And yet, Leonard’s writing just flows — what’s actually happening may not be all that complicated, but the magic is in how he tells it. It’s all in the execution.

Reading

There’s that old thing about every writer having a million bad words inside them, and once you’ve written them out of your system, the good words will come. There’s a lot of truth to that — practice does make perfect, or at least adequate. But if you want to write, what you really need to do is read. Just read. And think about it as you do.

That’s easier said than done — you kind of need to train yourself to pay attention. Why is the writer saying that, instead of this? Do you like the phrasing or the pacing? If not, why not? What would you do differently? How would you do it? What is the writer really telling you here? What is the writer telling you by omission?

I don’t mean that it should be some kind of a deeply spiritual exercise where you engage in thinly veiled navel-gazing and get off on how smart you are now that you “get” this book. I just mean you should make it a point to pay attention to things other than the content in the story you’re reading.

It’s obvious that you should read things you love, but what may not be as obvious is that you should also read at least some books that you hate — how else are you going to learn to articulate what it is that you hate about them? I’m not talking about literary criticism, I should add, I’m talking about craftmanship. It’s all an opportunity to learn. And while there may be a single book that really blows your mind and unlocks something in your own head, that’s rare. Mostly, this is an ongoing process. The choice to read or not read a single book is probably not significant, but whether you read five or twenty — or fifty — books a year is.

And yes, by all means, emulate. Steal like a motherfucker — and I don’t mean “plagiarize,” and if you don’t know the difference, that probably means you’re not ready, yet. Your work is inevitably going to be informed by the work of other creators, and that’s how it should be. Is your work too derivative? All that means is you need to get better at stealing — or, to quote somebody who put it much better than I can:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

— Jim Jarmusch

In Conclusion

If this sounds like some kind of a “stop whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, I apologize. I’m honestly not a big fan of that kind of rhetoric, and I swear I don’t mean it like that. But I do think people love to mystify the creative process to a great extent and ignore how much of it is just commitment and hard work. Writing is not easy work, and it can take a lot out of you; if nothing else, to do it is to open yourself up to criticism, and that can be downright harrowing.

Craftmanship and dedication count. It’s not a coincidence that people who get things done tend to excel in both of those things — and people who prefer talking about being a writer to actually writing don’t.


17 Comments

  1. Hyvin kirjoitettu kirjoittamisesta – ja sovellettavissa monenlaisiin projekteihin, joiden toteuttaminen on kiinni vain yhdestä ihmisestä. Oli kyse sitten luovuudesta (musiikki, tanssi, mikä vaan) tai vaikka kaappien siivoamisesta!

    Palautteena sun buddy Jim Jarmuschille: mieluummin kuin “steal ideas”, käyttäisin ilmausta “pay hommage to”. Osoittaa kunniaa, siitähän on kyse kun “sydämellä varastaa”. :)

    Kiitos, hyvää ja hyödyllistä luettavaa.

    Comment by Hanna — March 23, 2012 @ 1332503684

  2. Todellakin, hyvä teksti Mikki! Tässä on paljon samaa kuin kuvan tekemisessä. Äitini tapasi sanoa, että jos jää odottelemaan inspiraatiota, sitä saa odotella hautaansa asti.

    Mutta toki saman oon huomannut liittyen melkein mihin tahansa, millä tahansa elämän alueella. Aina on ihmisiä, joiden on helpompaa valitella lahjakkuuden puutetta ja jäädä siksi passiivisiksi sivustakatsojiksi. Se tai mikä tahansa muu todellinen tai kuviteltu puute selittää kaiken sen, “miks mä en ois pystynyt samaan kuin noi muut kuiteskaan.”

    Suhtaudun itse toisinaan siihen aika ärtyneesti vaikka “kasaa ittes ja tee jotain”-retoriikka ei itsessään muakaan puhuttele. Ei kukaan saa ilmaiseksi mitään. Se tilanne, minkä kukin on saavuttanut, on eniten seurausta päättäväisyydestä. Siitä ettei jää oleilemaan mukavuusalueelle vaan tekee täysillä jotain. Lähtökohdat voi toki olla erilaiset ja henkinen pääoma sen myötä, mutta täällä hyvinvointiyhteiskunnan helmassa nekin on mahdollista kumota.

    Eri asia toki sitten on kun mennään kehitysmaihin. Siellä huono lähtöpiste on niin monennessa potenssissa meihin verrattuna ettei yhdellä ihmisellä ole siihen sanomista vaikka kuinka haluaisi tehdä elämällään jotain suurta. Unelmien puute on musta se, joka invalidisoi eniten. Se, ettei edes oikein tiedä, mitä haluaisi tai tiedä mahdollisuuksia siihen. Tai toisaalta ehkä on niin isot unelmat, ettei itsekään toivo saavuttavansa niitä.

    Lifecoachasin taannoin yhtä katmandulaista respan yövartijapoikaa. Se asui äitinsä luona ja poltteli pilveä. Lopo muistaa sen myös. Sen suurin unelma oli tulla rocktähdeksi. Kysyin, onko sillä bändiä, jonka kanssa se tästä unelmoi. Ei ollut. Kysyin, harjoitteleeko ja laulaako se sit itsekseen. No ei laulanut. Ehdotin, että jos se oikeesti haluaa tulla rocktähdeksi, sen pitäis tehdä asian eteen jotain kun on epätodennäköistä että kukaan manageri sitä tulee sieltä yörespasta poimimaan. Sain siltä mailin vuos myöhemmin. Se kertoi perustaneensa bändin.

    K

    Comment by Katri — March 23, 2012 @ 1332512487

  3. Focusing on the part you didn’t want to get into details with, but; is that position still open? Internet sleuthing resulted in a 404 job ad page.

    Comment by Incognito — March 23, 2012 @ 1332529905

  4. We’re still going through the candidates and doing interviews (with so many applicants, that’s a kind of a time-consuming process), so we haven’t filled it yet, but unfortunately the deadline for applications has now come and gone.

    Comment by Mikki — March 23, 2012 @ 1332531142

  5. That’s a very interesting article! Until the point aboarding the writer position at RMD where, as an applicant, it becomes interesting and stressful :p.
    I learnt something new today, thanks to you: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
    Question: excluding the 30 days for Fadeout, do you find some time to write fictions unrelated to RMD? Thank you.
    *Bookmark Mikki’s blog: check.*

    Comment by Oliver Castle — March 23, 2012 @ 1332545332

  6. I think it’s fascinating that even after what feels like almost every writer ever says the same thing; that it’s not about the talent, inspiration or idea but about the work, the idea that you can sort of secretely be a great writer without having actually written anything still persists.

    They say patience is a virtue, but waiting for something that then never comes isn’t fun so I just thought I’d ask what your last comment means for hopeful applicants who haven’t heard anything back from you yet?

    Comment by Simon — March 24, 2012 @ 1332602387

  7. Yeah, Simon, I know! I think it’s kind of closely tied to the fact that writing is something everybody feels deeply qualified to comment on… and again, I’m not talking about criticism or implying that only professional writers should be allowed to criticize writing — what I mean is that everybody’s an expert in a way that doesn’t apply to most other professions. I guess it’s mostly because it just doesn’t look like a real job. Hey, you’re sitting there on your ass, thinking up stories! Anybody could do that! Which is true, as far as it goes, but it’s kind of telling that everybody doesn’t…

    As for the second part of your comment, I’ll hit you up in e-mail — that’s not really something I feel comfortable discussing here.

    Comment by Mikki — March 25, 2012 @ 1332685355

  8. Part of why every writer says that it is not about talent is probably because true talent (be it inborn or learned) very rarely recognizes itself. People quite often feel that what they do well is something anyone could do if they “just put their mind into it”. Fact remains though that for every success there are bunch of people who really DID put their minds into it – and did not succeed very well.

    There’s a rant in the interwebs by some SF writer about people who ask him/her (I forget who) if they can send him/her their great ideas for a story – about how what they need is LESS ideas, not MORE.

    Comment by Janka — March 25, 2012 @ 1332713038

  9. At the risk of opening the flood gates, here is another long time reader, first-time writing who has been carefully trying keep his cool in the face of what must surely by now be biblical waiting times. I’d hate to jump on the bandwagon, but it looks like the wagon’s decked with cushions and pillows and -oh my- they serve soft drinks! If it’s not too much of a bother, put me on the CC.

    While I’m here, I might as well say I enjoyed this piece. This is the truth for almost every creative endeavor; it’s the hard work you put in that makes you good at something, rather than a nebulous, divine, absinthe-induced inspiration. What makes writing such a tricky proposition is that the physical act of it is something everyone can do. Even the janitor can put words to paper and at first glance (until you actually put in the effort of reading it!) it will look just as professional as that of, well, a professional. I’ve witnessed even industry folks underestimating the process, and it’s disheartening every time.

    Comment by Roderick — March 25, 2012 @ 1332714000

  10. Well, Janka, I’m not saying “it’s not about talent,” really — I’m saying that talent is not some kind of a nebulous thing that you either have or don’t have. Most importantly, I’m disputing the idea of inborn savant-like facility for something that comes upon certain lucky individuals like a blessing. There may be people like that, but they are so far outside the curve that they might as well not exist; certainly, very, very few people who write for a living are savants.

    Personally, I’ve been writing for, what, probably something like 25 years now, and my output for at least the first ten years of that were just utter shit — not least so because I didn’t take it seriously enough, and I wasn’t particularly disciplined, and I was arrogant about it and didn’t really do a lot of self-reflection or analysis of my own work. And I was lazy. It was only when some things started to sink in that I started to suck less. Is that talent, or is that a conscious effort to get better at it?

    But you’re right, a lot of people work hard at these things and never enjoy any success. Then again, I didn’t say anything about being successful; that has a great deal to do with things like marketing, approachability, and the like. (I know you may not have meant “success” in that sense, I’m just making a point.) I’m not saying anybody can be a bestselling novelist, for example, but making a living with writing? That doesn’t necessarily require any great talent, as long as you can form a coherent sentence and communicate ideas. It may not get you fame and fortune, but it can certainly get you a living. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

    Also, I’m not saying everybody or anybody can be a writer. There are people who work hard but just have very bad judgment as to what people find entertaining, for example. Others have attitude problems — I’m sure you know the “everybody else is wrong and I’m right and to hell with them if they don’t like it!” type. For example, there are people who still insist that Babylon 5 is the best TV ever and everything should be like that, and regardless of whether they’re right, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you approach every situation with that as your battle cry, it’s probably not gonna work out for you. And some people just are really fucking stupid, too; I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome.

    But I am saying that people who never give it a serious shot, or any kind of a shot at all, and then talk about how they just don’t have a talent for it are fairly plentiful, and full of shit. (This definitely applies to a number of fields — I’m sure people who draw for a living run into this even more than I do.)

    Comment by Mikki — March 25, 2012 @ 1332717845

  11. Oliver, I just found your comment in the spam folder — sorry I didn’t manage to rescue it from there sooner. =)

    Answer: Yes, I do, to varying degrees. Fadeout was a kind of a special case; my output there was obviously far greater than under ordinary circumstances, and that does show in the quality as well — it turned out pretty well, but geez, there’re a lot of rough passages in there. But that’s first drafts for you. I do tend to have other things cooking all the time — I wrote the film Imaginaerum last year, for example. It takes a bit of juggling, because obviously my first priority has to be what I do at Remedy, and if it’s a rough day, it can be hard to get motivated to do more writing when I get home.

    I’m not anywhere near as disciplined about it as some writers are I know, either — for instance, I know a guy who has a full-time job, but he gets up every morning at 5:30 (if I recall the time correctly) and gets in a couple of hours of writing before he has to take his kid to scohol and go to work. Obviously, he gets things done.

    Comment by Mikki — March 28, 2012 @ 1332930028

  12. No problem :).

    I realized that the more I was busy with my previous job, the more I managed to write. I think there was a part of… I dunno, adrelanine writing continuous rush. Maybe when you know you’ve only a 1 hour window per day to spit words on Word, you tend to be more efficient… Maybe that’s what’s happening to the guy you mentioned.

    I also had time to think also about my own little writer’s block (and I share my thoughts). It is a big lack of (self-)motivation. “why write a third novel when the first two aren’t published yet” and that kind of stuff. So I took time to reflect on my situation… So I realized that the writer’s block maybe a way for your mind to say : “hey dude, something’s wrong, just sayin… do you even bother ask yourself the question “why the block” instead of “how to fix it”…” For me, the writer’s block is a manisfestation of a bigger problem. In my case, something has to change in my life (job, appartment, city, country… pretty much everything :p).

    My current block is now part-time. I can write new stuff (the story in my RMD application, for instance) but can’t write if there is no obvious goal behind… That’s kind of weird.

    Anyhow, I’m finally playing Alan Wake and I must admit I’m pretty curious to see if my little theory of “writer’s block = obstacle to induce changes in your life by some kind of introspection” applies… As far I can tell from where I am in the game, Wake did dive into the dark water of a lake – which is to me (am I remotely right assuming that?) an obvious symbol for the unconscious…

    Comment by Oliver Castle — March 28, 2012 @ 1332961454

  13. Yes, and shooting five hundred identical enemies in a slow motion row alludes to the process of eliminating unworkable ideas and indeed the little excuses and procrastination that’s stopping you from producing great works. Do not let me get started on the Energizer batteries.

    Comment by Raimu — March 30, 2012 @ 1333067139

  14. All of that would be game design, actually.

    Comment by Mikki — March 30, 2012 @ 1333068632

  15. I am hardly what you should call a creative writer – I work as an attorney. For some reason, your post felt completely relevant to my work. I so not remember reading anything better on the subject.

    Comment by Juho — April 21, 2012 @ 1334969739

  16. Probably unintended, but after reading this I felt pretty motivated and set a new PR on my deadlift. Well on my way to becoming a professional writer. Mikko Rautalahti, a new performance enhancing supplement.

    Speaking of bad judgement, I got a chance to see that Transformers in Hollywood while I lived there. It received a standing ovation.

    Comment by Jake — June 6, 2012 @ 1338952771

  17. Glad it’s working out for you! I never thought weight lifting is something I could help with, but clearly, I’m more useful than I think. =)

    A standing ovation… well. That’s depressing, but in no way surprising; I guess that’s a wonderful example of the difference between “successful” and “good.”

    Good luck with the writing, man.

    Comment by Mikki — June 6, 2012 @ 1338982171

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